On jargon, and why it matters in science writing

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Whenever I compile my list of weekly links, I usually end up with more articles from mainstream news sources than I do from science blogs. When I do link to blogs, I tend to go with those written by professional journalists and science writers than those written by scientists. That’s not a reflection on the quality of their writing. I do it simply because I write this blog for a general audience and I want to direct them to material of a similar type. And a lot of science blogs can be far too opaque for the average reader.

There is much talk of blogs being part of a golden age of science writing, where learned people can talk directly to large audiences. I certainly believe this, but I see jargon as one of the biggest barriers in the way. Many blogs fall into the trappings of scientific writing: passive voice, laboured constructions, and roundabout sentences (see this wonderful list for translations of the most common offenders).

And then, there are the words themselves. Some are technical, others are simple words clothed in extra syllables (“armamentarium” anyone?) Every field has its own list; they can be so familiar that it beggars belief that people could not understand them. Skeptical bloggers throw about terms like RCT and placebo, and catchphrases like “correlation is not causality”, as if everyone knows what they mean. Technological writers casually speak of visualisations, infographics and crowdsourcing. Have a look at Carl Zimmer’s famous list of “banned words” for more examples.

Of course, none of this is a problem if people aren’t trying to reach a broad audience. Many science bloggers aim at other scientists within their field and, in turn, this post isn’t aimed at them. But for those who hope to reach a wider audience, jargon erects a mighty barrier.

I know this from first-hand experience. In the cancer charity I work for, we test a lot of our leaflets and other resources with people from poorer backgrounds, watching them as they read and respond to our text. They’re familiar with the concepts of genes, DNA and cells but little beyond that. We talk of things that cause cancer rather than carcinogens, and changes to DNA rather than mutations. Other science writers like Colin Schultz, Lucas Brouwers and Vivienne Raper have started their own experiments along these lines, running their own ‘focus groups’ with friends and family members.

If all of this seems unnecessarily simple, remember that the average reading age of even in a developed country like the UK is around the level of a schoolchild. Go beyond that, and you risk perpetuating an online inequality where only the most educated people can understand the majority of what’s being said. 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. I write about the shapes of living things but not the morphology of organisms. I don’t delineate my cognitive processes for maximal accessibility, but I try to speak my thoughts as clearly as possible. I rarely elucidate, often explain.

I’m not saying that complex words should never be used for a general audience. The opposite mistake to using wanton jargon is treating complicated terms like linguistic lepers, and introducing them nervously. You can see this in some writing. Words like “basically” or “effectively” can often mean “Here comes the difficult bit; stand back, I might crack out a metaphor.”

General readers are more than capable of understanding complex concepts, if you explain them. Explain a word once and you can often get away with using it again (although it’s still worth questioning whether you need to). If I’m writing a story about the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, I trust that my readers will cope admirably with these unfamiliar terms if I explain them clearly from the start. If the difference isn’t core to the story, then the words aren’t important, and I leave them out.

As Carl has had to repeatedly say, this is not about banning words from the English language, but about replacing them with simpler alternatives. At its heart, this issue is about thinking about your audience. The biggest mistakes with jargon are using it without realising that not everyone will understand, not caring whether they will, or even expecting them to work hard at understanding youeven expecting them to work hard at understanding youeven expecting them to work hard at understanding you. As legendary science writer Tim Radford once said: “Don’t overestimate your reader’s knowledge and don’t underestimate their intelligence.”

Now, every time I start this discussion, people always raise two objections: scientific language is precise; and we should try to educate our readers.

It’s certainly true that technical terms carry precise unambiguous meanings (although this doesn’t excuse horrors like ‘facilitate’ or ‘utilise’). Science writers have the tough job of making things simple without compromising too much on accuracy. (Don’t get me started on “dumbing down”, an awful phrase born of arrogance and snobbery, and always calibrated using one’s own knowledge as the baseline.)

But compromise is sometimes inevitable, and it isn’t always a bad thing. Mathematicians will round numbers to various decimal places, treating 2.343839 as 2.3 for the sake of simplicity. Accuracy is lost, but acceptably so. In a similar way, good science writing rounds technical concepts to their nearest understandable form. Evolutionary trees (yes, or phylogenies, if you prefer) will leave out species and entire groups to focus on the ones of interest – science writers do the same with their descriptions, focusing on details that matter and pruning away those that will confuse their readers.

The other complaint is trickier: surely if people don’t know enough to understand these terms, part of our job should be educating them? It’s a worthy ambition, but the critical problem with trying to educate your reader is that they may not share the same goal. They aren’t in a classroom. Attendance isn’t compulsory. Fill your prose with difficult or unnecessary words and they can switch off at a minute’s notice. Your lofty goal of stretching their minds disappears in a puff of indifference. As a writer, you accomplish nothing if people stop reading, and if that happens, the failure belongs to you not your reader. As Tim Radford (him again) says, “No one will ever complain that you’ve made something too easy to understand.”

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 (or, for that matter, elucidating elementary conceptions in an abstruse fashion). It comes down to thinking about your audience, rather than about yourself. Radford again, the fount of all wisdom he:

“Here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says, ‘Nobody has to read this crap’. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, nor the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the Tube [London’s subway system – Ed] between Parson’s Green and Putney, who, given a chance, will stop reading in a fifth of a second. So the first sentence you write will be the most importance sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you may feel compelled to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.”

This is all true. Writing is a constant battle for attention. Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

PS – Of course, I recognise that in writing this piece, I’m opening myself up for criticism on my own writing style. That’s fine – feedback is good. Lucas Brouwers, a fantastic blogger who you should be reading, drafted in his parents to look at one of my own postsa tricky piece on jumping genes that took me ages to write. The verdict: “Both my parents indicated that the post contained no words that made reading too difficult. None at all!” Lucas’s dad also wrote a summary of the post that pretty much contained all the key points from it.

I’m thrilled, obviously, especially because stories like these are particularly difficult to get across. There’s a myriad of terms to explain and it takes more effort to turn molecules into engaging characters within a story than it does with animals or humans.

The story wasn’t perfect though – they never are. One of the paragraphs went over their heads and contained too much detail. If they hadn’t been strongarmed into reading the post by their son, they might have switched off at this point. That’s invaluable to know, and I would encourage readers to provide similar feedback to the bloggers they read – which elements of a post work, which are off-putting, which make complex ideas easy and which make them impenetrable? Let us know. We want to be better.

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