Science Writer Phil Plait Shows Why Word Choices Matter

Editing and Writing

Science Writer Phil Plait Shows Why Word Choices Matter

I’m kind of riding the “Why Words Matter” hobbyhorse right now, but if you want your readers to read what you think you are saying, this is something you have to pay attention to. Sometimes your meaning is hard to miss: “I’m going to the store” may require some defining about which store, but your family isn’t likely to mistake the meaning there.

However, I recently created a slide presentation for school kids about different types of essays, and had to be careful to define the word “argue.” No, in the context of a Persuasive Essay, that word does not mean “yell and disagree.” It means, “Make your case with logic and reasoning.” Rather the opposite of the ordinary, everyday type of arguing.

When we are trying to convey important information to someone, we either have to use language that is very clear to our readers or listeners — or we’d better define our terms very explicitly. Science writer Phil Plait makes this point in his article, Scientists are from Mars, the public is from Earth. He uses the following chart (originally used in a Physics Today article entitled Communicating the Science of Climate Change) to illustrate what scientists mean by certain terms, compared to how the general public understands the same terms.

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

(Table originated by Richard Sommerville at Scripps and Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication)

In the case of scientific terminology, sometimes the use of a word doesn’t just involve issues of clarity. Sometimes there are political implications too, as Plait points out.  He explains, for example, why he changed to using the word “denier” in certain circumstances, rather than “skeptic.” Skepticism just means you’re not likely to be persuaded without more proof. Denial means you’re not going to listen to any proof, period, if it’s not convenient to you.

So yet again — words matter. We need to think before we write, and choose our words carefully. And, as it happens, this is why people whose main work is not writing shouldn’t assume they can just toss off a written piece on the side when they need to. What they really need is to hire a professional writer to craft that important communication for them and ensure that their readers understand what they actually mean.