In defense of jargon and expertise

Carl Zimmer doesn’t deserve how mean I’m going to be to him, but he was mean to me first, so there. Nyah! [Image by Kathleen Raven; caption by Karen James]

Here’s an explanation of a scientific concept:

Photons are the quanta of the electromagnetic field. In quantum field theory terms, they are U(1) vector gauge bosons, part of the electroweak theory within the Standard Model. Photons are their own antiparticle. In electroweak symmetry breaking, the photon remains massless, while the W and Z bosons gain mass via the Higgs mechanism.

Here’s an explanation of a scientific concept:

Photons are particles of light, which comes down to two basic things: each photon carry a fixed amount of energy determined by its color, and will show up as a dot on a screen. That means photons can’t be divided (no half photons!), but can be counted—important properties for their interaction with matter, such as atoms. The wavelike character of photons is exhibited as well, as when they pass through two openings in a barrier: even though individual photons show up as dots, the pattern of dots is determined by the interference of the waves.

Here’s an explanation of a scientific concept:

Light comes in little balls that can’t be broken into smaller pieces. The color of the ball tells how much it can do, and what other kinds of balls it can talk to. Two balls of light make pictures like waves do.

Of course, these explanations are pretty wildly different, though they more or less are intended to describe the same thing: photons. The middle one is roughly how I would explain things in this blog; the third is “Up Goer Five” language from xkcd, which uses only the thousand (“10 hundred”) most common words in English. (My friend Cedar created a Tumblr, to which you can submit your research in Up Goer Five language.) The first entry is full of jargon: language that conveys a lot of information, but requires a fair amount of background knowledge before it can be understood.

In fact, the three explanations are arranged in order of the amount of information they convey: the first has a lot of information in it, if you know how to read it. I wouldn’t try to explain the deeper concepts in photons to non-specialists in one paragraph, but if I were giving a quick review to my fellow physicists? Maybe I would. The Up Goer Five paragraph is necessarily concise, because there are concepts you simply can’t describe if you can’t introduce at least some technical language. For example: length, distance, and particle aren’t allowed, so it’s impossible to talk about interference (another disallowed word!) of light. Instead of particle, I had to use “ball”, which actually introduces a conceptual error in the name of simplification. Particles are not balls, but try explaining what a particle is in Up Goer Five language, and you’ll end up feeling like your head is stuffed with steel wool. It’s a hard enough concept even with a full vocabulary at your disposal.

I admit: I can simplify my language, and I probably should do better at it. However, some people seem to have the idea that we should eliminate jargon entirely when communicating science to the public. I’m unlikely to devote a piece entirely to explaining photons, but they are an essential concept for modern physics, chemistry, and some aspects of biology. In other words, I need to talk about photons, and I need jargon to do it.

Pitting experts vs. non-experts: an exercise in stupidity

The seeds of this post were planted at ScienceOnline 2013, which I attended last weekend. (Don’t worry, I’ll have a non-critical post about the conference coming soon—I have big things to announce, once I’m allowed to do so.) The session was on explanatory journalism, led by the irrepressible Ed Yong and Geek Manifesto author Mark Henderson. What began as a promising discussion on how to provide good scientific explanations in a format that isn’t particularly conducive to it devolved into a bit of unnecessary tribal warfare, where a small number of science journalists found it fitting to pile onto professional scientists and those with Ph.D. training.

Some of the critiques were valid, at least in limited cases. Carl Zimmer—a writer I greatly respect, even if he does write about parasites, a subject that makes me squirm—began the pile-on by saying that when a Ph.D. scientist wants to explain something, they often start with a question, then drop a textbook on you. (Ironically, Carl is one of the few people I know who actually wrote a textbook.) Some other people evidently took that as permission to speak ill of all professional scientists and experts. One person stated strongly that experts are all bad at science communication, because they use too much jargon.

