There’s a blog post making the rounds of the science blogosphere titled If Sports Got Reported Like Science, which imagines the effect of applying the perceived restriction on scientific terminology to sports reporting:

HOST: In sports news, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti today heavily criticised a controversial offside decision which denied Didier Drogba a late equaliser, leaving Chelsea with a 1-all draw against Sunderland.

INTERCOM: Wait. Hold it. What was all that sports jargon?

HOST: It’s just what’s in the script. All I did was read it – I’ve got no idea what it’s really on about.

INTERCOM: Nobody without a PhD in football’s going to understand that. Who wrote this crap? It’s elitist rubbish, people will just turn off when they hear it. “Late equaliser”? “Offside”? We’ve got to get this rewritten so it’s more accessible.

It goes on like that for a bit, and it’s fairly amusing. But here’s the thing– it’s funny because the people reading it genuinely know what the “jargon” terms mean. A very large fraction of the world’s population knows enough about soccer to interpret those first lines– even people who don’t actively follow the sport end up knowing a bit about the rules and terminology, and can thus decipher most of the jargon used in sports reporting.

It’s not quite as amusing if you look at expert commentary about a less well-known sport, such as this page of sumo analysis:

Rounding out the Ozeki is Baruto, whose latest run officially ended on day 8 at the hands of Kakuryu of all rikishi. Baruto managed to beat Kaio on day 9 (how could he not?), but his only wins after that were against Kisenosato that saw Baruto execute a tachi-ai henka and against Kitataiki on day 14 in a bout that lasted way longer than it should have. Let’s focus on those two bouts as they really tell a lot.

First, the tachi-ai henka against Kisenosato completely reveals Baruto’s mindset. He had just lost four of five and was in complete panic mode. Opting for the free win in that situation shows that he doesn’t trust his sumo. All of the great rikishi trust their sumo.

Then, against Kitataiki the next day Baruto was beaten technically on every front. He lost the tachi-ai and was in deep trouble only surviving on his size advantage. That aspect has propelled Baruto a long way in this sport, but they say shin-gi-tai for a reason. Against Kisenosato, Baruto showed his lack of shin. Against Kitataiki, there was no gi to be found.

Unless you’re either Japanese or Ethan Zuckerman, that probably doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Sumo isn’t all that popular outside of Japan, and the community of people who understand sumo jargon is not that large. If you were setting out to write a story on sumo for a non-Japanese audience, you would be well advised to either define terms like “tachi-ai” and “shin-gi-tai,” or leave them out altogether.

The sad fact is, science is more like sumo than soccer.

Believe me, I dislike seeing “watered down” science coverage (when there’s any science coverage at all) as much as any other scientist, and I chafe at having to define really basic concepts as much as anybody else. But the fact is, there’s a legitimate reason for those rules and editorial dictates: the community of people who genuinely understand science terms is much smaller than the community of people who understand the jargon used by sportscasters talking about soccer, or basketball, or football, or baseball.

An illustrative example for you: In the course of writing How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, a book explaining quantum physics for a general audience, I had a lot of arguments with my editor about what needed to be defined in the text. Do you know what “jargon” term we had the biggest argument about?

“State.” As in “In quantum physics, there are certain special states, and objects will only ever be found in one of those allowed states.”

This isn’t a terribly refined bit of jargon– indeed, before writing the book, I wouldn’t’ve called it a jargon term at all. But after a couple of rounds of back and forth, it became clear to me that my editor genuinely was not sure what was meant by the term “state” in a physics context, and felt that other non-technical readers would be similarly confused. So there it is in the Glossary:

state/ quantum state: A particular collection of properties (position, momentum, energy, etc.) describing an object. For example, “sleeping in the living room,” “sleeping in the kitchen” and “running around the house” are three different possible states for a dog.

My initial reaction to the suggestion was very much along the lines of the “If sports got reported like science” post, but in the end I gave in. Because as pathetic as it seems to a scientist, my editor was right. People really don’t know what these terms mean, and really do need to have them clearly defined.

Why is this? You could explain it lots of ways, but I’ll go with one that fits with my Innumeracy of Intellectuals” rants. The fact is, it is perfectly acceptable in most sections of modern society to know nothing at all about science, but there are large swathes of society in which it is unacceptable to know nothing about sports.

