In which I defend a bit of honest ignorance

I sometimes wonder if it is possible for a specialist to ever truly empathize what it feels like to walk in the shoes of the unindoctrinated – especially when it comes to the language. If you’re an adult practitioner of a particular trade, you will have had decades of training and education under your belt, and the required vocabulary will constitute your own daily vernacular.

For example, an old-school photographer, like my father, tends to throw around terminology such as F-stop, aperture, or depth of field. Now as a layperson, I know vaguely what my Dad means when he talks about F-stop. I can even deal with this parameter when handling my ancient Pentax 35mm camera. But if he asked me to define F-stop, or pick a definition out of multiple choices, I’d probably be stumped. I don’t know what the ‘F’ means and I don’t know what changes inside the camera’s innards when I swivel the appropriate ring from 16 to 22. All I know is that 22 is better than 16 in bright light. I could easily speculate why, but without looking it up, I wouldn’t be sure. And although Dad might disagree, it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of taking nice photos.

I was reminded of all this during a brief Twitter exchange with Carl Zimmer this afternoon, which began when he tweeted: “Ack! Only 18% of Americans can say what a molecule is. See p. 48 of new report, “Science and Media” Free pdf here:”.

My first reaction was, is that really such a surprise? If someone held a gun to my head and asked me to give the precise chemical definition, I’m not sure I’d state it absolutely correctly myself. According to my Mac, a molecule is “a group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound that can take part in a chemical reaction.” It comes from modern Latin molecula, diminutive of Latin moles, which means ‘mass‘. Some time back in the Eighties, I have no doubt that I could have regurgitated that definition for some high school exam or another. Today, I’m sure I could easily have picked it from the multiple-choice line-up used by the researchers in the study cited in the above link. But then, I’m a scientist, and I’ve been talking about molecules for more than twenty years. (It’s a separate point that we biologists often abuse the word ‘molecule’ and use it to refer to slightly larger entities – which is probably why I had to check the actual chemical definition. But that’s a point for another day.)

I had a look at the paper that Zimmer was citing: the key reference seems to be:

Nearly one in five American adults can describe a molecule as a combination of two or more atoms. Many adults know that atoms, molecules, and electrons are very small objects, but are confused about their relationship to each other. Four out of five adults know that light travels faster than sound, but only half know that a laser is not composed of focused sound waves.

But here’s the rub:

All these basic physical science constructs are part of middle school and high school science instruction and should have been acquired during formal schooling. If these constructs were understood during the school years, many adults appear not to have retained these basic ideas as adults and are unable to use them in reading a newspaper story or seeking to understand a television show.

Again, am I really surprised? Entire swathes of junior high and high-school lessons have long since been over-written in my memory. There was a time when I could ace tests in trigonometry, algebra and calculus, but if you asked me now to deal with a problem containing sines, cosines and tangents, or solve differential equations, I wouldn’t know where to start. I am sure that many parents who struggle to help their kids with their homework have faced a similar wall of amnesia.

The problem, I think, is in the word ‘acquire’. Initial mastery in childhood is not the same thing as day-to-day use over a lifetime. If my life had been different, and I’d gone into another field, would I still be so conversant with words such as molecules? Somehow, I’m not so sure.

Zimmer’s response to my tweet suggesting that ‘molecule’ actually was a rather tricky word, was the following: ” ‘Molecule’ in this study was defined as a combination of two or more atoms. Doesn’t seem tricky to me.”