I’m a Ph.D. physicist. I’m also currently a professional science writer, who occasionally pretends to be a journalist. I went to this session because I need to be better at explanatory journalism. On this blog, I write mostly explanatory pieces, since I can be long-winded and talk about the stuff that interests me the most. However, the stuff I do here doesn’t always translate well into other formats, so I went to the session in hopes of gaining some insight into a craft where I’m not particularly effective. Thus, being told in effect that I’m bad at what I do by the very nature of my background and training was a bit jarring. Such tribal attitudes are not helpful.

I don’t blame Carl (or Ed or Mark) for this, particularly; I hope none of them would say that getting a Ph.D. or being an “expert” or using “jargon” disqualifies one from being an effective science communicator. There’s even some truth to the trope that most professional scientists are poor writers: academia doesn’t encourage clear writing, as a rule. While we read research papers (with their stilted prose and passive voice) in our formative university years, we don’t read the best examples of narrative nonfiction or popular science writing—even when those might help us understand the topics we’re studying formally. And, as the examples I started this post show, too much jargon is a problem…if it isn’t explained.

A far more effective way to discuss the problem would be to recognize that jargon is necessary and useful. If I define what a photon is (briefly!), I can freely use it for the remainder of a piece, and it actually aids with comprehension. Even terms like “vector gauge boson”, which are higher-level concepts, are useful if the context is right (to wit, an explanatory piece on the Standard Model). Yes, background and expertise can sometimes make people forget that not everyone else knows what the expert knows, but sometimes it can also help.

I’d say my reading list is pretty evenly divided between Ph.D. and other professional-level scientists, and those lacking specific scientific training. Their expertise doesn’t correlate with their training, either: I trust Jennifer Ouellette on anything she cares to write about and Brian Switek on paleontology, even though neither of them has a Ph.D. in their subject. I also trust Phil Plait, Emily Willingham, Chad Orzel, Jacquelyn Gill, and many others who do have advanced degrees, while I don’t trust the likes of Dr. Oz or Michio Kaku, whose training should ideally prevent them from spouting the claptrap they do on national TV. (Update: I meant to include this, but Jeanne Garbarino just began a blog network at Rockefeller University specifically so that professional scientists can get better at science communication.)

The real distinction isn’t between using jargon or not, being an expert or not, or having an advanced degree or not. The real distinction is between good writing and bad writing. And yes, I may have just dropped a textbook on you.

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21 Responses to “In defense of jargon and expertise”


  1. 1 Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb) February 6, 2013 at 11:47

    I was at that session too, and I was surprised to find that so many scientists felt attacked or dismissed as communicators. I didn’t feel that way (or maybe I was tweeting when the harshest criticisms were made). I felt like people were saying “here is a way scientists sometimes err when writing explainers.” My takeaway from those comments was to be cautious when using jargon and to really think about whether it is necessary, which is good for me to hear; my impulse can be to include it because it makes writing shorter.
    I assume even those who argued against jargon would agree that it is sometimes useful but would want to err more on the side of too little rather than too much. I feel like painting those people into the corner of “all jargon bad” is kind of setting up a straw man. But that’s just how I feel, and it’s very possible I was just hearing what I wanted to hear or a projection of my own voice. :)

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis February 6, 2013 at 13:36

      I thought hard about this post for that reason: there seemed to be very distinct reactions completely at odds with each other from the listeners in the room. I admit to being particularly sensitive to this sort of thing, since I have been dismissed previously by both academics and journalists for being neither.

      • 3 Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb) February 6, 2013 at 14:36

        Rereading my comment, I can see how it might be interpreted as “you shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t,” and that’s certainly not what I intended. I just think it’s interesting that there were such different reactions to that session. And I totally get feeling dismissed both communities! I feel that way too a lot. I was in a room once where a journalist said spitefully, “this looks like it was written by a scientist.” It wasn’t about my work specifically, but that comment really hit me in the gut.

