An Example of Poorly Phrased Communication in Atmospheric Science and Oceanography — Empathy for Those Who Distrust “Experts”
© 2012 Peter Free
05 January 2012
Stupid science jargon fuels the public’s anti-science sentiment
That misnaming, and others like it, partially illustrates why science and medical professionals often meet resistance from a commonsense-oriented public. If you intentionally speak gibberish, why should anyone listen to you?
My example of anti-communication — the “Great Salinity Anomaly”
The term, Great Salinity Anomaly, is used to characterize events in which an increased layer of fresh water in the ocean reduces winter season water turnover. This, in consequence, also reduces water-to-atmosphere heat transport.
You can read more about how this works, here.
The Anomaly phrase was almost certainly chosen because it has a circus-like ring. “Great” combined with “anomaly” — who could ask for more of an attention-getter than that? It’s like putting “magnificent” together with “mystery.”
Presumably, the attention-getting name was supposed to serve as a meaningful form of science communication. But did it?
The problem with “Great Salinity Anomaly” is that it’s conceptually backwards.
The name not only does not describe what it is referring to, it aggressively gets in the way of people’s understanding of the fresh water phenomenon that it is supposedly describing.
Most readers know that salinity refers to water’s salt(s) concentration. So, who would think that “salinity” was intended to describe a fresh water incongruity floating in salt water, rather than an increase in ocean water’s salt content?
Ignoring the rules of language and logic — a generally bad idea — and this is a good example
Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines anomaly as “deviation from the common rule: irregularity . . . . something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified.”
In applying this definition to the Salinity Anomaly, keep in mind that we are trying to understand whether it is salt water or fresh water that is the contextually out of place in the ocean being studied. In doing this, we already know that what is “common” in ocean water are salts.
Therefore, a supposedly “anomalous” occurrence in the ocean’s salt concentration (salinity) could conceptually be caused by either (a) adding salt or (b) diluting the salt concentration that is already there.
But from a mechanical perspective, there aren’t really these two choices in our ocean example. Scientists had already tested the water. Fresh water turned out to be the “irregularity” that Merriam-Webster refers to. Not added salt.
Moreover, the fresh water of this particular phenomenon essentially floats on top of the salt water. It is a temporarily separate entity. Its separate and floating character is the cause of the anti-overturn phenomenon. By not sinking in winter (as non-layered salt water would) the fresh water layer reduces the oceans’ heat transfer to the atmosphere.
So why would you name this fresh water incongruity after the salinity it lacks?
Whether we assess the situation from the perspective of the proper use of language or elementary logic, the Great Salinity Anomaly should preferably have been named the Great Fresh Water Anomaly.
In defense of the scientists who chose the name, "salinity" simply defines a concentration spectrum that, theoretically, could be equally well used to refer to salt addition or dilution. For example, we could say that fresh water has (for practical purposes) zero salinity.
But why use “zero salinity” language when (a) “fresh” is a better understood term and (b) more accurately describes the layering effect that the fresh water takes?
The moral? — We shouldn't complain about an anti-scientific public, when science gets in its own way with incomprehensible jargon
The purpose of language is to communicate understanding. When it fails due to the anti-communicative clumsiness of the speaker, it is hardly the hearer’s responsibility.