A study on climate change conducted by the anthropologist Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, reveals that public perception and acceptance are influenced by the rate certain terms appear in publications by the scientific community.
Understanding the impact of specific words on the general public might improve the communication and inform people more effectively.
Technical terms used by scientists appear to be confusing to the general public, according to O’Brien. Journalists explain scientific jargon in a much more easy and comprehensive way, which eases the transition of information. However, the process can be slow, which results in defusing of popular vocabulary over time.
The study concluded that by year 2008, a number of important terms have been introduced to the public from technical obscurity in the early 1900s. These include “biodiversity”- the degree of variation in life forms within a specific area, “holocene”- the current era of the history of Earth, “paleoclimate”- the prehistoric climate, and “phenology”- the study of how climate and other environmental factors influence the timing of events in organisms’ life cycles.
Different terms are adopted at different rates and have different degree of popularity. Taking the above examples, ‘”biodiversity” gain popularity in only a few years, while the other three needed decades, and are still quite unknown.
O’Brien explains this by comparing it to species evolution and states that the reasons are determined through a complex process.
The study is based on a huge data-set consisting of 7 million books created by Google. The feature “Ngram” of the database was used to track the number of appearances of selected keywords related to climate change since year 1800. These were then compared to the use of “the”- the most commonly used word in English language. Through the means of statistical analysis, O’Brien, together with his colleague William Brock, a new member of MU’s Department of Economics and member of the National Academy of Sciences, calculated and estimated the usage rates.