Scientific Jargons and My Response

Posted on November 25, 2010 by


So a post from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

My working hypothesis (and I’d love to see some actual data on this) is that 90% of science blogs can be understood by no more than 10% of people.

Writers should always remember that the more technical you get, the more restrictive you get, even if people are writing for a scientific audience. Eventually, other scientists who aren’t from the same narrow speciality become part of the amorphous “general public”, as described in this post on communication breakdowns between chemists and engineers studying oil spills (“Dude, you are speaking Romulan”).

Of course, people have every right to write for whomever they wish. I just feel it’s a shame that so much material could be opened up to a much broader audience with just a few tweaks to word choice and sentence construction. This is the approach that I favour, and the one I try to achieve here…

General readers are more than capable of understanding complex concepts, if you explain them.

The bottom line is that you educate people by explaining complex ideas in a simple way, not by explaining simple ideas in a complex way

I wrote this in response:

As a grad student in the social sciences who always felt limited by the hard sciences, this hit quite a few spots.

I guess a good rule of thumb for scientists or any kind of academician should follow is in the old adage:

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

I didn’t grow up with a grandmother, but still.  I find that when I’m talking to people who have English as their second language,  I resort to a more simplified explanation.

Even explaining what I do can be difficult, but I think people get it at the end.

So what I do when I’m explaining my Anthropology career, I try to get a feel for their knowledge.  Once I sort of have a feeling of their experiences and their knowledge of the language, I usually make a simily or say what it is I’m going to eventually do.

For example, even if I’m talking to a bunch of my aunties who work as nurses here in the States and speak fluent English, but English isn’t their first language, I still have to make some kind of “simplification.”  They’re always just interested in what I do, and what I plan to do for a job.  How I get to my next job, i.e. my academic interests, stints as a Grad Assistant, is not as important.

So in jargon that I’d use around peers and professors at conferences, I’d tell them I’m an Anthropology grad student interested in police engagement with the public with some interest in group polarization.  My intent is to use such research to wield my way onto a think tank.

What I’m going to tell my aunties at Thanksgiving dinner today is that “I’m a student again, studying how the police works with people, and that with my work, I want to get a job at a research company.”  They understand “company” in a way that generates job they won’t really understand how a “think tank” generates jobs (actually, I’m not even quite sure how that’s done, but that’s another subject).

I don’t think I’m dumbing anything down, I’m just giving them the information I think they want based on feedback they’ve given me before.  I’m not using the nuance or as many nouns that I would with a native speaker of English, but I don’t think anything of the conversation is lost because I got my point across to them and what was important to them.

I know conversation is quite a bit different than writing, mainly because you don’t really “know” your audience.  However, I still think you can adapt to the audience a number of ways.

For example, if you’re going to take a word like “placebo” and use it for a “public” audience, I guess the best thing to do would be to define it.  Then explain your understanding of it, why you’re using it, and/or why it is important for the rest of the article.

So if I’m going to use “placebo” in a blog for 4th graders, I’ll take the definition of placebo:

“A substance containing no medication and prescribed to reinforce a patient’s expectation of getting well or used as a control in a clinical research trial to determine the effectiveness of a potential new drug”


transform it into this:

“A placebo is a substance a patient takes that doesn’t really cure him, but is given to him by a doctor to make him believe that he will get better.

The substance can also be used as a “control” in an experiment.  As a “control”, the placebo is given to one set of patients while a new substance is given to another set of patients.  Using the placebo is a way for scientists to measure how good the new substance is.  If the new substance does not work better than the placebo, then it will show that the new substance is not so good or effective”

I think that simplification of placebo was about making the action seem “current” as if it was occurring now, in the present, in the concrete.  When you break that down on a grammatical level, it’s about doing one idea a sentence, rooting out nouns, especially abstract nouns, and to the extent possible, using the present tense.  Using the present tense I think just brings things back to the ground level and the everyday.

I’m not a “hard” scientist and I’m not even sure if these are even acceptable definitions, but I was just trying to illustrate the possibilities in something as mundane as the definition.

I was told by a former girlfriend that if you’re the only one who understands something, then that knowledge will probably die with you as well.  It’s more work to explain things, and maybe it isn’t everyone’s job to explain everything to people, but if you’re going out there and present it, it ultimately needs to be understood by someone.

It’s not “dumbing” anything down (thanks Ed, I’ve been annoyed with that comment as well), it’s just explaining things in a way to people who don’t focus everyday on what you have the privilege of focusing on.  They’re just people who are simply not in your tribe, just as you probably wouldn’t understand the acronyms people at a Police Commissioners meeting would use. All spoken and written language is just one tool we have to communicate things to people.  So, to the extent possible, I think it’s real important to break things to the lowest common denominator.  If it’s too simple, then like in conversation, get feedback from your audience.

The post above a direct throwback to my last post on here, about M.A.K. Halliday’s “Language of Science.”



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