18 July, 2009

In Defense of Cliches

Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around the Clock and Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science alerted me via Twitter to an article in Wired Science by Betsy Mason entitled "5 Atrocious Science Cliches to Throw Down a Black Hole". In short, the article claims that "Holy Grail", "Silver Bullet", "Shedding Light", "Missing Link", and "Paradigm Shift" are overplayed, tired terms that should be banned from scientific reportage.

Betsy Mason is wrong.

We need cliches. We depend upon cliches, and cliches are quite useful in the proper context. While it may be true that the above terms do get thrown about quite a bit, they're still quite useful. Science journalism is already a convoluted field that must continually walk the line between being too esoteric for its mainstream, non-scientist audience and maintaining proper accuracy to satisfy its scientific constituents, which keeps information flowing. Banning the use of any widely understood vehicles for explanation just raises the barrier to effective communication between science and the public. And when we, as a scientific community, have already made it clear that we're not usually pleased by the transmission of our findings to the public through the prism of science journalism, do we really need to throw in even more barriers?

This article indulges in a great deal of unfortunate professional myopia. From the perspective of a scientist, calling research, such as active in vivo RNAi therapy, the Holy Grail of cancer research will seem inaccurate given the breadth of other therapies being developed to combat cancer. It may be more accurate to place RNAi therapy in the context of all the other therapies, from advanced laser ablation at the level of individual cells to cytolethal fusion proteins, but with this accuracy comes a great sacrifice in public comprehensibility. Science is detailed, science is convoluted, and science is very nuanced. But unless we're willing to write and peer-review multi-chapter articles for the popular press, if those outlets would even carry the required tomes, we must tell a complex story simply and linearly in order for anyone but the most educated and avidly interested members of the public to understand it. Using widely understood cliches as vehicles to convey that comprehension is not just necessary, it's laudable.

I do not mean to impugn the intelligence of the general population. Perhaps naively, I still believe that the public is usually smarter than we give them credit for. But at the same time, scientific communication is a form of technical communication with clearly defined words and standards. We use "attenuated", "potentiated", "significantly", "stochastically", "sufficient", and "necessary" in very specific ways that don't necessarily* translate into normal, everyday public usage. We can't well use these standards to communicate effectively to the public, instead we must speak to the public on the public's terms, which by and large will involve either sports analogies or cliches. The above maligned cliches are here to stay, and they remain quite useful. If they continue to help convey broad understanding of scientific concepts, then I will continue to welcome them and their use.

*Like that.

UPDATE (tweets):
[@ToasterSunshine] @BoraZ @edyong209 | In defense of the "5 atrocious science cliches": http://bit.ly/15vgZL | Must speak to the public on the public's terms.

edyong209@ToasterSunshine You present false choice between cliches and jargon. Entirely possible to write lay-friendly copy w/o cliches.
edyong209@ToasterSunshine Or at the very least, without seriously misleading cliches.

ToasterSunshine@edyong209 Yes, sometimes cliches may be overused/misleading. But to call for a ban takes tools away from communicating scientists.
ToasterSunshine@edyong209 Scientists get jargon + don't need cliches or analogous metaphors as vehicles for understanding research. Public probably does.

edyong209@ToasterSunshine If tools are crap, they won't be missed. Good writers/communicators ought not to rely on cliches *anyway*.
edyong209@ToasterSunshine Neither article nor I calling for end to analogy/metaphor but end to MISLEADING ones.
edyong209@ToasterSunshine Again, I think you're presenting false choice between jargon and cliches. Metaphors are good but we can do better.

betsymason@toastersunshine I don't advocate a ban on metaphors for science, just the most overused, hyperbolic & annoying cliches. We can do better.

ToasterSunshine@edyong209 @betsymason I don't dispute that "paradigm shift" is overplayed. I do stand firmly against anything that attenuates science comm.

edyong209@ToasterSunshine Not attenuation. Sci-com benefits if misleading terms are lost, writers forced to think creatively. Atten'g BAD comm= good.

ToasterSunshine@edyong209 Agreed less bad comm good, but cliches not always misleading/bad. Cliches often help capture interest and sustain story reading.
ToasterSunshine@edyong209 See rec Herceptin research: "Herceptin magic bullet against breast cancer stem cells" vs. "Herceptin inhibits even HER2- tumors".
ToasterSunshine@edyong209 HER2 = jargon, but HER2 also absolute key to story. Accurate inclusion in headline turns general audience away. Need interest.


Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

Well said.
Even though I didn't initially think about this in terms of how me communicate science to the general public, the case you are making, makes complete sense and some of these so-called "cliches" may be, in this context, useful.

On the other hand, in technical writing, some of those concepts may rightfully be discarded, but others (for example 'shedding light'), are, in no way misleading, ambiguous or confusing, and in my opinion, pose no problem to the way we write about science. In fact, in some cases are even welcomed, as they bring life to some very dull manuscripts. As long as they don't lead to any conflict or misunderstanding of the scientific ideas being discussed (and an example of such a conflicting term is indeed "missing link" -ugh-), I have no problem with them.


DuWayne Brayton said...

Holy shit, this is so fucking cliche...