The Endangered Bond

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Science  10 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6069, pp. 635
DOI: 10.1126/science.1219756

Creative ideas are children of solitude, yet are rarely conceived in isolation. This is particularly true in science, which thrives on reliable and precise communication across linguistic, social, and cultural barriers. The digital age has given us instant global communication, yet scientists still prefer to talk about shared values and scientific issues face to face. As a unifying bond for our scientific culture, nothing rivals the spoken word.

This bond, however, is not invulnerable. Science was once part of a much broader intellectual effort that included the humanities, but at some time in the 19th century, a breakdown in communication made the two go their separate ways. The British physicist and writer Charles Percy Snow deplored this split in his influential Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures,” delivered on 7 May 1959 in the Senate House at the University of Cambridge. His words ring as true today as they did half a century ago: “I constantly felt I was moving among two groups … who had almost ceased to communicate at all …” The same words can also be used to alert us to the fact that a degradation of verbal communication is now threatening to open up rifts even within the sciences. This degradation is especially noticeable in biology and other rapidly evolving fields that have a strong descriptive component. From my detached view as a retired biochemist, most lectures on biological topics appear so overloaded with unnecessary information, so obsessed with technical detail, and so cluttered with abbreviations, jargon, and acronyms as to be nearly incomprehensible to anyone but the specialist. More often than not, I also wait in vain for a concluding remark that would reveal the broader implications and long-term goals of the work. When attending lectures was still part of my daily routine, I had become accustomed to this insane newspeak, but now I recognize it as a serious threat to our scientific culture. A lecture designed to impress rather than inform usually does neither. Instead, it drives a wedge between different disciplines and promotes scientific fragmentation.


There is no quick fix for today's dire lecturing habits, but we could improve them through two approaches. One of them is teaching. Not all students are gifted lecturers, but most of them can be taught the basics of public speaking. Such teaching ought to be central to every science curriculum, yet it is usually ignored or done in only a perfunctory way. Its major goal should not be producing polished orators but scientists who understand the difference between the important and the unimportant and who will focus their lectures on the essence of their findings. The second approach could aim at the profusion of monikers and acronyms that have made biological fields such as gene transcription, signal transduction, or immunology such uninviting territories to eager newcomers. Deciphering the chemical structure of our genome and its roughly 25,000 genes has exacerbated this dilemma by triggering an avalanche of new gene names and abbreviations, which are often applied indiscriminately, with different names used to describe the same gene in different species.* Gordon Research Conferences and similar special meetings could serve as efficient settings for researchers to work out a consistent and rational nomenclature for their scientific discipline.

We should no longer tolerate lectures that drown the audience in a flood of unnecessary information and technical terms. Effective communication is a bridge between different disciplines and is essential to the advance of science. Agreement on a standard terminology should also stimulate discovery, because standardization is a proven motor for innovation. According to the Austrian logician Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Alles, was sich aussprechen lässt, lässt sich klar aussprechen” (“Whatever can be said can be said clearly”). In science, simple and clear language in both spoken and written communication is not only a matter of style—it is also a matter of substance.

  • * B. Bennani-Baiti, I. M. Bennani-Baiti, Gene 491,103 (2012).

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