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Posts Tagged 'jargon'

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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