      • 4 Matthew R. Francis February 6, 2013 at 15:04

        Evelyn, I wasn’t referring to your comment in my statement on Twitter. (It was a parallel conversation in which several people were expressing very hurt feelings.) But thank you for your response – I appreciate it.

  2. 5 Jacquelyn Gill February 6, 2013 at 12:16

    Thanks for this post, Matthew. I am definitely in favor of anything that moves us more towards effective frameworks for improving communication, and I don’t think jargon is a productive framework. I have seen some articles written by journalists that are as incomprehensible as a bad UpGoerFive piece, simply because the journalist wanted to avoid using jargon at all costs. The results can be disastrous, and make science even less accessible.

    As a side note: I started off as a humanities major, and my love of words is one of the things that got me jazzed about science. “Scenopoetic” is an awesome word. So are “artiodactyl,” “quark,” and “ventifact.”

  3. 6 ben tippett February 6, 2013 at 12:52

    May I posit that the problem might not be the people, but rather the medium? Books, TV shows, Radio and newspapers are all passive media. the audience member will either understand the written sentence, or they won’t. If they don’t, perhaps it is because the science is too jargon-y. If they do, perhaps it’s because all of the interesting material has been stripped out of the story. There are many ways to fail at communicating science, and because there is (traditionally) only one audience, there will always be some subset of the audience who will be failed.

    One of the wonderful things about the internet is that It isn’t passive. The audience of a blog, or a podcast, or a youtube channel can ask questions. They can ask for clarification! messages can be fine-tuned, to help the audience understand.

    Also, traditional media is expensive. But internet media is cheap to make and distribute.

    So instead of aiming our explanations at one big audience, you can tune your explanations to one specific subset of the population (say, highschool graduates), and let your audience find you!

    On my show, the titanium physicists podcast, we have an experimental format. Three physicists try to explain a complicated (but sexy) advanced physics concept to a member of the general public. Our guest non-expert is free to interrupt us, ask questions, and ask for clarification. Thus, our explanations come out through conversation, rather than a lecture.

    Thus, We are naturally limited in the amount of jargon we can use. On the other hand, teaching people science vocabulary is part of the fun, and everyone likes learning one or two new words per show.

    I’d like to see more scientists experimenting with new formats and new media when they attempt outreach. Why aim for one-size-fits all explanations, or settle for lecture style presentations when we have the whole internet at our fingertips?

  4. 7 Megh February 6, 2013 at 13:59

    I’m an immunologist, which is a disciplin so heavily draped in jargon that as soon as you admit what you study other biomed scientists start looking for an easy escape route from the conversation. In my university, and many others, the immuno department basically ends up as an island of people yammering at each other in their own language, while everyone else tries to tune out the noise.

    Which, you know, SUCKS. Cos we all do really cool things, but even the representation of immunobiology in science writing isn’t extensive, probably because of issues like this. But, strip the jargon away from the immunologist and they’re probably not going to be able say their name, let alone what they study. So, yeah, I definitely think that covering science, especially those areas that are so heavily ensconced in their own language, requires a lot of finness on the part of the author. It’s also important to know what jargon makes the cut as being helpful to the reader and what is just going to trip them up.

    So, yes, awesome post. Jargon is not going to rape our horses and ride off on our women – it just needs a gentle touch.

    • 8 Mark Wanner February 6, 2013 at 14:55

      This may be the best description of immuno jargon and its consequences I’ve seen. I’m not an immunologist, but in trying to write about it, I too have felt that left jargon-less, I’m left wordless. So it becomes my goal to deploy a few pithy immuno words with “a gentle touch” to hopefully enhance, rather than block, understanding.

      So, to address the larger issue of this post, I may not succeed in gracefully and effectively using carefully chosen jargon, but it often seems worth the attempt.

    • 9 Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) February 6, 2013 at 14:58

      “Jargon is not going to rape our horses and ride off on our women – it just needs a gentle touch.”