Now, I love Zimmer’s writing, and have the utmost respect for his endeavors, but is it really surprising that he doesn’t think it’s “tricky”? He has been writing about science for a very long time. On the other hand, my father is a highly intelligent man, and his platinum prints are heart-breakingly lovely, but he hasn’t had a science class since about the late 1940s. I am not convinced that he would have been among those 18%. The real question is, does it matter? My Dad, who is interested in many other things besides art, including music and science, devours the New York Times‘ science section every week: if he couldn’t define one of science’s specialist terms, is it really the end of the world? When he sees the word ‘molecule’ in the paper, I suspect he gets the gist from context. And this, like my concept of F-stop, is probably all that matters.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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33 Responses to In which I defend a bit of honest ignorance

  1. Richard Carter, FCD says:

    If so few Americans understand the word molecule, presumably Carl Zimmer will be adding it to his list of ‘banned words’.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Interesting, I didn’t know about that list. As a part-time novelist who likes to write about science and scientist, I must say I’ve been told that it’s a bad idea even to use words as (seemlngly) simple as ‘proteins’. I think words truly can make the uninitiated nervous – and that’s not necessarily a strike against them if they honestly haven’t had much exposure to them in their daily lives.

  3. Maxine Clarke says:

     It’s interesting how skills and knowledge goes around in circles. I was struck by what you write about photography and your father (whose terminology sounds rather like mine in this regard, as I was a keen photographer in the days of film), compared with the "GCSE photography" course in which a camera is barely used – it’s all about photoshop, Illustrator CS5, etc. And mathematics – I recently discovered that what is now called Additional Mathematics, which is an intermediate GCSE course taken after the standard GCSE and before the AS level, is "the kind of maths that was done at O level in the old days". (And what about the iGCSE?) 
    I would have thought that everyone knows what a protein is, but as you say, you can never be too sure….

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    ‘Protein’ is something that comes in a body-building drink, but most people probably don’t know what it really means beyond "something nutritious in meat".

  5. Austin Elliott says:

     Agree 100% with Jenny. The modern bioscience meaning of "protein" as something like:

    "a complex macromolecular machine built out of linear amino-acid chains folded into an elaborate 3D structure" 

    Would only be known in the UK to people who had done (at least) A level biology. 

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    But perhaps not a year or so after the’d done A-level biology…

  7. Benoit Bruneau says:

     Oh good, it’s not just me.

  8. Grant Jacobs says:

    I hear what you’re saying about terms. Generally speaking, I try to explain things using the concepts behind the terms, rather than the terms themselves, which after all are shortcuts in many ways. It’s not always easy, but in the end it seems to me that it’s the concepts that matter and that most terms are short-hand labels.
    Not being able to use the precision and conciseness of the terms can make the writing hard sometimes. (To me, anyway.) I like the comment Blake Stacey make elsewhere that “Technical comments are easy, and posting silly pictures of cats is easy — it’s the middle range which is hard.”
    ZImmer’s list is interesting to think about. I agree with you about the the general public not knowing the biologists’ meaning of ‘protein’. I try remember that when I’m writing for a general audience.
    FWIW, my father was a professional photographer. Ran a commercial studio and a small publishing house that mainly released his New Zealand landscape books (mostly for the tourist market, but a few were ‘coffee table’ efforts).

  9. Mike Robinson says:

    A fascinating piece. I agree with your sentiments. It’s why I’d like to have a closer look at science communcation for adults, rather than the usual science outreach for kids. Of course the kids are important, but if we were a more "science conversant" society, those A levels etc might not be in vain. School should not be the last time in your life that you are familiar with basic science. I mean, I didn’t do any commerce stuff at school, but I learnt it as an adult – why do the finance pages not have to "dumb down" and yet science reporting does?

