This morning I came across a recent AGU article by Richard B. Norgaard entitled “Watch your language: Power words at the human–nature interface.” The AGU is the American Geophysical Union, and its mission “is to promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity.” To see an article dealing with language – and the loaded nature of words at that – published in such a forum was quite exciting. Topics addressed in the paper include how language is used to frame issues, the portrayal of nature, and the idea of ‘value.’ (Spoiler alert: there’s no one single definition for that one!) Norgaard argues that
“Words implicitly share in the act of framing problems, designing experiments, sorting evidence, seeing and interpreting findings, communicating, and retaining knowledge. Words are more noticeably important when scientists try to explain their findings to policy makers and the public.” – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015EF000344/full
This brings the idea of communication to the fore. The gap between science and policy was a topic that got much attention at the 2014 SCAR Conference
in Auckland. The environments.aq
portal was launched specifically to try and close this gap. And yet the question of language remains. How we understand a word is not necessarily the same as how someone fro ma neighbouring discipline understands the same terms or concept. Language carries all sorts of connotations and baggage. This is exactly the sort of thing that literary scholars are trained to look at.
“We need to think about how the words we use are embedded in tangles of old meanings that might be getting in the way of what we now want to characterize, frame, and convey. This is especially true now that we are trying to understand and communicate in what appears to be a new era for the natural and social sciences. ” – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015EF000344/full
This argument about language also has some similarities to work that has been done in an Antarctic context, eg. defining values (http://antarctica-ssag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SSAG-proceedings-2013.pdf
) It’s exciting to see such aspects of framing being discussed in the AGU forum, and to see language being treated as something that is not only a tool for communicating ideas, but also a vessel that holds echoes of its many past uses. We’re always being told to do interdisciplinary work, whilst having to constantly assert the usefulness of humanities in the Antarctic (and scientific, in general) context. This is one indication that the value of the humanities may finally be filtering through to such prestigious scientific organisations. And that can only be a good thing, particularly if it opens further dialogue between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”
of Art and Science.