      You just made me shoot coffee out of my nose. Best. Sentence. Ever.

      This issue of when and how to use jargon is the exact focus of a topic that Stephen Granade and I proposed for Science Online 2014. We hope to really talk about the culture of anti-jargon that seems to have arisen, and how not all jargon is evil.

      • 10 Megh February 6, 2013 at 15:02

        I saw some bits about this on twitter! Yes, I’d totally go to that session. I think another important thing when discussing jargon is something else that came up at scio13, which is trusting your reader (I think that was in one of the genre sessions). It’s hard to nail down the perfect tone to talk to your audience, but trusting them to stick with you can be an important tool.

      • 11 Matthew R. Francis February 6, 2013 at 15:07

        Ah yes, tone. That’s another issue entirely, which goes beyond jargon. However, trusting your readers is essential. They’re smart people; they’ll get it, if you help them.

  5. 12 Justin Starr (@UrbanAstroNYC) February 6, 2013 at 18:38

    Matt, I enjoyed your piece. That’s not to say I entirely agree/disagree with it, but after reading this and searching what many others have to say about the use of scientific jargon in science communication, I am left with so many questions and thoughts that I do not feel are being adequately addressed in any of the places of I have looked. I should point out that I was not at scio13, so if this was discussed their, I apologize ahead of time.

    One of the most central questions is for whom are we writing? I’m seeing ideas such as “we need to improve our communication skills,” “trust your reader,” etc. But to whom our you (that’s the collective “you”) communicating? Who is this reader that is to be trusted?

    These questions should be considered before a writer sets out to write anything – science, music, hockey, whatever. And yet what I feel I’m seeing from all the different sources I have been reading is the notion that the audience is a singular entity that communicators are trying to tap into. In reality, the audience can and will vary depending on for what magazine/blog you are writing, where you are guest-lecturing, what class you’re teaching, etc. You have to know who your audience is before you can even consider what they may or may not know. The way one writes for HuffPo may be different than how one writes for, say, Cosmoquest (congrats again), which will definitely be different than how one writes for a peer-reviewed journal. Your audience would be different in each of these scenarios (although there may be some overlap as well).

    When I was in graduate school for becoming a teacher, I took a course called Literacy Across the Curriculum. We often focus on people being literate in the sense of whether they can read or write, but this course focused on the notion of multiple literacies and how we can perhaps tap into those other literacies to help make a (in my case) child more literate in the broader sense. What qualifies a term/phrase as jargon is a function of how literate the reader is in a given content area. I am literate in 80’s heavy metal culture, for instance – bands, clothing, popular venues, concert etiquette, etc. The way I would write an article about this subject for Metal Edge magazine would be quite different than for the New Yorker because in each case I would have different expectations of my reader.

    Also, surely there must be more creative ways to access the broader public than purely eliminating jargon, especially if we are not limiting ourselves to print. Ben Tippett gave a creative example using podcasting. However, if we wish to stay in the realm of writing, hyperlinks can be utilized. Perhaps at the beginning of a piece there could be a disclaimer such as, “What you are about to read will require a basic understanding of a particle’s ‘spin.’ If you are not familiar with this concept, I encourage you to read X.” Or perhaps just having a roll-over text the first time a word/phrase appears. Or something that expands below/to the side. When I read the book by Prof. Brian Cox’s Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care), he would periodically get into the math of something he was talking about, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary to understand the math. Therefore, he would literally write to skip the next section if it doesn’t interest you and you can still appreciate what we’re talking about.

    On a loosely related note (inspired by Megh’s comment), I leave this gem from the Simpsons demonstrating how one word can describe what would otherwise require so many. This occurred when comparing McDonald’s to Krusty Burger (an homage to a scene from Pulp Fiction):
    Chief Wiggum: [D]o they have Krusty Partially Gelatinated Nondairy Gum-based Beverages?”

