Thanks to Jeanne Garbarino, Director of Science Outreach at the Rockefeller University, I have now added to my reading list a new blogsite: The Incubator, hosted by the Rockefeller. It is going to be a home to graduate student and postdoc blogging, and I am looking forward to reading interesting posts in there.

I started off with an essay by Laura Seeholzer on a favorite topic of mine, science communication (a field in which I’d love to work more actively some day…). It begins with a hilarious story about miscommunication because of homophonic terms with vastly different meanings. I don’t want to spoil the surprise; go read the original post. I laughed out loud, causing some consternation in my lab!

I would like to commend Laura for this overall enjoyable and thought-provoking post. The particular problem of science communication that she has highlighted is an important problem which needs a solution post-haste: the problem of jargon in scientific communication, which potentially makes science in general incomprehensible to the lay public, leading to dismal state of affairs in the public understanding of scientific facts.

[I left a comment after Laura’s post, and it is in moderation currently. But since the issue is very interesting to me, I decided to write it down in a blog post of my own, too.]

Let me start by quoting a part of Laura’s post.

Until recently I firmly believed that this problem lay with the public and could be fixed by changing our education system. They lacked “scientific literacy.”

My feelings were supported by a Pew research survey of American adults:

  • 46% thought antibiotics kill viruses (They only kill bacteria)
  • 54% did not know electrons were smaller than atoms (2,000-450,000 times smaller)
  • 48% did not know how stem cells differed from normal cells (stem cells can develop into many types of cell)

However, better education doesn’t fully address the problem: even if we perfectly teach all of modern science in high school, in 20 years, a students’ knowledge becomes outdated. Once this occurs, it becomes difficult to understand cutting-edge research. If you do not understand it, you probably will not find it interesting. The information then floats away and the cycle repeats.

I agree with the general thesis, although she seems not to consider the idea that science education need not stop at school, or need not be compartmentalized in any way at all. It can exist in a continuum. In any case, then she writes: I am now convinced scientists are causing the gap by the way we communicate.

This is where I’d beg to differ with Laura. In this, she seems to have imbibed a great deal of inspiration from a statement of Alan Alda that she has quoted, and I find that statement problematic. Let me explain.

As Alda described, “scientists suffer from the curse of knowledge: we assume ‘the public’ knows more than they do so we communicate in our own language, not theirs.” Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon, which alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation. Journalists try to translate our jibberish (sic) but then we skewer them for “getting it wrong.”

For what it’s worth, in my opinion this is a rather uncharitable and, to some extent, incorrect representation of science communication. First, this dichotomy that he creates, between ‘us’ and the ‘public’, is false – because there is no monolithic ‘us’. Laura mentioned optogenetics as an example in her post. I am a working immunologist and infectious disease researcher, but if one starts throwing optogenetics-specific jargon at me, I would duck and take cover as the strange incantations fly over my head. The responsibility for clear and precise communication of scientific observations is a universal requirement.

However, the characterization that “Scientists have a tendency to fall back on jargon” is somewhat unfair. Technical jargon is, more often than not, a useful tool to achieve clarity and precision in the communication of scientific data. The contention that jargon “alienates the public and excludes them from the conversation” is rather unidimensional and unfair, too, in that it casts an image of ‘public’ as a monolithic, uncomprehending blob of “I-don’t-get-it” (Think Neo in The Matrix). There is a great need for nuanced understanding in this area.

Three things need to happen in this regard:

  1. Through science education (at school and continuing), there must be an effort to elevate the lay public’s comfort level with jargon – with the understanding that technical terms often offer clarity and precision to a concept.
  2. Scientists must be able to (and they need to taught how to, if necessary) choose their intended audience better. The sole goal needs to be better communication and better understanding. They need to eschew jargon wherever non-technical words may suffice, but must not baulk at using them where the concept demands it.
  3. Whenever jargon is used, scientists must be at pains to explain the concept in lay terms alongwith; this can be facilitated by the provision of resources, such as a glossary, which an interested member of the lay public can use to look up technical terms and their meanings.

The view that “Journalists try to translate our jibberish but then we skewer them for getting it wrong” is not wholly correct, either. The translation of gibberish and getting it right need not be mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of amazing, brilliant and fascinating science journalists to prove that point. The names (in no particular order) that jump to mind easily are Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn Mackenna, Debbie Blum, and others, not to mention working scientists who have taken up blogging, such as GrrlScientist, Emily Willingham, Athene Donald, PZ Myers, Dean Burnett, and so forth.

What scientists (including me) have had a problem with, from time to time, is lazy and incompetent reporting which grossly misrepresents the outcomes of a study or scientific observations. Once again, clarity and precision are very important. The viewpoints on the intersection of science and journalism differ, though. For example, Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chief Online Editor at Nature, one who has been on both sides of the debate, has very specific ideas about how science journalism should work, and he believes in giving the journalist a lot of leeway. Scientists often have a different point of view.

However, I do think that Laura has hit the nail right on the head when she writes:

But we are all busy people, and it makes sense why so few people do this- promotions and interviews depend on how well you communicate your research to your peers, not the public. While funding agencies are starting to incentivize outreach, it is a personal passion to accelerate this movement.

It is not that scientists necessarily fall back upon jargon for communication, but they seldom have the time – after taking care of their academic obligations (read: ‘mad rush to secure funding’) – to engage in explanatory activities for the benefit of the lay public. Incentivizing the outreach, therefore, is a GREAT idea – although it seems to be still at a nascent stage, and must be encouraged.