If you’re male in America, most other people will assume that you know something about sports. For men, it’s the second Default Conversational Topic, after the weather. And despite endless sitcom jokes about women’s inability to understand sports, a good many women will happily talk about sports as well. If you express ignorance or disinterest, that’s a mark against you. There are some areas of society in which this is slightly less true– academic science being one– but I suspect that you’ll find a higher incidence of baseball fans at the March Meeting than physics aficionados at a Yankee game.

And, really, it’s hard to reach adulthood in the United States without knowing at least a little bit about the major sports. Starting in elementary school, every child in the country is required to take Physical Education, and that generally includes at least a little bit about how to play baseball and basketball and football and soccer. Many kids are involved in sports leagues outside of school– there’s a reason why “soccer mom” is an enduring political cliche. It’s possible to become a functioning member of society without learning enough sports terminology to understand a front-page story from the sports section, but it requires a concerted effort.

(I speak from experience– I spent a good deal of time in school proclaiming my disinterest in all sorts of sports, and sneering at sports fandom as something for stupid people. Sometime in junior high, though, I decided it was easier to go along to get along, and started to play basketball, then soccer and track. And eventually I got hooked, to the point where I will post numerous World Cup articles on my blog, even though almost none of my readers actually give a damn…)

Science, on the other hand, is easy to avoid. The math and science requirements for high school graduation in most states are not as strong as the requirements for English and Social Studies (i.e. History). And at the college level, the science requirements (if there are any) can usually be met with classes specifically tailored to students who want nothing to do with science.

Once you’re out of college (for those who go to college), there is absolutely no social stigma associated with ignorance of science. Quite the contrary– expressing an interest in science is often looked at askance. It is perfectly acceptable, even among people who consider themselves to be educated individuals, to say things like “Oh, I’m no good at math.” It’s far more acceptable to say “Oh, I never understood science” than it is to say “Oh, I never understood baseball.”

The result of this is that a large portion of society– probably a solid majority– really, truly, has no ability to read a science story with all the jargon intact. The number of people who are unable to read a randomly chosen story about baseball, on the other hand, is vastly smaller.

The people who run the media are not complete idiots, and they tailor their output accordingly. Sports stories can run with jargon intact, because the vast majority of the people who look at the sports page will understand what it all means. Science stories need an additional level of explanation, because most of the people looking at the front page are not really capable of understanding the “uncut” version. It’s not prejudice, it’s brutal statistical reality.

Isn’t this a Bad Thing, though? Absolutely. It sucks rocks through capillary tubing. But that’s how things are at the moment, and publishing science stories with lots of jargon in them isn’t going to help that.

I would love to see a day where saying “I’m just no good at math” is as embarrassing an admission as “I don’t know anything about football” is for an American male. That’s not the world we live in, though, and expecting the media to behave as if it was is just foolish. Getting from here to there will require a lot of hard work and education, and probably needs to begin with more science stories with all the terms defined, not less.

(NOTE: I do realize that the jargon thing was not the only aspect of science coverage that was being commented on in the original post, which also included some satirical examples of faux balance. The bits about pinheads calling in with oddball theories of how things really work, though, just show that the author of the original post doesn’t listen to sports talk radio. Those parts of the post ended up being a surprisingly accurate depiction of many a call-in program.)

Comments

  1. #1 Peter Morgan
    June 20, 2010

    “state/ quantum state: A particular collection of properties (position, momentum, energy, etc.) describing an object. For example, “sleeping in the living room,” “sleeping in the kitchen” and “running around the house” are three different possible states for a dog.”

    That’s pretty much like a definition of the offside rule. If you already know what (you think) it means, it makes sense, but otherwise you have to see it happen in front of you, and have someone tell you what you saw, all too many times. This definition has the added trouble that it looks like a definition of a classical state with only the barest smell of quantum about it.

    I guess it would be too much to put in some mention of statistics for dogs, but perhaps for soccer fans we could explain that a good choice of “quantum state” for a soccer team records (and predicts) the statistics of the goals they have scored (and might score in future) against other teams, without needing to know anything about the team in isolation (no ontology, just statistics of experimental results, although adding information about assists and other esoterica as experimental data can be complicated). In this case, the theoretical symmetry between a state preparation and a measurement seems particularly neat, albeit, sadly, a laser and a CCD don’t look as much the same as each other as two soccer teams. In contrast, a classical state describes a single team without needing to know that there are any other teams: the goalkeeper can kick the ball 120 yards, … .

