Monday, December 14, 2009

Say What?!??!?

Language is possibly our most amazing invention. To my understanding we had invented it long before we could be called sapient. Language can be beautiful and poetic or direct and specific. How language is used in skepticism has recently come to the fore of my mind.

On the first hand, in creating documents with other skeptics I have found that my style – which is admittedly more creative than technical – is often not the best choice. My default to emotion is very hard to marry with precision.

On the second hand over at Skeptic North we have recently seen one of our regular commenters become an annoying (to speak lightly) pedant, taking us to task over the minute nuances of word choices. Care to guess how I feel about this? While grousing about this specific commenter is not my purpose in this post, his philosophical position is totally relevant. Consider his argument:

There are a number of "skeptical" blogs in the world that are increasingly lazy about language, accuracy in word definition, correct word usage, rigourous grammar, and so forth. Some blogs even practice a form of Humpty Dumptyism -- inventing portmanteaus and claiming provenance and/or other legitimacy, or inventing a new or colloquial definition claiming universality.
If one wanted to help the skeptical movement lose credibility, such dictional errancy and laziness is a very good place to start.
Language, and words, are my speciallty. As such, I have always hoped for extra careful dictional accuracy from those who place themselves in positions of authority, especially when wearing the mantle of skeptical inerrancy and bearing the logos of the skeptical movement.
I find it hard not to point out that in MS Word, cutting and pasting his comment has resulted in a plethora of red squiggly lines – oh irony. I'd hate to see how it would appear if "Language, and words, [weren't his] speciallty."

But to my real point, I do appreciate that his essential argument is not wrong. But that sure as hell doesn't make it right. Yes, muddy language can cause an unfortunate malleability of position and/or point on the part of the reader. But it is 1) not a certainty that misunderstanding is the inevitable case; 2) not always a person's primary intention to be precise; 3) does not take into account the variability of intended audience; and 4) does not allow for the spectrum of voices that represent the quilt of humanity that make up the skeptical community.

More than anything else though, scientifically precise language is tepid and uninteresting to the layman.

Skepticism's primary goal – arguably it's only goal – is outreach. While many scientists are skeptics, not all skeptics are scientists – or doctors or IT professionals or even magicians. We cannot expect that talking to borderline skeptics in the language of any of these subsets is going to be a way of communicating effectively to these people. Worse than speaking in jargon or in concepts that go above their heads (though that all contributes) speaking in language that is too careful, stripped of unearned superlatives, laden with caveats and qualifiers; we fall deep into the danger of BORING THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF PEOPLE. ...and we can't afford to do that.

A bored audience is a lost audience – almost always permanently. And that is nothing if not a goliath fail. Skepticism only grows when we engage the people who either don't realize they are skeptics (and I suspect that the big wave of new skepticism fuelled by web 2.0 that everyone has talked about for the past two years or so is reaching its saturation point – the legions of closet skeptics are more out than not by now) or we need to reach the people who are almost skeptics and capture their imaginations by speaking to truths that they ultimately find evident in ways that entertain and interest them to explore further.

I do appreciate that there is a place for precision in science. It is a requirement that on any given subject that there be very precise scientific literature out there. But, I emphasize, we skeptics though we have scientists amongst us, are not scientists. We must not pretend to be what we are not (this applies to the other major subsets of skeptics outlined above as well as all the miscellany) and we must remember that our main goal must be to open the minds of the world as a whole to critical thinking. It is our job to instil a sense of wonder in real science; but we must leave the scientific journaling to the scientific journals and the audiences that turn to them (which does include many of us) for the hardcore science and details.

That does mean we risk openings for assumption and misinterpretation, this is true and inevitable. But the audiences we win over in our outreach efforts should not be won over by the facts, they should be won over by the philosophy – the process – of skepticism. And in so doing they will eventually, if not all at once, also embrace the values of not accepting surface interpretations and the desire to dig deeper – at which point they will turn to the appropriate science literature... just like we do.

We don't need to talk down to people in the process. I don't run away from my big vocabulary, or the sometimes too florid flourish I've developed from years of writing for theatre; I don't even think that the commenter mentioned above should shy from his penchant for specificity (though aiming his pedantry at others' writing is beyond tiresome) – to censor our styles in our own presentation would be to insult our audiences. We simply need to think of how we express ourselves as a natural conversation – whatever that means to you personally, not as a skeptic, not as a scientist (real or pretend) but as a citizen of your community. Talk to them. Don't lecture them. Engage them and inspire them. Do not push them away. Do not, whatever you do, bore them.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I especially like how you included "1) not a certainty that misunderstanding is the inevitable case; 2) not always a person's primary intention to be precise".

    I'd go even further and say that meaning can sometimes be lost in precision. Though precise terminology can be useful in describing specifics, precision just for the sake of precision can lead us to ignore the way in which meaning is generated from our words.

    Individual word selection is only meaningful within a broader context of the sentence, article, language, etc. By focusing too much on specific words at the expense of the meaning you're trying to convey, you ultimately do yourself a disservice not just in entertaining your readers, but also in communicating with them.