It’s a small world. One that requires some joined up thinking. We need to see the contours among the shadows, to extract the signal from the noise, to construct synchrony from the chaos. You know what I mean. We need to become pattern detectors. (Just nod. I am going somewhere with this.)
Last year, I was giving a public lecture for the Irish Skeptics Society in Dublin and I needed a snappy title. I wanted to describe the awkward trade-off between accuracy and simplicity that so often perplexes public science communicators. Drawing on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I came up with a name for this problem. I called it the Babel Fish Dilemma (to help reverse engineer this term, see here). I was quite proud of that. I thought it was cute. I wondered whether anyone else would like it.
Well, it so happened that the lecture was covered in the media a bit, including on Politico.ie. And lo and behold, just today I was reading an interesting piece on the Wellcome Trust’s pretty good blog when suddenly, amongst the coal-black text, resplendent in hyperlink-teal, stood my own little aphorism:
And so, there arises a trade-off: is it better to make do with an accessible yet imperfect analogy that fails to capture the complexities of the subject matter, or to explain the concept in intricate and impenetrable detail and leave the lay audience none the wiser? Borrowing a term from science fiction, this conundrum has been called the Babel fish Dilemma.
SIOB! (Sharp intake of breath) O!-M!-G! (Oh, my goodness). Coincidence? Non. The link reverts nicely back to the Politico.ie piece, where my own less concise explanation is on offer.
I have now officially coined a phrase. I feel weird.
A big shout out is therefore due to fellow academic and science writer, Richard Roche, who wrote the piece on the Wellcome Trust blog. In fact, it is a fantastic essay and I encourage you to go over there and read it (hang on a minute for my my closing though). Big kudos to Richard actually, because his article — Lost in Translation: The Dangers of Using Analogies in Science — was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, which is a really prestigious competition.
We’re all proud of him. He is well read, you know. Go Richard!
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.