Language and Climate Change

Climate change or global warming: which sounds scarier? I heard an interesting interview this evening on NPR with Berkeley Linguistics Prof George Lakoff in which he describes the way that language “frames” the way we understand science. His criticism of scientists for not considering the way their words will be interpreted by the general public is well made.

(There’s an amusing typo on the NPR page right now: Lakoff is described as a “professor of linguists” — presumably, then, he studies the curious behavior of his fellow linguists.)

This is one more reason that all scientists should take a good scientific writing course, and that all university writing programs should get serious about writing in the sciences, not just the humanities. And since more and more science is being written in English by non-native speakers, we ESL specialists need to be part of that conversation.

Any thoughts? Do share! Click leave a comment at the top of this post.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Language and Climate Change”

  1. Hi Nigel!

    I sort of disagree. I mean, obviously I don’t really disagree that it’s better for scientists to learn to communicate better.

    But as a sometime-scientist who has meandered over to political operative, I think it’s a mistake to put too much of the burden of science’s public face on scientists (or for scientists to take that burden entirely onto themselves.) Political and popular advocacy are real and difficult art forms unto themselves. In almost all other fields thought of as even a little important, the lead role in advocacy belongs to professionals. Basketball players are not the ones deciding how basketball is marketed. CEOs don’t star in commercials and only on special occasions do they do press interviews or lobby senators. Authors don’t even get to design their book covers.

    The consensus about what to call global warming shouldn’t have been led by scientists (nor science writers!); it should have been led by a team of public relations professionals who could drawn on support in the scientific community. Scientists tend to think that’s cynical or deceptive, and so they go on losing in the court of public opinion when all the advantages are on their side. In fact it’s just about applying expertise to a problem.

    end rant.

    1. Hi Ian (and he really is no relation!):

      Point well taken. I still think that “scientists” (too broad a term, I know) can influence the public discourse by their use of language, which does get picked up by the media, politicians, and PR folks. Perhaps a certain unwillingness to do that is part of the cynicism you mention — plus the simple fact that most high-level science requires too much expert knowledge for the “general” public to understand. When that knowledge is phrased in simpler language, it loses its nuance and often its technical accuracy.

      What I should have said here, too, is that as much as some scientists could learn to write better, many of us could learn to read science better, which points to another key problem in education.

      Good to hear from you, even ranting!
      Nigel

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