Saturday, January 1, 2011

Plain Speak

One of the charges made about scientists in their attempts to communicate science is the tendency to use jargon.  Jargon is defined as "vocabulary peculiar to a specific trade, profession, or group".  Jargon is necessary within science to convey information accurately and simultaneously save time in getting our message across.  The problem arises when we try to speak to those outside our profession and who are not familiar with our technical terms.

I've encountered junior scientists who think that the more complicated their terminology, the more knowledgeable they will appear to others.  I had a former post-doc who insisted that writing or speaking about science using concise, simple language was wrong.  Her point was that to uphold the image of the scientist as the expert, one must speak in technical language (the more obtuse, the better).  If others could not follow, too bad. I strongly disagreed with her viewpoint. Even when writing for technical audiences, use of straightforward sentence structures and simple terms where possible is preferable.  The reason is that you must prepare your text or presentation from the viewpoint of the reader (or the audience).  You are familiar with your information, but your audience is not.  It's your responsibility to present that information in a way that is that particular audience.   If you make them work hard to figure out what it is that you are trying to say, you may fail to reach them, or even antagonize your audience.

I could provide a lot of examples, but here is a great essay written by a former director of USGS in 1921.  It is just as relevant today as it was then.

Photo Credit: modified Life magazine photo of a volcanologist speaking to the media.

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