Climate Change Acceptance Affected By Word Usage
January 22, 2013

Popularity Of Words Affects Public Acceptance Of Climate Change

Alan McStravick for — Your Universe Online

In an op-ed published last month in The New York Times, anthropologists R. Alexander Bentley and Michael J. O´Brien previewed their study, “Word Diffusion and Climate Science” published in the open journal PLOS ONE. In last month´s article, they put forth an excellent explanation of how they studied the popularity of words and terms that rise and fall in the public lexicon.

The method they used for their research is an invaluable tool that is open and available to anyone who can find an Internet connection. Google´s n-gram feature, which utilizes an online database of millions of books, in multiple languages, is an interesting method to view the popularity of any published word or phrase from the last several centuries.

It is this incredible span of time that the database covers that allows users to view a specific word or term´s rise into popular usage and its fall from the grace of our communal consciousness. One thing they often saw was that as media matured and was brought to the almost ubiquitous nature we enjoy today, words and terms seem to experience their rise and fall on a much more accelerated timescale. As an example, they cited the century-long arc of the use of the word ℠theretofore´ from the late 19th century to the use of the word ℠feminist´ which saw its popularity soar in the 1970´s and wane by the year 2000.

Bentley and O´Brien point out that traditional printed books and journals, long the mainstay for the dissemination of information by the scientific community, are competing for attention in the Internet age with digital media. Digital media tends to move in much shorter and faster cycles, making the areas of academic science and general public discourse come together in an odd confluence.

As anthropologists, they point out how, when humans are overloaded with choices, they tend to do less personal research and, instead, copy others and follow trends. It´s the speed of this new media and the ability for thoughts and trends to go viral that challenges scientists to publish articles that are more exciting and provocative if they wish for their articles to achieve a public impact.

In their study, they zeroed in on a more specific grouping of words that have been enjoying an uptick in their upward trend, of late. They claim that the public acceptance of the reality of climate change has been influenced, in no small way, by the rate at which words moved from the academic journals into a more readily available form via the mainstream and digital media. The results of their study, they believe, will help in the understanding of word usage and how its transition to public acceptance could eventually lead to better science communication.

“Scientists can learn from this study that the general public shouldn´t be expected to understand technical terms or be convinced by journal papers written in technical jargon,” O´Brien said. “Journalists must explain scientific terms in ways people can understand and thereby ease the movement of those terms into general speech. That can be a slow process. Several words related to climate change diffused into the popular vocabulary over a 30-50 year timeline.”

Using 1800 to 2008 as a marker, O´Brien and his team showed how several terms wound their way from technical obscurity to public consciousness. Among the terms investigated were:

  • Biodiversity — the degree of variation in life forms within a given area
  • Holocene — the current era of the Earth´s history, which started at the end of the last ice age
  • Paleoclimate —the prehistoric climate, often deduced from ice cores, tree rings and pollen trapped in sediments
  • Phenology — the study of how climate and other environmental factors influence the timing of events in organisms´ life cycles

While each saw a rise in popularity in their own time, they did not enjoy the same rate in increase or degree of accepted popularity. While some words came on very strong in the public lexicon very late in the previous century, others saw their arc of popularity take decades to complete.

“The adoption of words into the popular vocabulary is like the evolution of species,” O´Brien said. “A complex process governs why certain terms are successful and adopted into everyday speech, while others fail. For example, the term ℠meme´ has entered the vernacular, as opposed to the term ℠culturgen,´ although both refer to a discrete unit of culture, such as a saying transferred from person to person.”

Assisting with the statistical analysis of the popularity of these words was another co-author of the study, William Brock. To arrive at their popularity index, they compared the climate change terms to the usage of the word ℠the´, as this is the most common word in the English language.

Bentley and O´Brien, again from their editorial, raised two important questions. First, could the use of buzzwords that have become fashionable reflect the limits of public interest in a particular area of science? And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, can the relative ubiquity of certain words affect what a particular scientist might choose to focus his attention on?

The popularity of particular words among laymen could have important consequences on the formation of public policy. A scientist, recognizing the increase of popularity of a word or term from their area of study, may skew their study to fit with the fact those words have become en vogue. Conversely, if the public has chosen to abandon certain words and terms from a field of research, it stands to reason a scientist may be less likely to explore an area that has fallen out of popular favor.

Bentley and O´Brien point out that a word´s popularity does not necessarily guarantee quality. They finished their December NYT article saying, “The ℠wisdom of crowds´ requires the space to think independently first.