Humanities vs Science. 4. Semantics and Semiotics


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Signs and symbols are the oldest mode of communication. We were using pictures to show our clan which way the berries were long before the golden arches were invented. A sign is anything that has meaning, including words, and the most powerful signs transcend languages, dialects and cultures.

How is this relevant to science? Communicating scientific research through any medium (yes, even academic journals!) is all about people. Good communication uses signs and symbols effectively to transcend scientific cultures, sub-disciplines and public audiences. Most humanities disciplines teach meaning and context, but two disciplines are particularly relevant to meaningful communication – semantics, the study of meanings and relationships of words; and semiotics, the study of signs.

The Science of Semantics

Words are powerful. The way they are used can completely change their meaning and interpretation. Sentences aren’t just big piles of words dumped on a page. Those words need to be put into groups, and those groups into a meaningful sequence, before the reader can interpret the sentence.

Sometimes the most meaningful or engaging sequence is not the most logical one. This distinction is often apparent in the active vs. passive voice debate. Active voice sentences are logical and straightforward. But they can also be dry. Passive voice structures can be used effectively to create more semantic ‘flow’ (which is a very unscientific term for engaging the reader).

Semantics is a little bit mathematics, a little bit psychology. Understanding how to convey meaning in a language, whether it be English, Quenya or R-code, is critical to communication. And it’s not always as simple as the grammar basics you learn at school. Meaning is contextual. It depends on syntax (the structure of the sentence or object) and personal interpretation/values of different audiences. Just like recipes, the same group of words can create different meanings, depending on how they are put together.

Meaning matters

Scientists are passionate about upholding the principles and systems of scientific rigour – using the ‘right’ sampling method, the ‘right’ study design, the ‘right’ statistical analysis. Language has principles too. Using the ‘right’ words in the ‘right’ way is critical to science communication of any kind.

For instance, “a pollinator insect” doesn’t mean the same thing as “an insect pollinator” – the former implies that the insect is doing the pollinating (correct) while the latter implies the insect is being pollinated by something else (a little weird).

When talking about animal predators, “preyed on” can be more meaningful than “predated” – although it’s not technically wrong, ‘predated’ is used most often in relation to time and can confuse people. (And “depredate” is not a helpful alternative; it means to steal or plunder, not eat prey!)

A lot of common scientific words and phrases can mean something very different in everyday speech – have a look at this post and comments at Dynamic Ecology and these great examples from a paper on communicating climate change science.

Scientists can easily confuse other scientists too, e.g. with too much jargon or overuse of causal language. Some concepts can have multiple meanings (e.g. ‘generalist’ flowers), depending on the discipline or sub-discipline you talk to. Papers calling for a terminology consensus on various research topics appear regularly in the literature, e.g. invasive species, community ecology, habitat concepts, species diversity. Yet, they don’t always result in a consensus. And simply including the phrase “Here, we use the term [x] to mean ….” is not a free license to push the semantic boundaries.

So, meaning matters; wise usage of words is good for science. This might all sound like overbearing pedantry. But we reserve the scientific right to be annoyed when someone uses a picture of a fly to illustrate a news story about bees, or to point out that a study is flawed because the author used an ANOVA instead of a GLMM…so semantics deserves a bit more respect too.

Myth and Connotation

Language and meaning become more complex outside the peer network. Beyond the basics of word meanings and sentence structure, interpretation and understanding are also influenced by denotation, connotation and cultural myths, as well as the codes they are used within. Understanding these codes and interpretations can help connect with an audience…and also reduce the risk of disconnection and misunderstanding.

I’ve written before about the semantic disconnect between science and nature, and the problems with using Innovation to categorise scientific research.

Ecosystem Services is another example; a useful concept that has become confused by political misuse and overuse. Its literal, and most meaningful, definition (i.e. all the natural processes happening around us that contribute to our survival and wellbeing) has been overshadowed by an ideological meaning: the ‘putting $ values on nature’ concept that many people have a problem with.

We might understand the scientific meaning of a term, and we might even be fairly certain that our disciplinary peers are on the same page. But beyond that, there is no guarantee. Just replacing complex words with simplified language is not enough. To engage an audience, we may also have to employ the powers of storytelling, myth, metaphor and magic.

Semiotics is a fascinating study of the communicative power of signs and symbols. Most of us respond to this effect every time we watch television, admire a painting or open a magazine. Studying signs teaches us how to create meaning. From using metaphor as a tool to explain complex concepts, to creating an engaging conference presentation, semiotics has a lot to offer science students.

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© Manu Saunders 2015

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