  10. Athene Donald says:

    I agree that knowing precise definitions is not what really matters. On the other hand understanding the basic concepts is crucial. If the general public can’t draw the basic structure of a protein, no matter; if they don’t understand the difference between protein and carbohydrate in their diet it probably does. So to my mind the key issue is not being able to pass an exam so much as being able to make sense of (and use) the information you need. And, as is clearly the case around homeopathy in the  UK, too few people – especially MP’s in recent months – understand what ‘molecule’ means enough to know how many active molecules will be in their homeopathic remedy(i.e. none). Ensuring our MP’s are caoable of understanding the basic science well enough to make sensibly informed decisions must be rather more important than worrying if less than a quarter of the population can accurately define a molecule. What is happening to the science budget here implies George Osborne et al haven’t a clue.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the astute comments, all.
    Mike - I am quite sure that the finance pages are massively dumbing down their pieces as well. I was forced to take a course once on macroeconomics once and it seemed to have more jargon in it than my introductory organic chemistry course. I occasionally flick through the finance section and I rarely encounter a word I don't understand. (Perhaps we're reading different papers, though.)</p>
    Grant "Not being able to use the precision and conciseness of the terms can make the writing hard sometimes". When it comes to a word like "molecule", I’m not sure it matters if there is precise understanding of what it truly means. To quote from the study, "Many adults know that atoms, molecules, and electrons are very small objects…" And that’s sort of all you need if you’re just trying to understand something like a science news piece.
    @Athene – when it comes to homeopathy, the word ‘molecule’ seems to be a bit confusing to the uninitiated. I’m no expert on this procedure, but can’t they be diluting very complex molecules such as a plant-derived protein, which could have thousands of atoms, or could be crosslinked to other molecules? It seems to me easier to use a word like "ingredient" or "component", whose meaning would comprise the entire unit, and which would also be understandable to a politician. If you said, these people have diluted the ingredient to such an extent that it is no longer present, does this not make the situation absolutely crystal clear (with the added bonus of not spooking the listener with a word he/she doesn’t quite understand)?

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Actually, the more I think about the definition in the study, "a combination of two or more atoms", the more I think it’s actually wrong, or, at least, not very helpful. By that definition, a human being is a molecule.

  13. Grant Jacobs says:

    When it comes to a word like "molecule", I’m not sure it matters if there is precise understanding of what it truly means.
    I get what you mean and I agree in a lot of cases you can convey the gist without having to lay out the precise meanings. It’s not much different to people using fancy "literate" words – you might not know precisely what the word means there either, but the context clues you in enough. (Incidentally, this is similar to a language issue in lip-reading, but that’s another story. I ought to blog about that some time…) Knowing the precise meaning does give you that little more, that might lifts the reading of the piece.  
    FWIW it makes me wonder if this line of thinking runs against a comment ZImmer made, something to the effect that in his students’ work, if the writing has elaborate words they’ll be from literature, not terminology.
    I was after something slightly different when I wrote "Not being able to use the precision and conciseness of the terms can make the writing hard sometimes". I was thinking of the challenge of "translating", say, a research paper into an informal description. Using the terms is lazier, easier. You don’t have to think how to convey the concept in other ways to the reader, you just sort of spit it out, making the writing easier/quicker (and lazier!). If you used terms in this lazy way, readers not familiar with the subject would get lost pretty quickly. Thinking about it, that’s as much about lazy writing as the terms themselves – ? I imagine that’s what Blake Stacey was referring to (hence quoting him).
    (How many others are experiencing this bug in the commenting editor where you can’t pasted into an empty editor textbox, but it’s OK once you enter a couple of random characters to ‘seed’ it?)

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’ve just pasted something into this virgin field (Firefox/Mac).
    I get what you mean now – but again, I’m going by what the researchers were talking about, which seems to be about adults’ ability to understand TV documentaries or newspaper articles. I guess you don’t see or hear the word ‘molecule’ very often in such venues but, if you did, it would be enough to know that it’s something very small. If there was a really incredibly complex word that was absolutely essential for some reason, then I expect the writers would make sure to explain and translate it, not just dropping it in with no context. After all, these editors are often the ones that strip out all the hard words in the first place.

  15. Grant Jacobs says:

    I’ve just pasted something into this virgin field (Firefox/Mac).
    Seems that Safari, this particular comment editor and the default paste (cmd-V) don’t play nicely. Paste-and-match-style (shift-cmd-V) works fine.
    I’m going by what the researchers were talking about…
    I agree, that’s what I was saying “I get what you mean and I agree…” (I’m going by your words not Carl’s or the Science and the Media document. I’ve been meaning to read Science and the Media, but haven’t found time. Yet. It is kind-of big!)

