Deconstructing Jargon: Where is the Balance Between Technical and Simple?
As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I distinctly remember the scene that made me sure I’d be hooked to the series: it was when, in the 2012 film Avengers, Loki, the then-villain, opened up a portal over New York City to bring a bunch of evil creatures to destroy Earth. The portal was a pinnacle of science fiction to me, but what made it even more exciting was that the portal was based on real-life theories of interdimensional travel.
If you are an avid film-buff, you might have come across this interdimensional travel theory in other sci-fi franchises as well, sometimes with the movie going all out and having a character fold a piece of paper and poke a hole through it with a pen to show how the dimensions connect. This trope, while being admittedly overused, serves one function well: it explains the complicated and highly technical Einstein–Rosen bridge theory clearly (and mostly accurately) to a non-expert audience.
For most researchers, progress means stepping back to see how their findings fit into the broader narrative of the latest research in their field, and most often, this one step back is enough. However, the space under the lens of a microscope or inside the lab coat pocket is not enough for science; it needs to grow beyond these to touch everyone’s lives. It is in this context that communication of science to a non-expert audience, or science communication, becomes important.
From the lab to the people
Science communication answers your everyday questions and separates facts from misinformation. Be it, politicians who decide the national budget for research and healthcare, heads of corporations looking to develop latest technologies, or just the next person making decisions on diet, vaccination, hygiene, or safety, everyone can benefit from scientific information.
If you are looking to understand the latest discoveries in science, your first source will be scientific journals. However, not everyone can get the information they need from these journals. This is because researchers usually write journal articles using highly formal language, and with a specific target population in mind: other researchers. So, to communicate the science, we need one additional step: taking the complex information from these journal articles and condensing it to a format that suits everyone.
The studies to prove it
The first rule of science communication is that jargon (an informal name for technical words) needs to be minimal in the information conveyed to a non-technical audience. In fact, studies show that once you read jargon words, you don’t just lose interest in the topic, but in science itself.
But then, you can’t just quit using technical terms altogether either.
Where’s the balance then?
The question that pops up here is how much you should condense the information. Heavy terminology may be part of a scientist’s everyday vocabulary, but how many of these words can a random person understand? A non-biologist may be able to get the broader meaning of ‘DNA’, but will he or she understand a term like “polynucleotide chain” (a sub-structure of DNA, for those unaware)? On the other hand, over-simplifying (for example, a vague and non-specific description like “gene molecules”) can make it seem like you are underestimating the reader’s knowledge.
So where do we place the balance between simple and technical?
Let’s answer this question by dissecting an outtake from a recent comprehensive research paper that looks at the structural aspects of the current bane of the world’s existence, the coronavirus.
“COVID-19 is containing single-stranded (positive-sense) RNA associated with a nucleoprotein within a capsid comprised of matrix protein. A typical CoV contains at least six ORFs in its genome.”
The first question to ask: What is wrong here?
Now for someone with academic experience in biology, the above sentence is probably easy to understand. However, a person without technical experience reading this sentence can be thrown off by terms like positive-sense, capsid, matrix, and so on (probably most terms in the text, really).
To convey this information to a person without technical expertise, we need to “translate” this from jargon to a simpler language. For example, something like this:
“The coronavirus comprises of a protein shell containing a complex of proteins. These proteins are bonded to a single strand RNA that contains at least six sections that can directly “code for”, or give the directions for the synthesis of, proteins.”
This sentence is definitely simpler, and easier for someone with high-school level knowledge to understand. We can apply this “translation” formula to every sentence in a journal article and end up with an easy-to-understand article. So, is that all it takes for effective science communication?
The second question: Why is this information important?
Pick any ordinary person out of a crowd right now and ask them what they know about the novel coronavirus. Once they run out of generic information about infections and pandemics, the next thing they will talk about will most likely be about how their life is affected, or maybe how the transmission rates are so mad that they know someone who knows someone who was tested positive.
It’s all well and great to simplify the information, but the average reader is also looking for one other key factor: significance. You can wax lyrical about the intricacies of the protein shell of the coronavirus, but unless it ties in to the general concerns of the public, your article is not likely to be popular or useful to the public. Feel free to talk about the virulence of the virus, but also talk about what it means for people living in densely populated countries and in crowded conditions.
Taking jargon out isn’t the same as “dumbing it down”. Ultimately, your ability to effectively tell your story comes down to 2 things: simplicity and significance. Considering the amount of information that an ordinary person is bombarded with, and the limited attention span they can afford to devote to each new piece, they will be on the lookout for the simplest and most relevant information. Finding the balance on the spectrum between Hollywood blockbuster-level simple or CERN-level technical and weeding out all the formulae and equations that aren’t important for telling the story, is where science communication succeeds.
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