    Officer Lou: “Mmm-hmm. They call ‘em ‘shakes’.”

    Officer Eddie: “Huh, shakes? You don’t know what you’re gettin’.

    ———————————–
    (I apologize for how long this turned out to be. I originally intended on writing my own blog response [and I still might], but first wanted to put some thoughts directly to you. Good day, sir!)

    • 13 Sonia Furtado Neves (@Aur_ora) February 7, 2013 at 13:06

      I agree with your points on “the public”, and that definitely plays into what ‘counts’ as jargon in a given piece. But once you’ve established (to the best of your knowledge) that a word is likely to be jargon for your audience, deciding whether (and how) to include it matters.

      And while the jargon issue is often brought up, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone claim that eliminating jargon is the golden bullet that will solve all science communication’s woes and make all communication effective… just that it’s an important point.

      Finally, hyperlinks are great, but they assume that people will click on them, read them, and come back to finish reading your piece. There are several mine-fields in there… Roll-overs might work better, I guess, but they a) require more technical tinkering and b) will quickly get annoying if you have too many – which brings me back to my main point (see comment below) about selecting your jargon.

  6. 14 Sonia Furtado Neves (@Aur_ora) February 7, 2013 at 12:54

    I wasn’t at the session, but what I try to do is to make the use of each particular bit of jargon a conscious decision. I.e., think carefully over which jargon words you really need to use, and why, instead of just letting them slip in. And when making those decisions, I also consider something which I haven’t seen mentioned in this discussion yet (apologies if it was and I just missed it): the size of the piece, and where/how often the jargon word will be used. If a concept is defined in the first paragraph and the word only comes up again 3 pages later, as a reader unfamiliar with the word, I’ll have to go back and look it up again (or gloss over it, or – heaven forbid – stop reading). So when writing, I try to bring back a hint of the analogy or explanation I’ve used when I mention the same concept further along in a piece – to kind of nudge the reader’s memory. And I guess all this is even more important for audio or video, where people are much less likely to rewind back to the explanation/definition.

    Also, Ben Tippet: I love the idea of a show based on the premise of scientists talking to a non-specialist – will have to go look up your podcast now…

  7. 15 Ruth Seeley February 7, 2013 at 21:08

    I once saw a presentation done by an engineer in a community that had been the site of the largest zinc and copper mine in the British Empire. The town had been disenfranchised, two sets of mine owners had gone bankrupt, and the province was left with the remediation bill (government’s always the fall back when entrepreneurs fail). The pollution from runoff was so bad nothing could live in the sound into which the town’s creeks drained.

    Initially I was appalled by the presentation. I thought it was far too detailed, far too technical, and far too equation-oriented. But as I sat and listened to the questions that ensued, I realized the engineer knew what he was doing. The people of that community were up to speed on what needed to be done to make their town viable again, and knew that the environmental remediation was the first step. They’d been following the issue closely for years and had done a lot of their own research. Had the presentation been less detailed, it would have failed. So it’s very much about knowing your audience and anticipating, then meeting, their needs.

    Having said that, does anyone else find that it’s really difficult to read a piece of legislation because the first few pages are always definitions of terms? Perhaps I’m just too far over on the creative/expressive quadrant, but much as I understand the need to define a term at the outset, pages full of definition are far less exciting than reading the dictionary.

  8. 16 Bryan Sanctuary February 10, 2013 at 09:21

    We are talking about communication. The way we communicate depends upon how well the common language between communicators is known and what words mutually mean. That is why discussions are important because we sort things out. I am not enthusiastic about the up goer five approach because of the restrictions placed on expression. With respect to science, the language is always mathematical equations. Since many have not had that training, we, as scientists, must explain equations in an understandable way. That is the great challenge in teaching and writing.

    You cannot argue with logic, but you can with its subjective interpretation. A good deal of a scientist time is spent explaining the interpretation of his/her data or equations.


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