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Your Precision, Their Confusion

Friend, scientist and longtime reader Jon Fisher alerted me to the following tweet by Jim Elser, a limnologist, field station director, faculty member at two universities and member of the National Academy of Sciences:

The Arizona State professor Ted Pavlic responded that he’d made a similar point on Twitter five years ago about a similar State of Arizona sign:

Anyone who hangs with scientists knows they often love to make nerdy fun of how the world interacts with their fields. It’s not hard to imagine Elser, Pavilic and their ilk assuming that some overworked, ill-informed state bureaucrat who didn’t know a scorpion from a centipede dashed off the sign’s caption in five seconds instead of bothering to email one of Arizona’s numerous scientific experts to make sure they’ve had the precise terminology down.

Except…could the writer of the sign’s caption have known what they were doing — or rather, what they were trying to accomplish? Here is a thread of replies to Elser’s tweet:

It seems almost superfluous to point out that the sign’s only goal is to keep people away from snakes and scorpions, and that any aspect of the sign that interferes with accomplishing that goal — including using scientifically precise but confusing-to-a-non-specialist language — should be eliminated.

As horrible as Twitter can be, it also routinely reminds us about a long list of research tropes that strike outsiders as pointy-headed arrogance or contempt. Precision at the expense of engendering comprehension and motivating action is near the top of that list.