Mind your language

I enjoy going to art galleries.  I enjoy looking at art and I can recall vividly the thrill of seeing the “Impressionists” in Paris for the first time.  For me, visiting a gallery is still something of an occasion and I get the added pleasure of people watching.

For some time, though, I have felt mystified by the prose used in galleries to describe exhibitions of contemporary art.  Here are two good examples of the style:

“Display devices, specifically those employed in the presentation of consumable goods fascinate Mooney and often appear within her photographs.  These empty structures become the focus and subject of the work, questioning conventional notions of function, commodity and value exchange.  Other work transposes found imagery, for example of precious stones embedded in rocks, to create a lexicon of images and objects that move between the artificial and the organic”  Exhibition note, Spike Island, Bristol.

“Version Control is a large-scale survey exhibition about the notion of appropriation and performance in the expanded field of contemporary artistic practice.  Instead of an understanding of performance as a live activity or connected to an exploration of the artist’s body, the exhibition explores performance in a radical sense as a method of making the past present.  Performativity, in this way, explores the conscious moment of staging, appropriating, archiving and re-visiting images and other forms of representation, touching on questions of historiography, mediation, subjectivity and ownership”.  Exhibition note, Arnolfini Bristol.

I was reassured recently to read that my unease and confusion generated by this overblown pretentious verbiage were shared by others.  An article by Alix Rule and David Levine appeared last year in the trendy American art journal Triple Canopy analysing and debunking what has come to be called “International Art English” (IAE); covered recently by Andy Beckett in the Guardian.  Rule and Levine used computer software to analyse the language used in exhibition announcements appearing on an influential American network for art professionals called e-flux.  They analysed many thousands of these announcements and identified unique language patterns and word usage that define IAE.  As you might guess, IAE always uses more words when fewer will do.  Words take on new meanings and there are trends in word usage:  “speculative” was popular in 2009 and “rupture” peaked in 2011. The power of IAE has been increased by the internet where these announcements circulate very widely.  Despite the fact that it is critical of art practitioners, Rule and Levine’s article has been read extensively within the art community.

But what’s the point of IAE, why do people use it?  I identify two principal reasons: IAE defines a select elite within the contemporary art world, and at the same time it keeps the outsiders at bay.  So, if you are fluent in IAE, you define yourself as an insider; IAE acts as a knowing membership badge for this exclusive club.  If you don’t use IAE you mark yourself down as being outside the contemporary art elite.  For the contemporary art world this exclusivity may be exactly what they intend. Those with the money to buy contemporary art will understand IAE whereas the outsiders who don’t understand the language don’t have the money anyway.

This set me thinking about scientists and language.   I wondered whether scientists also used language to define their elites.  If so, do we use language to keep outsiders away and how much does this affect understanding of science?

So how do scientists use language?  They need to communicate with one another and when they discuss their work, they use a language liberally spattered with technical details and jargon related to this work.  As a biologist, I would also expect the language to include some use of the passive form, also many convoluted sentences and many abbreviations.  There may be odd word usage, for example utilise for use, methodology for method etc.  Conclusions will be hedged around with many caveats.  Conversely, implications will be spelled out very strongly as in the form “This work could provide a cure for [choose your disease]”.

We might call this International Science English (ISE) but it’s not really a single language as science is no longer a single culture.  The increasing specialisation of science means that scientists separate in to different tribes according to their different disciplines.  Each tribe speaks its own version of ISE and only closely related tribes understand one other’s dialects.

The art world uses IAE as some kind of unnecessary conceit that serves no purpose in understanding. For scientists, however, ISE and its dialects are necessary in order to communicate the technical details of their work in papers, seminars, grant applications etc.  Whether all aspects of ISE are necessary is open to debate.  The high point of the use of ISE occurs when tribes assemble at scientific conferences and celebrate their particular branch of science using the language of ISE.  This specialised language defines the tribe as an elite but it also creates huge barriers to external communication. Indeed, an outsider attending one of these events might be as mystified as when they visit a gallery and read descriptions of artworks couched in IAE.

So science and the contemporary art world have some similarities.  They both form closed elites that are difficult for outsiders to penetrate and understand but there are also differences.  In the case of the contemporary art world, it is still possible to visit a gallery and make your own appreciation of the art works.  Because IAE is basically pretentious guff, you can ignore the IAE-descriptions of the art and be no worse off, although a little explanation in plain English sometimes helps.  In the case of science, however, it is very difficult for the outsider to understand the content and importance of a scientific paper or a seminar without some assistance.   The tribal language gets in the way and if we want our work to be understood more widely by the non-specialist we must translate or get someone else to do it for us.

Some scientists do this themselves: they give talks or write about their work using language accessible to the general audience.  Some write blogs, some use social networks, some may even write books designed to spread the word and some have used video to great effect, my favourite being the Periodic Table of Videos.  Most of this is excellent because those who do it are self selecting.  They are likely to be gifted communicators who feel passionately about their work and the need to communicate, but they are a minority.

For many scientists, external communication is not a priority; they want to stay in their labs and keep their heads down.  In this case, if the work is to be understood more widely there have to be other routes to translate from ISE in to Standard English.  Popular science magazines like the New Scientist have long fulfilled the role of translating scientists’ work in to easily digestible forms and nowadays there is also an army of science bloggers who write about headline grabbing science.  The newspapers carry some reports of science discoveries but these are of patchy quality especially in the print versions.   One factor that influences the quality of these translations is whether the person writing the report is scientifically trained.  This will determine whether they read the original paper when compiling a report or whether they rely on a Press Release.  The combination of a non-scientist journalist and the Press Release leads to much misreporting of science (Ben Goldacre skewers this problem in his book, Bad Science, and I have written about another example here).

So, for both the contemporary art world and for science, the use of specialised language erects barriers and hinders understanding.  For scientists, this may also contribute to the rather mixed image we have in the eyes of the general population.  We are associated with wonderful discoveries and medical breakthroughs but also with disasters and scandals like BSE, MMR, Chernobyl etc.  We are perceived as aloof and non-communicative, the owners of knowledge inaccessible to many.  I had always attributed this to bad press coverage and general ignorance of science.  Having written this piece, I now wonder how much we are ourselves to blame.   Perhaps we enjoy our elite status and don’t do enough to dissolve the barrier this creates.   Perhaps this causes resentment and leads to some unnecessary science bashing.

About Philip Strange

After more than 30 years as an experimental scientist, I decided to have a complete change and moved to the West Country. I now write about science for several magazines and web sites and blog at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/.
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2 Responses to Mind your language

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great article, Phillip!

    From the Guardian article you linked to:

    “[IAE] is oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.””

    Heh! This is definitely true of “ISE”, too – or rather, it’s glaringly obvious when you’re reading non-standard scientific English in a venue where you would usually expect it. I’ve written before about how much regret I’ve felt at rewriting some trainees’, um, unconventional first drafts, but I maintain that some kind of standardisation is actually necessary when communicating to other scientists, especially given the international nature of the profession. I believe that communication to non-scientists is absolutely essential, but that this needs to be done separately, and using a more open, less technical and standardised, form of language.

    • Thanks for your comments Cath, it’s good to get feedback. I agree that it is important to have a standardised language (ISE?) for communicating science but perhaps not as stilted or as convoluted as it sometimes is written. It’s good that some journals are trying to get away from the passive.
      My poor PhD students used to get very exasperated with me when I read and commented on thesis drafts!

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