  2. #2 Janne
    June 20, 2010

    “Science Is More Like Sumo Than Soccer”

    So… Scientists are caught beating disagreeable graduate students to death and putting illegal million-yen bets on baseball with the Yakuza? http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201006180451.html

    I like to watch Sumo, but they have some pretty serious self-inflicted problems right now, and any simile involving Sumo is apt to invoke those issues rather than the sport itself.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 20, 2010

    I like to watch Sumo, but they have some pretty serious self-inflicted problems right now, and any simile involving Sumo is apt to invoke those issues rather than the sport itself.

    It brings those up to people who are aware of the sport. I wasn’t aware they had problems until I started trying to Google up some detailed sumo commentary for this post.

  4. #4 Janne
    June 20, 2010

    Thinking about it, I’m not sure your analogy really stands. On one hand, I’m one of those people not actively following sports, and I really, truly had no idea what an “offside” was until I googled it just now (and I don’t really grasp the point, to be honest). But I still more or less parse the example: one team got away with breaking some rule, denying the other team a win.

    And on the other, I bet most people can grasp the overall meaning of the Sumo description: Baruto had a disappointing tournament, and he is performing well under capacity.

    But your two examples show another aspect of this: your Sumo piece, with half a dozen specialist terms, is a lot more detailed than the short soccer blurb with one. That, all by itself, makes it harder to parse. And in the same way, while science spelled out in detail is impenetrable to outsiders, science in the large really is not.

  5. #5 Mary
    June 21, 2010

    Janne:

    Here’s an abstract from an almost randomly chosen (I admit I reject the first abstract I looked at as opaque even to me) Optics Letters article from my RSS feed:

    “We demonstrate distribution of a 2850 MHz rf signal over stabilized optical fiber links. For a 2.2 km link we measure an rms drift of 19.4 fs over 60 h, and for a 200 m link an rms drift of 8.4 fs over 20 h. The rf signals are transmitted as amplitude modulation on a continuous optical carrier. Variations in the delay length are sensed using heterodyne interferometry and used to correct the rf phase. The system uses standard fiber telecommunications components.”

    Can you more or less parse it even if you aren’t a scientist? Probably so. “Some kind of signals were sent over optical fibers” – everyone knows what optical fibers are these days because the internet service providers advertise them, right?

    Nevertheless, a newspaper really couldn’t get away with running that paragraph without a whole page of supporting explanations. Chad’s totally right. They don’t feel the need to provide such explanations on the sports or even the business pages (which are often even more jargon-laden.) Partly for this reason, they can do a whole lot more sports and business coverage, since each story doesn’t require the reporter to write a mini-textbook to go with it.

    But I’m curious about the word “state.” Can a newspaper run an article about the “state of the world today” or indeed the “state of the union” and get away with it? Yes, I’d say so. Even though use of “state” in that sense is pretty much confined to the well-educated these days… I think if people were used to using that word in that sense in daily life they wouldn’t be uncomfortable with the physics usage, which is really very similar, if a bit more restricted. But newspapers really don’t mind pitching their political coverage (and again, their business coverage) slightly above the head of the average reader, trusting that the readers will put in the effort necessary to keep up. (At least the better ones don’t, and they didn’t used to.) Why not show some of the same faith in the science articles?

  6. #6 Janne
    June 21, 2010

    Mary, the source is “Optic Letters”. The target is other scientists – and scientists in a very specific subfield at that. It’s the equivalent to that sumo piece above. Or even more narrow; it’s as if the Japanese Sumo Association had a private newsletter detailing the minute particulars of the sport, circulated only among the stables and to a few obsessive insider fans. Of course it’s incomprehensible to anybody else.

    But I’m quite certain that general science coverage can get away with using a fair amount more jargon than they do now, without compromising understanding. Those who get put off by a small amount of jargon get put off by the subject even if there’s no jargon at all anyway.

    And in fact, science reporting does get away with jargon for some surprising subfields. As soon as the subject is dinosaurs, for instance, using the scientific nomenclature for species and groups, and talking about specific eras is no problem. Astronomy, too, seems to be able to sprinkle a lot of jargon around without anybody complaining.

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