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Communication Woes: Are we speaking the same language?

Language diversity by T. Mikkelsen, 2009. https://www.flickr.com/

Neilson, A. (2018). Considering the importance of metaphors for marine conservation. Marine Policy. 97:239-243.

Here at OceanBites, we make it our mission to translate scientific journal articles into something more accessible, more digestible. Science communication revolves around finding the compelling story and engaging an audience. The tools at our disposal to do this are deceptively simple, though, and some communicators are taking note that the choice of language can have unexpected and unintended consequences, like causing delays when action is needed instead.

Language, both written and spoken, allows us to share complex information—mostly by creating imagery between a communicator and their audience that is commonly agreed upon. For example, if I were to describe a child as a smaller version of a human (provided you had ever encountered an adult human, or remembered you were once a child yourself) you should have an image in your head close to what I have in mine. This example is relatively simple, though, so what happens when the subject matter is something foreign, or complex? The result could be as minor as a slight image mismatch between the communicator and the audience, to as major as the linguistic struggle between Arrival’s Louise Banks and the heptapods…or the confusing symphony between humans and aliens in Close Encounters, if you’re more a fan of classic sci-fi.

While the ocean isn’t outer space, it is still perceived by many people as something alien. This disconnects us from something vital to our planet’s health, and Alasdair Neilson has been quite vocal about it. His article, published in Marine Policy, highlights how language—specifically metaphors (things representative or symbolic of something else)—used to describe marine conservation issues have created misconceptions that damage the effectiveness of some conservation efforts.

He cites the metaphor “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and describes how in today’s language, it creates mental imagery that does not accurately depict the real problem. Garbage, litter, refuse…these are all words that in a terrestrial setting remind you of torn plastic bags, crumpled aluminum cans, or spoiled food. Often, people imagine a garbage heap floating in the ocean when this term is used—but that’s hardly the case at all. The garbage patch is largely made up of pollutants and degraded plastic pieces, smaller than a couple centimeters. It also doesn’t float on the surface; rather, it hangs suspended a few meters below, or (especially in the case of pollutants) enters the food chain. Larger items exist out there, but it’s a far cry from a junk pile you’d find on land.

But comprehension isn’t always restricted by the mismatch of reality and mental imagery—understanding can be limited if a selected metaphor is culturally irrelevant, or has become redundant over time. Neilson mentions how British fishermen used to refer to cod as “gold” or “their bread”. These metaphors make much more sense when the audience is aware of the historical significance of cod, and the subsequent collapse of the population. This example also highlights another issue: while gold today is still valuable, bread is not always a metaphor for something precious. One metaphor’s meaning may persist while another’s may fade and become obsolete. This loss of meaning over time adds more complexity to how science communicators reach audiences.

Generational gaps in language become apparent, regional knowledge comes into play, culturally-centered phrasing crops up, and science communicators are left navigating the best path to convey their stories. Our goal is to share information that is not exaggerated or misrepresentative of the facts, while still imparting the significance of a finding using language that the broadest audience can understand. In cases where awareness needs to be raised for restoration or mitigating actions, this becomes even more important. In the simplest terms, science communicators cannot just be literal translators—there is an element of familiarity with culturally-significant images and history that comes with the territory.

Untitled by Tookapic, 2016. https://www.pexels.com/

Neilson discusses that some progress has been made as scientists are learning to create networks for sharing local knowledge between communities, policymakers, and interest groups. Meanwhile, public perception research—a field dedicated to examining the “knowledge, interest, social value, attitudes, and behaviors” of groups of people with respect to a topic—would be an excellent area to further test how targeted metaphors (instead of clichés and outdated terms) could impact the public’s response to environmental issues.


At the end of the day, language will never be perfect and there will likely always be a slight mismatch between all of our mental imagery, but we are taking steps to shrink that difference. We try our best, but we understand our metaphors don’t always work—but if any of you in our audience know of some that are effective, please share!

Andrea Schlunk

I am a former PhD student from the University of Rhode Island, having discovered my love of teaching and informal science education in part through OceanBites! Since departing academia, I’ve focused on creating educational content for students, first at the New England Aquarium, and now at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station. I am also trying my hand at other outreach media, like podcasting.


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