Climate Ed Eval Week: Susan Lynds on Considering Scientific Jargon to Avoid Communication Barriers

My name is Susan Lynds and I am a program evaluator at the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  I have been part of evaluation efforts for several tri-agency climate education programs funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Discussing climate change is a hot topic these days. There is a “fog factor” with the audience that results when scientific jargon is used. Scientists and educators are often unaware that the information they present is being misinterpreted due to the public’s definitions of words common to both scientific and general contexts.  In 2011, Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol discussed this issue in their article in Physics Today on “Communicating the Science of Climate Change.” They presented a list of words and phrases used to describe science that have different meanings for the general public; they also suggested possible alternatives that could be used.  For example, the authors note that the word “theory” often means “hunch” or “speculation” to the general public, while scientists use the word to mean “scientific understanding.”

One of the most basic issues in any communication is the audience’s understanding of the words used. We often use a pre-event survey to assess participants’ understanding of the concepts that will be discussed in a climate education program.  This front-end evaluation work supports fine-tuning of the presentation to meet the needs of the audience.

Hot Tips:

  • Investigate what words or phrases in an education program may have one meaning when used by those in a professional field, and another when used by the general public.
  • Use surveys or clickers with a program to provide front-end and formative evaluation data to the presenters so that they may clarify their use of common terms in a scientific context.
  • For climate science educators, the terms discussed by Somerville and Hassol are a great place to start when creating multiple-choice questions for a pre-event or clicker-based assessment instrument.

Lessons Learned:

  • The scientific community uses common terms like uncertainty, theory, and bias in describing scientific information; people may interpret such phrasing as indicating vague, unsubstantial, or distorted information.
  • Dispelling misconceptions and belief systems to make way for new understandings can be challenging.  In order to communicate new perspectives to people, it helps to ensure you’re all “speaking the same language.”

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Climate Education Evaluators week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from members who work in a Tri-Agency Climate Education Evaluators group. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “Climate Ed Eval Week: Susan Lynds on Considering Scientific Jargon to Avoid Communication Barriers”

  1. Hi Sheila,

    I am currently a student working on my Professional Master’s in Education from Queen’s University, and I am enrolled in a course regarding evaluation and examining current practices. I am quite interested in articles that discuss concerns related to the fields of STEM, and your blog post struck a chord. I am a high school science teacher, and language and science literacy are things I often think about. My local teaching area happens to have a rather large population of ELL students, and language has been a concern in my years of practice. I absolutely agree that we have to carefully consider language as we go about our teaching, especially in the science classroom, as our wide range of jargon may very easily be misinterpreted by our audience. Perhaps this can begin with the simplification of ideas, and as scientific literacy is practiced, further scientific words can be introduced and used. It is very important to scaffold the audience’s knowledge before jumping in and utilizing “larger” words.


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