Jargon Rehab: A Call for Clearer Communication
By Laura Seeholzer
Pronunciation of the Kiswahili words for mosquito (mbu) and penis (mboo) are precariously close. Unfortunately, I only became aware of this a month after I started researching mosquitoes in Tanzania.
The project I was working on required me to use a blended nylon material found in men’s boxers so once a week I would go down to the market and buy men’s Tommy Hilfigers (they had the perfect blend). When explaining to the marketplace vendors why I wanted men’s underwear, not women’s, I’d say in Kiswahili, “I study penises. I need underpants for an experiment with the penis” of course, I thought I was using the word mbu (mosquito), but I was of course saying mboo (penis).
This innocuous miscommunication can be used as an analogy for a serious problem: a disconnect between what scientists think they are communicating and what the public is actually hearing.
In December, Alan Alda spoke to the Rockefeller community about this communication gap, a problem I knew existed but never fully appreciated. He first asked us: “what level of knowledge is the public really starting at?” For instance, if you told a person on the street that you study the effect of epigenetic modifications on the differential expression of genes – what would they understand? Gene? Yeah, probably. Expression of genes? Unlikely. Epigenetic? No way. Alda showed a video where people were asked to describe what DNA is. Although most recognized the term they couldn’t describe it. The best answer was, “It’s the building blocks of something.”
What causes the gap?
Until recently I firmly believed that this problem lay with the public and could be fixed by changing our education system. They lacked “scientific literacy.”
My feelings were supported by a Pew research survey of American adults:
- 46% thought antibiotics kill viruses (They only kill bacteria)
- 54% did not know electrons were smaller than atoms (2,000-450,000 times smaller)
- 48% did not know how stem cells differed from normal cells (stem cells can develop into many types of cell)
However, better education doesn’t fully address the problem: even if we perfectly teach all of modern science in high school, in 20 years, a students’ knowledge becomes outdated. Once this occurs, it becomes difficult to understand cutting-edge research. If you do not understand it, you probably will not find it interesting. The information then floats away and the cycle repeats.
I am now convinced scientists are causing the gap by the way we communicate. During college, graduate school and beyond, there is a precipitous increase in our scientific knowledge and eventually we lose sight of what “common knowledge” is. Our perspective is further skewed by the dramatic decrease in the number of ‘normal people’ we know. Everyone knows about optogenetics, right?
As Alda described, “scientists suffer from the curse of knowledge: we assume ‘the public’ knows more than they do so we communicate in our own language, not theirs.” Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon, which alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation. Journalists try to translate our jibberish but then we skewer them for “getting it wrong.”
Our attitude and ignorance squashes scientific curiosity and builds the barrier between scientists and the public. Relying on better education is a very passive attitude that leaves us blameless for the communication gap. It is time for scientists to take an active role.
Bridging the gap
Recognizing this problem is the first step to minimizing it. The second step is changing. The onus is on us to think about what the layperson does/does not know and then change our manner of speaking so we are intelligible (and therefore interesting). We should apply the same mentality to our elevator pitches as we apply to writing, rewriting, editing, and polishing an abstract. But we are all busy people, and it makes sense why so few people do this- promotions and interviews depend on how well you communicate your research to your peers, not the public. While funding agencies are starting to incentivize outreach, it is a personal passion to accelerate this movement.
In our column, Michael Wheelock, Leslie Church, and I will detail campus lectures but remove the jargon. Below is a sneak-peak into up-coming posts from recent talks:
- Pediatric brain cancer
- How monkey poop unlocked secrets of HIV/AIDS and malaria
- The Titanic’s discovery and other deep sea stories
We hope provide the public with a ladder into our ivory tower on the upper east side.
These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.
6 thoughts on “Jargon Rehab: A Call for Clearer Communication”
Hilarious story at the beginning – I laughed out loud, causing some consternation in my lab! Thank you, Laura, for this overall enjoyable and thought-provoking post. The problem of science communication that you highlight is an important problem which needs a solution post-haste.
However, there is one area where I’d beg to differ with you. Not on your thesis, though, but on a statement of Alan Alda that you have quoted.
FWIW, IMO that is a rather uncharitable and, to some extent, incorrect representation of science communication. First, this dichotomy that he creates, between ‘us’ and the ‘public’, is false – because there is no monolithic ‘us’. You mentioned optogenetics, right? I am a working immunologist and infectious disease researcher, but if you start throwing optogenetics-specific jargon at me, I would duck and take cover as the strange incantations fly over my head. The responsibility for clear and precise communication of scientific observations is a universal requirement.
However, the characterization that “Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon” is somewhat unfair. Technical jargon is, more often than not, a useful tool to achieve clarity and precision in the communication of scientific data. The contention that jargon “alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation” is also unfair, in that it casts an image of ‘public’ as a monolithic, uncomprehending blob of “I-don’t-get-it” (Think Neo in The Matrix).
Three things need to happen in this regard:
(a) through science education, there must be an effort to elevate the lay public’s comfort level with jargon – with the understanding that technical terms often offer clarity and precision to a concept.
(b) Scientists must be able to (and they need to taught how to, if necessary) choose their intended audience better. The sole goal needs to be better communication and better understanding. They need to eschew jargon wherever non-technical words may suffice, but must not baulk at using them where the concept demands it.
(c) Whenever jargon is used, scientists must be at pains to explain the concept in lay terms alongwith; this can be facilitated by the provision of resources, such as a glossary, which an interested member of the lay public can use to look up technical terms and their meanings.
The view that “Journalists try to translate our jibberish but then we skewer them for getting it wrong” is not wholly correct, either. The translation of gibberish and getting it right need not be mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of amazing and brilliant science journalists to prove that point. The names (in no particular order) that jump to mind easily are Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn Mackenna, Debbie Blum, and others, not to mention working scientists who have taken up blogging, such as GrrlScientist, Emily Willingham, Athene Donald, PZ Myers, Dean Burnett, and so forth.
What scientists (including me) have had a problem with, from time to time, is lazy and incompetent reporting which grossly misrepresents the outcomes of a study or scientific observations. Once again, clarity and precision are very important. The viewpoints on the intersection of science and journalism differ, though. For example, Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chief Online Editor at Nature, one who has been on both sides of the debate, has very specific ideas about how science journalism should work, and he believes in giving the journalist a lot of leeway. Scientists often have a different POV.
I think, Laura, you have hit the nail right on the head when you wrote:
It is not that scientists necessarily fall back upon jargon for communication, but they seldom have the time – after taking care of their academic obligations (read: ‘mad rush to secure funding’) – to engage in explanatory activities. Incentivizing the outreach, therefore, is a GREAT idea – although it seems to be still at a nascent stage.
Thank you for the very thoughtful reply. You raised a lot of very valid points (some which I agree with, some which I don’t). I’m not going to respond in full here but rather address aspects of your comment in my next blog post.
I look forward to keeping up this conversation with you!
ps great post – http://www.scilogs.com/in_scientio_veritas/jargon-be-gone-leave-sci-comm-alone/