no, no, you should fear jargon

August 14, 2012

power equation

When you’re writing about science, two things tend to happen. One: you’ll attract self-appointed experts in the comments section who’ll tell you that the world will soon know that all modern science is wrong if people only read their brilliant new theories. Two: you’ll have to wade through a lot of jargon from your sources and distill it for readers who might have absolutely no idea what the research you’re covering or trying to review means. But it can be really, really difficult to accurately explain everything involved and more often than not, a lot of writers will just gloss over the terminology and stick to the very basics. And that doesn’t seem to sit well with some science writers, one of whom took to Nature to tell his colleagues not to fear jargon in their articles and encourage them to boldly use it. Unfortunately, his advice fails on two very important levels and if followed, would make for some very dry and difficult to follow articles.

Jargon has its uses. Experts don’t want to spend a few minutes or a few pages to identify every concept they use so they encapsulate it in a specialized term to save time and effort which would be unnecessarily wasted otherwise. However, those who aren’t experts won’t understand the full implications of what’s meant under the jargon, and without a thorough explanation, crucial parts of a story can get lost. By using jargon, you’re in effect propagating misunderstandings between the scientists and the public, or worse, glossing over your own inability to explain what’s going on in a particular experiment or paper. In fact, cranks and frauds often rely on a preponderance of jargon to dazzle their audiences into attentive submission because we all too often equate big words and complicated terminology with expertise.

There’s as good reason why physics legend Richard Feynman once supposedly said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.” The more you have to explain, the deeper you have to go, and the more group you have to cover in your explanations, the more likely you are to find weaknesses in your ideas and raise questions about their validity, and considering that science thrives with criticism, that’s a great thing. None of this means that a popular science article should turn into a textbook on whatever topic is being reviewed of course, otherwise, a report about a new gene sequencing technique would have to cover at least a year of undergraduate biology and stretch for hundreds of pages. But there should be a way to sufficiently explain what gene sequencing is and how it works in practice using everyday terms that would interest enough readers to keep reading, and perhaps a few of them to do their own research and start learning the jargon.

By throwing jargon at your readers you’re losing their attention because they don’t understand what you mean and either lose interest or get frustrated that it took them an hour to figure out that you were using a very technical term for a very specific type of neuron found only in one place of the eye, for example. And of course there’s also quite a bit of potential for abuse should flinging a lot of jargon become commonplace in popular science writing. Authors who need to turn in something by a deadline but unsure of what it is they’re actually trying to report or why it matters can just liberally sprinkle a lot of technobabble onto a page and call it done. Their story is in on time, but the net benefit to the readers is pretty much nil. So perhaps it’s a good idea that science writers try to avoid using a lot of jargon. It keeps everyone a little more honest about what they do and don’t know, and gives readers the opportunity to follow a story without talking over their heads or drowning them in a stream of technobabble.

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  • Professor Layman

    Brevity; Good.

  • Susan Hoover

    I teach high school science (currently general science, biology and geoscience) and I have to work really hard to “boil” down the science. I truly wish Bill Bryson would write a general science high school textbook. OH wait, he did, A Short History of Nearly Everything.

    For high school schools, the HARDEST part of science is the vocabulary. That and the math. OH, don’t forget doing the homework.