Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

By Claire Beveridge

Presenting scientific data or science-based guidelines can be like walking a tightrope. Lean too far to one side and you risk falling into the trap of using too much jargon and alienating your readers. Shift too much the other way and your message becomes vague and confusing. You need look no further than the messaging from the UK Government for an example of this delicate balancing act. Their initial message ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ was simple, direct and clearly conveyed what everyone was supposed to do. Contrast this with its successor ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’, which was almost immediately met with confusion and parodies on social media such as ‘Be vague. Cover our backs. Shirk responsibility’. What exactly did ‘stay alert’ mean, and what could and couldn’t we do? If only they had used plainer English.

Communication of scientific and medical information is most effective when things are written clearly and simply. Scientific literacy among the general population has been reported to be decreasing, and bad writing that is too complicated makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to engage. Add in the pandemic of ‘fake news’ that constantly seems to swirl online and you have a dangerous mix. A BBC team recently reported that the human cost of coronavirus misinformation has included assaults, arson and death, with hundreds dying in Iran as a result of alcohol poisoning following rumours of its curative effects, and others ingesting disinfectant and even fish tank cleaner following some of the daily pronouncements by Donald Trump. The stakes could not be higher. If important information isn’t communicated in a way that people understand, the result can be the unnecessary loss of life.

The ‘dihydrogen monoxide parody’ is a classic example of how using unnecessarily complicated scientific terms and selectively reporting data can lead people to reach misplaced conclusions. It has been deployed several times, and involves water being called by an unfamiliar chemical name and members of the public being presented with a list of its well-known effects that make it sound dangerous (such as that it is used as an additive in junk foods, it is found in tumours of terminal cancer patients and it is the major component of acid rain), followed by people being urged to ‘sign here to join the campaign for it to be banned’.

Science, by its very nature, is full of questions that cannot be answered without an element of doubt. Even if someone can get the same result when they repeat an experiment, it doesn’t ‘prove’ that something is or isn’t true. Results are simply pieces of evidence that support (or refute) a theory; ‘all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final’ (Kanazawa, 2008). Understandably, this can be a hard concept to grasp, and frustration and mistrust can arise if people feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ answer. When will we have a vaccine against COVID-19? When will our lives go back to the way they were before the pandemic? No mathematical model can accurately predict the answers to these questions because we have never experienced this situation before. Even if we had, there would be no guarantee that the situation would play out in exactly the same way again; there are simply too many factors involved. When presenting data, writers need to consider people’s expectations and be honest about what is and isn’t known, and why.

The use of plain English is also important when scientists write for other scientists. It is a golden rule of scientific writing that methods must be described so that someone else can repeat experiments, and it is best practice to aim the abstract of a research paper at a level suitable for a non-specialist graduate student. More importantly, English is the global language of science and writers must always remember that many of their readers will not be native English speakers. Reading research papers that are crammed full of acronyms and complicated terminology can feel like wading through treacle, even when the writer works in the same field as you. Imagine how this must feel if English is not your first language. When results and guidelines are published, they are shared globally to spread ideas and new findings as widely as possible, and hopefully stimulate new ideas and collaborations across different disciplines that will advance our understanding. This cannot happen if only experts in a specific field can decode what is being said. Writing in plain English both speeds up the process of sharing new knowledge and increases the chances of new and exciting discoveries being made, something that is particularly useful when confronting a global pandemic caused by a virus that has never been seen before.

Clear communication in these confusing times may also yield another benefit; increasing engagement with science and medicine holds the key to inspiring the next generation of researchers, which will hopefully increase the numbers entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Data from STEM Women show that the split between men and women in terms of studying STEM subjects at university and then going on to pursue a career in STEM is still far from equal. We have a golden opportunity to readjust this balance if we can clearly communicate just how fascinating and rewarding scientific and medical research can be.

I have seen a lot of posts online musing over whether COVID-19 will change the way we live and work forever. If we can increase our use of plain English when communicating scientific data and guidelines, one positive change may be increased engagement.

Claire Beveridge is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in medicine and the biological sciences. Based near Oxford, she has over 13 years’ experience working with publishers and individual researchers. She has recently developed a worrying fascination with personal finance. Find her on Twitter.

 


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Photo credits: tightrope by Loic Leray; clear water by Rots Marie-Hélène, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

4 thoughts on “Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

  1. Perry Williams

    Very interesting, but I wonder whether Plain English needs to reach beyond vocabulary (important though it is to avoid jargon and dense technicalities) to simple ways of expressing uncertainty and risk. As you say, science by its nature includes an element of doubt – but that is not how people commonly think of it. In common thinking, something is either true or it isn’t, something is either safe or it isn’t, something is either a cure or it isn’t. Last night on TV, in The Salisbury Poisonings, we saw the Wiltshire Director of Public Health in 2018 getting hammered at a public meeting and asked to answer a “simple question”: “is Salisbury safe?” In the dramatisation, the scene broke off there, without showing her actual answer, thus leaving us with the awful realisation that there could be no good answer to such a question. If things get to the point where it’s asked, you’ve already lost.
    So what would be a Plain English way of leading people out of such binary thinking? of introducing talk about risk and probability? It’s often said (by scientists) that ordinary people’s understanding of probability is rubbish, but I’m not persuaded that it’s not worth the attempt. After all, many people without a university education show themselves to be perfectly capable of understanding probability when it’s a matter of betting odds. Is it the social responsibility of Plain English to address people *within* their current ways of speaking and thinking, or is it it’s social responsibility to *extend* them?

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  2. Eileen Ivers

    Whilst I broadly agree with these comments, I question whether the descriptor ‘without a university education’ is relevant. I wouldn’t say that erudition is necessarily a reflection of intelligence.

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  3. Perry Williams

    I agree with you; the reference to university education is a distraction here. It was a hangover from some related thinking which didn’t make it into this post: about how university education, on one account at least, is about bringing students close to the site of the production of knowledge, to acquaint them with that territory where more than one view is possible and facts have yet to be made. You’ll see the relevance to questions of how one conveys uncertain knowledge in a simple way without giving the impression that there’s no knowledge at all and that anyone’s truth is as good as anyone else’s.
    And yes, of course, insofar as intelligence is a real thing, erudition is not a reflection of it! Alas, all too often these days we see erudition without intelligence. (Who could I possibly be thinking of!) I don’t think anyone would claim that education increases intelligence, although it certainly ought to increase intellectual skills.

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