The science of science communication

From flatulence to river: experts and laymen don’t always agree about the meaning of words.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Great news! Donders Wonders has won the NWO Domain Science communication award! We’re extremely honoured by this award because science communication isn’t at all easy. Did you know that there is even a scientific discipline that researches how to effectively communicate about science? This discipline has a beautiful name in Dutch; unfortunately, it loses some of its charm when translated literally: sciencecommunicationscience.

Terminology can cause misconceptions

One of the things researchers in this area focus on is, for example, how experts and laymen interpret specific words. Things that come to mind for experts might not be that straightforward for laymen, and this might cause misconceptions. If, for instance, an artificial intelligence expert explains that she has trained a model to distinguish between pictures of huskies and wolves, that doesn’t mean that Tyra Banks stopped by the lab but that computer algorithms have been used 😉

From flatulence to river: interpretations may differ

If you were to ask experts and laymen how they interpret certain words, you will find that some terms are understood very differently. While patients in a 1970 study often agreed with experts on the meaning of words such as arthritis (86% overlap) and heartburn (85%), they didn’t for the words medicine (43%) and flatulence (43%). Some terms about water appear to have a commonly accepted meaning, like flood, whereas experts and laymen had differing interpretations of other terms, like river and groundwater.

How probable is probable?

In a recent study, researchers compared the way experts and laymen interpret words about probability, such as sometimes, probably, and almost certainly. Participants read sentences containing these words. For example, they read “It is likely that everything fits in the suitcase”. Then, they had to indicate with what percentage chance they thought everything would fit in the suitcase. The results showed that experts in statistics and laymen did not differ in their interpretations of these words. However, what turned out to be the case is this: within both the group of laymen and the group of experts, people disagreed with each other. Some people took often to indicate a 50% chance, whereas others thought it meant 100% chance. Such big differences existed between laymen and as well as between experts. That’s why the researchers advised to indicate the actual percentage chance in between brackets if you’re talking about probability. As you can see, I immediately took this to heart in the last paragraph 😉

It isn’t always easy to successfully convey information from scientific research to people that aren’t experts. Even apparently obvious terminology could be interpreted differently. As scientists that communicate about science, we gratefully make use of the science of science communication. Armed with that knowledge, we strive to write even better about the fascinating findings of the world of research.


Author: Marlijn ter Bekke
Buddy: Floortje Bouwkamp
Editor: Floortje Bouwkamp
Translator: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor Translation: Marisha Manahova

Photo by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

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