  16. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’d like to know if they’ve included exactly what questions were asked – haven’t had time to inspect it either. Interesting to know what the competing definitions were.
    I wasn’t saying you were disagreeing BTW..was just expanding my thoughts on the matter. A.k.a. rambling.

  17. Chris Taylor says:

    The couple of comments on MPs/ministers (/civil servants?) needing to understand are where this really matters imho (and of course when it suits they’ll happily surf a wave of public ignorance fetched up by the commercial and pseudo-commercial news media, though I’m too jaded to think that such a wave of public opinion ever did anything by itself).
    Personally, I love the challenge of explaining stuff to different audiences (including my kids lol). For me, failure to communicate (given a willing audience) is the fault of the talker, not the listener, indicating a lack of understanding of the audience, or the subject, or (eek) both. Nothing like teaching to check how well you know your own stuff…

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I agree, Chris. Which is exactly why I think we can talk to MPs/ministers about "components" or "ingredients" instead of an inherently scary/technical-sounding word like "molecule". It is exactly about understanding your audience, and not patronizing them by expecting them to have the same jargon savviness as yourself.

  19. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve written many lay summaries of grants and projects over the last 3 years, and now that I think about it, I’d guess that almost all include the word "molecule" and/or "protein". In the case of grants, the non-technical reviewers on the review panels are generally au fait with at least the most basic jargon of the field, but I wonder how many readers of our department website, for example, are struggling with the terminology. Maybe I’ll get a non-scientist friend or two to have a look!
    I find that in general, the non-scientists I meet in Canada are much better informed and interested in science than in the UK. For example, all my husband’s work friends are carpenters, welders, painters, and labourers, and whenever I talk to them they ask me about the latest science that’s been in the news, the human genome project, the Nobel prizes, etc. That’s never happened to me once with people in equivalent professions in the UK…

  20. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I still think that ‘molecule’ in context is the sort of word that people can understand even if they couldn’t recite the definition when prompted. Would be really interesting to repeat the study I alluded to with the questions in reader comprehension format – you know, like on those exams when you’re given an entire paragraph and then have to answer questions about it. It’s possible that more than 18% of people could cope with the concept when embedded in a narrative – which is exactly how there words are encountered in the wild.

  21. Jennifer Rohn says:

    This is a comment by email from Ian Brooks, who has not been able to access his account for a very long time:
    "I cant even log into Nature Network now, let alone Blogs, so I have to email comments.

    I love this blog post, and it sums up why I don’t like Zimmer’s list – it’s too broad to say “banned” words, because it’s entirely dependent on your audience. I totally agree with you that in this case a decent notion of what is being talked about is what matters, not the fundamental specifics. I mean, we read literature outside our field and have to work from assumptions a lot of the time (I know that’s much broader, but I think the point stands).

    Great post."

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

     Yup. Context is everything.

  23. Grant Jacobs says:

     I find that in general, the non-scientists I meet in Canada are much better informed and interested in science than in the UK. For example, all my husband’s work friends are carpenters, welders, painters, and labourers, and whenever I talk to them they ask me about the latest science that’s been in the news, the human genome project, the Nobel prizes, etc. That’s never happened to me once with people in equivalent professions in the UK…
    I can’t imagine New Zealanders doing this.
    I have to admit it makes me want to ask “are you cute” (in the nicest way). It would be an alternative explanation as to why the guys ask you… 😉

  24. Sara Fletcher says:

    It’s something I encounter a lot, having trained as a physicist and now writing quite often about biology. I stopped listening to anything biology related when I was about 13, and whilst I now happily write about developments in structural biology, there are times when I feel I don’t know what a protein really is. A chain of amino acids, says Wikipedia. What’s an amino acid again? These are terms I’ve encountered quite frequently, but were not part of my formal schooling.
    Words do have different meaning depending on context, I totally agree. But when I’m talking about, say, the electrons that synchrotrons use to generate synchrotron light, some people may understand that electrons are fundamental particles of the lepton class with a negative charge and if they are accelerated in a magnetic field close to the speed of light generate synchroton radiation. Or they might understand that electrons are very small, we make them go in circles very fast, and light comes out. And that’s ok.

