24 April 2017

Plain language, power, and politics #nlpoli

In the midst of a political controversy over recent fishing quotas in Newfoundland and Labrador, two people are talking about the need for better communication about science and the fishing quotas.

Jacqueline Perry is the regional director of fisheries management for the fisheries and oceans department of the Government of Canada.  "This is difficult stuff,"  she said, referring to reductions in quotas that the decisions that flow from the scientific information on fish stocks will have an adverse impact on people in the fishing industry.

"We are doing the very, very best that we can with the information that our science colleagues are able to provide to us with the input of industry. Are we getting it 100 per cent right? I don't know if we will ever know [about the precise size of fish stocks]."

In related comments,  the head of the Marine Institute's fisheries science program told CBC that the "fact that there is so much controversy is indicative that communication is a necessary component … If we're going to find a way forward, we're going to have to keep talking."  Brett Favaro said the Marine Institute will include course work in the master's and doctoral programs aimed at teaching scientists how to communicate their research findings more effectively.

He's talking about plain language, among other things.  Plain language or Plain English establishes some simple rules about the way you use words and sentences in order to ensure the greatest number of people will understand what you are saying.

That sounds simple enough but the notion remains widely misunderstood and hugely controversial. The most common misperception comes from the tendency to judge plainness in language as a grade level.  During the American presidential campaign, for example,  the fact that Donald Trump routinely spoke at a Grade Four level meant to some people that he  - and his audience - were not that bright.  esquire.com wrote about it, noting that Trump spoke at a low grade level and that his competitors didn't do "better" according to the story's subtitle.

Speaking at a Grade Four comprehension level actually meant that Trump could reach more of the public than people who were speaking at a level understood by university graduates or high school graduates exclusively. It had nothing to do with either the intelligence level of his audience or of his staff or his ideas. But Esquire clearly thought that important, smart ideas must be hard to understand in order to be affirmed as smart.

The folks at Esquire aren't alone. One of the most persistant ways university academics and professionals of all sorts define themselves is by their use of language.  Call it jargon.  Call it technical terms.  Call it whatever you want.  They create specific meanings for words or create words that have meaning only for people who have been introduced,  trained, or indoctrinated into the particular professional world.

It is true for medical doctors. It is true for lawyers.  These older professions even adopted the use of a dead foreign language - Latin - that has the result of if not the intention of frustrating understanding. One of the most prolific jargon-makers these days are teachers, or as they now like to be called, educators. Try and get through a parent-teacher conference without hearing the word rubric used at least once.  It isn't a cube.  It simply means the scoring guide for tests in a particular subject.

How about a teacher who doesn't talk about an exemplar?  That's arguably one of the most ridiculous pieces of jargon on the go these days.  It means "example".  There's a perfect good, understandable English word for an idea but some people consciously and deliberately use another that is almost identical to it but that sounds pompous, complicated, and intimidating.

Knowledge is good, as the founder of Faber College reputedly said, but more importantly, knowledge - that is, information and what the information means - is power.  That's why it is good news that the folks at the fisheries department as well as the fisheries scientists are concerned to make the results of their research understood by as wide an audience as possible.

That won't stop people like Richard Gillett, the diabetic fellow currently starving himself outside the fisheries department office in St. John's. Gillett understands the fishery science and what it means. That's why he is trying to pressure the federal fisheries minister into doing a host of things that have absolutely nothing to do with the fact the stocks of fish are smaller now than they were last year or five years ago. The smaller fish stocks mean fewer fish to catch and that has a direct and highly personal meaning for Gillett and people like him.

What things mean is not only a personal act,  it is a political act. When officials at a government department share information,  including fishermen in their decisions, and so on, that's got huge implications for how our political system and society work. Those implications won't add up to anything at all if we don't recognise that Richard Gillett, Ryan Cleary, and their supporters don't have any problem understanding science stuff.  They know precisely what it means when stocks fall.

That's why Gillett is pulling an old-fashioned political stunt to bring pressure on the the federal fisheries minister. Gillett wants him to cough up cash for the fishermen and plant workers,  set the quotas at a level way above what common sense would dictate, or or something other than what the fisheries department has already done.

The act of deciding what something means is essentially a political act, not a matter of understanding. Right now the fisheries department has decided that low stock levels means low catch levels.  There's a certain common sense to that.  If you go back to the years before the cod moratorium,  the federal fisheries minister spent a few years listening to the fishing interests in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Don't listen to the scientists,  they said in chorus. Scientists know nothing. That's why they are recommending you cut catch levels.  Do not pay any attention to actual landing levels.  Let us fish as much as we can until we cannot get anything out of the water.

And try as they might to fish every cod that swam, their amount of cod those same fishing interests actually caught dropped and dropped.  Finally, the federal government closed the fishery for cod. So people started arguing for a "food fishery" and at every sign that there were a few more cod back out there,  a host of people in the fishery have been calling for permission to take the last fin out of the water.

These folks are not crazy. They are not stupid. They understand the fisheries science. They just don't give all of that information the same meaning as other people do. There's no fundamental difference between Gillett the hunger striker, for example, and the vice president of another fisheries group who wants to start slaughtering cod again.  Neither cares a jot or a tittle,  to borrow John Crosbie's phrase, for the science. It has taken 25 years for cod stocks to get to be about one third of the levels of the 1980s but Dave Decker says we can safely fish cod because it will only take us five years to be fully recovered.

Cod stocks may be at historically low levels but what that means is different for different people. The science doesn't matter.  Meaning does and meaning is entirely political.