Reflections on Language and Complexity


Blog by Anne Liddon, Scientific Communications Manager, Newcastle University

When I turned up at the CECAN Evaluation and Complexity workshop this week it was my first day back at work after a holiday in Crete, an experience that I thought might have put me in the right frame of mind.   Being the non-scientist in a roomful of scientists often seems like being in a foreign country where I only speak a few words of the language.  Sometimes it also feels as though I’m wading through treacle with a paper bag over my head, because I can’t see what’s going on, I keep getting stuck and I don’t know which way to go, then I bump into people I don’t recognise.  Finally I find out who they are, (sometimes we have been emailing each other for months) and they feel like old friends after all. 

Communications are at the core of what I do, and language and how people use it is of constant interest to me.  One of my current functions is to edit the policy and practice note series for the Living With Environmental Change partnership, and I frequently send rather bossy comments to authors about their use of technical jargon in documents that are aimed at a non-specialist audience.  I do understand why many scientists find it so difficult to write in everyday language, and why at any professional gathering there will be outbreaks of jargon.  It’s useful shorthand, it helps people to bond with fellow disciplinarians and it becomes unthinking.  Unfortunately it’s also exclusive and sometimes incomprehensible to outsiders. 

Why can’t we keep the shorthand for each other and write differently for non-specialists?  We know that communications for stakeholders need to be written in accessible language but, because everyone’s own jargon is so familiar, we don’t even notice we are using it every day.  I’d like to think I am not guilty of these crimes myself but I know that’s not true.  When our own Head of School in Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle recently wanted to co-opt me onto the ethics committee because they “needed a social scientist” I realised that I’ve been undercover in the Centre for Rural Economy for rather a long time.  Perhaps I should come out more often as the token arts graduate with a degree in archaeology rather than trying to be too well camouflaged.

But language isn’t just a problem when scientists are talking to non-scientists; there can also be barriers in communication between scientists from different disciplines and it’s not only the very obvious jargon that can impede understanding.  It became clear during group discussions that apparently familiar and non-jargon words such as “policy” and “programme” meant different things to different people, so that was a useful reminder about the need to define terms.  The workshop also made me think quite a lot about how we use apparently familiar words like “complexity”.  I suppose I would have assumed this means “complicated” and that as in Facebook’s “It’s complicated” that must imply something rather messy.  But of course, a complex system may work very effectively, and could be elegant in its own way.  At the same time complexity could have unforeseen consequences, and mapping such a system may enable blame to be spread about in a way that isn’t entirely helpful.

I think that personally I have more difficulty getting my head around the abstract notion of systems rather than the complex reality.  Concrete examples feel more accessible to me and, although I may not be an exact, possibly not even a close, proxy for a typical CECAN stakeholder, I think other non-scientists may feel the same.

Finally, one small reflection on the very excellent organisation and administration of the day.  Frankly, for someone like me, who tends towards control-freakishness, the process was made more terrifying by the blank agenda and the promise that we would “self-organise”.  But I could only admire the light touch with which an inclusive order was achieved amidst the mass of suggestions and contributions.  I am sure that these will provide a positive basis for the two day event planned in September.