  25. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Sara – the example with the electrons is brilliant. That’s exactly what I was trying to say, but you’ve done a much better job. Someone else who came up with a great example – this time with the word "mortgage" – is Mike over at Science Blogs:

  26. Cath Ennis says:

    LOL @ Grant! That’s not for me to say, now, is it? 🙂 But I should say that these conversations always take place when my big burly husband is standing next to me!

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hmmm. I’m not sure the world is actually ready for scientific chat-up lines.

  28. Grant Jacobs says:

     I wrote a blog post about "scientific" pick-up lines a while back myself. Didn’t think of that when I wrote to you! 🙂
    I omitted ones I thought were a bit too heavy-handed, preferring those with a little cleverness.
    And, Jennifer, a few at end are ones that were actually used… (yikes)

  29. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Used by you?? Successfully?

  30. Grant Jacobs says:

    None of the pick-up lines in the article are mine. I picked them up (…) from spending way too much time trying to find half-way reasonable out of truly excruciating ones that were — how can we put it? — strongly anatomically orientated.
    I’ve never understood the fixation on pick-up lines in teenaged movies some types of rom-com.

  31. Richard Wintle says:

    One might argue that "F-stop" is an archaic and ultimately meaningless term anyway, and that the scale used is kind of silly (although based in mathematics). Kind of like the scoring system in tennis. Don’t even get me started on ASA / ISO / image sensor sensitivity.
    But I digress (as I do).
    On the topic of "molecule" – I think you’ve summed it up nicely. I rather think it’s more important for the "average" American to understand what is and isn’t a good experiment (and how to spot ridiculous manipulations of "data" as presented in the press) than get the terminology right. I’d be happy if someone correctly answered the questions "does homeopathic medicine work?" or "is glucosamine worth the money?" rather than define "molecule" correctly. After all, as you point out, terminology is specific to different fields, and every field is rife with it. I like cars but I sure can’t tell you what a solenoid is, or precisely define what an overhead camshaft is. Does it matter? Not really, unless I want to become a bit more of a specialist in the automotive field. Does it matter that non-scientists don’t know that DNA is a "molecule"? Probably not, as long as there are specialists around who can explain it in straightforward terms.
    Whoops, going back it seems as though my last bit is reiterating what Chris Taylor said above…

  32. Katarina Antonsdotter says:

    Well met Jennifer,
    just wanted to leave a comment about your book ‘experimental heart’ that I just bought. So inspiring for me, and I am really looking forward to reading it, especially since I have myself so much material from my onging PhD that would be fun to document, including lots of pictures I take on my way to work, at work and on the way back ( I added a post about your book on my blog, site promised to improve). The cover with the lit up window is really funny.
    Regarding an interesting post about enlightenment as this, I have to agree with your thoughts and many below. I think especially what makes all science interesting is exactly what we think we know but actually don’t.
    An 11-dimension space that some scientists published work on, where the complicated description was just about molecules transferring somehow makes me think about what a molecule really is…Thinking about the viruses I work with, I am still puzzled how so few molecules can be so effective.
    I would like to add that blogs like these inspire me greatly, since I am trying to start a blog about the herpes research that I do combined with work of music from my former professional music career, as well as my current crush in photography. Nice to find your for this.
    As another perspective, crossing various fields, has become a fact which is not any longer surprising to the gross population and encouraged among professionals which I think was longed for. Speaking about ignorance, I was offended when a collegue at the department asked me what a trombone looks like!
    Then I am ok with people thinking I am strange when I answered a soccer player once to why I study molecular biology: ‘ I like molecules.’
    I appreciate the space and opportunity to comment on your writing, which I will keep myself updated on.Thanks alot for the inspiration!
    Best wishes,
    Katarina Antonsdotter
    @Gothenburg University, Sweden

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