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What do you mean by “jargon,” anyway?

November 18, 2010

The anti-whatty with the pico-huh?

It started a year ago with an enthusiastic question from my brother-in-law, “What is this antimatter stuff all about? Is it real? What is it?”

The man who won my sister’s heart is an intelligent, curious man, and he has little advanced scientific education. He is a genius in sales, marketing, and business, not physics.

So today, while I was trawling the Twitter tempest of intriguing information, I came across a story for Discover Magazine’s 80beats blog by Andrew Moseman reporting on a Nature paper about how physicists had managed to trap anti-hydrogen. The story was a a good one, and I wanted to pass it to my brother-in-law, because I thought he would find it interesting, too.

(That’s one of the interesting things about science, really. I’m a science geek, so it’s pretty well all interesting to me. But many people have their “thing”, be it foxes, Pluto, leukemia, or in this case, antimatter.)

So I’ve got Facebook open, and I’m about to post the Discover blog to his wall, when it strikes me… he probably wouldn’t get as much from the article as I did. I’d probably be better off just telling him about it over beers next time I see him. A few months ago, I wrote this:

“Science journalists face a big problem with assumed knowledge. People don’t come from the same background, and they have different grasps of the fundamentals. After years in the field it’s easy to forget where you came from.”

Just with a quick glance, here are some terms which I think we sometimes forget are code for bigger ideas:

Nature, antimatter, Big Bang, annihilate, CERN, antiproton, positron, anti-hydrogen, vacuum, Kelvin, …excite it with laser beams.

This small list of 11 terms is potentially standing in the way of my brother-in-law and him learning about an important advance in a scientific topic that is of interest to him.

So here I propose an experiment to any science journalists, science communicators, or scientists who want to have a go at it. Pick a piece of science news, a story that is crafted specifically for a general audience. Then, go through the story word-by-word, and expand or explain every single idea that you think might be a road block to an interested reader’s understanding. It’s up to you how far down that hole you want to go, but just be honest about whether or not that acronym or quirky name would make any sense if you didn’t have the experience you have.

If you do feel like participating, I’d love it if you could let me know so I can collect all of the links in one place.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 12:20 pm

    That’s a good idea for an experiment (I have no time to participate right now, unfortunately).

    The issue of at what ‘level’, for lack of a better term, to communicate science is an interesting discussion. To me, there is a broad spectrum of assumed knowledge. Most of the stuff I write/blog about assumes quite a bit. I’m well aware of that and that’s what I enjoy doing. Carl Zimmer includes the word ‘processes’ on his list of banned words. Sorry Carl, I’m going to use ‘processes’ because my audience is comfortable with that word. That said, for those that are truly aiming for the broadest audience — people that maybe only read about science a couple times of year — then eliminating the jargon and assuming little knowledge is important. (And those who can pull that off, writers like Carl Zimmer, have my respect because I think that takes some special skill and talent.)

    It depends on a blogger’s goal. My goal isn’t necessarily to reach the broadest audience — it’s to get discussion/interaction going amongst other Earth scientists (and, from time to time, scientists in general). I guess all I’m saying is ‘know your audience’, which is pretty obvious to all the science blogger/writer folks who are reading this.

  2. November 18, 2010 2:48 pm

    You might want to ask your brother-in-law, rather than just guessing. Striking the right level in science writing is an art perfected through iteration, not a law deduced from first principles.

    • November 18, 2010 3:12 pm

      Hi Carl,

      I agree that finding the right level when writing about science for a general audience takes a lot of hard work and practice. I also don’t think that every term needs to be expanded out in every single instance, it can clutter the story and bury the important new bits.

      In this little experiment I was mostly hoping to go over-the-top in reducing a story down to the most basic level possible. By doing this, it would get people to;

      – pause for a moment and assess what they take for granted

      – realise that it is not always an interest barrier that prevents people from engaging with science media, but sometimes an experience barrier, and

      – appreciate the stellar work that skilled science writers produce every day.

      I was going for a dramatic eye-opener for people who want to communicate science, not an indictment of the current system.

  3. November 18, 2010 2:52 pm

    This is one of the things I try to do with my blog. Ed Yong is my current favorite science translator. But, one of the reasons I started blogging (I’m an academic scientist) was to work on my communication skills so that I could more effectively describe science to a wider audience. I am definitely still a work in progress. But, it is work that is worth-while.

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