An Easy Science Story: Scientists and their Difficult Words
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Have you ever read a scientific text? If so, you must have noticed the large amount of very difficult words they use: ameliorate, assess, exacerbate* and many more. I have to be honest, even being a scientist myself, I looked up some of those because I didn’t remember exactly what it meant. And yes, these words are actually being used in real scientific papers.
Even if your English level is high, it can be very hard to understand those papers. I remember very well when I had to learn how to read them in my first year of my bachelor studies. We had to find an interesting scientific paper, on any topic of our interest, and give a presentation on the contents. My English was already quite good by then so I confidently started looking for a nice paper. When I found one that my teacher declared easy enough and I started reading it, I realized that I barely understood a word! After lots of trying, my classmates and I understood just enough to tell the main points of the article, but nothing more than that. It took me several years before I could understand them properly without needing a dictionary every two sentences. The words in there are not exactly daily language.
After years of reading those papers with a dictionary at hand, and hearing stuff about how the science world works, you realize two things: one, if you want to publish your scientific article in a magazine, there’s a very strict word limit. And two, describing the difficult words in normal language often takes half a sentence. From this, you can draw the only logical conclusion: scientists don’t use those difficult words to tease us, but because they want to say as much as they can in as few words as possible. It’s very important for a scientist to have their articles published, as many as they can. So, that’s why they’ll do anything they need to do to manage that, including using words no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately that makes their texts really hard to understand for non-science people, which is exactly the reason why I started this blog. Here I don’t have a word limit, so I can use as many words as I need to explain all the difficult parts, and I try my best to do a good job.
Other examples on the use of difficult words in scientific papers can be found in for example cancer research. This is often highly specialized stuff, so the words they use are even more specific and unusual than the ones I’ve used myself. In one sentence, one researcher described what she did as she would to her colleagues: "I use optical coherence tomography to study gold nanorod delivery in a pre-clinical in vivo model of cancer”. Since this is a completely different research field than mine, I even struggle myself to understand this! The researcher explained herself very clearly why it’s described like this and not in a simpler way. The "daily language”version of the same text was over 130 words long, and since most of us readers are probably no cancer specialists, it is still not easy to comprehend. It’s like trying to describe a tv as “a rectangle on which moving pictures are shown using tiny lights in different colors". The point here is that the hard words are very necessary in specialized fields like cancer research. Without them it can be very hard to explain what you mean. In a handful of words, scientists can describe exactly what is being studied, without them losing track of what they’re doing because the explanation is too wordy. That’s also the whole reason why those difficult words exist. Their meaning is very specific, which makes them useful for the people using those words, but anyone else has probably never even heard of it. Non-scientists don’t need such a highly specific word because they’re never in situations where they need it in the first place.
Hopefully you understand better now why science is written with such hard words! It makes science communication a lot clearer and more precise, but it makes it very hard to read for many people without a science diploma. Because the words are so necessary in science, it’s difficult to stop using them. I think for now the best way to deal with this problem is by 1. having a very big dictionary at hand and 2. we scientists should learn to write common language versions of our own research papers. Or have someone write it for us of course!
What is the most difficult word you ever ran into?
Ameliorate: make something bad better
Assess: evaluate or estimate the nature of something
Exacerbate: make a problem/bad situation/etc. worse