Watch Out or Someone Will Drop a Textbook on Your Sister

I wasn’t at the Science Online session that, in the Nth retelling, sounded like it might have turned into “the Sharks vs the Jets at the dance” square-off. But Matthew Francis was, and gives his perspective: In defense of jargon and expertise

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 do have some strong opinions on this. I’ve posted on this before and I think there’s a danger in asserting some of the extreme positions on the topic. There’s also the problem of properly defining the problem so that the scientists and journalists don’t just talk past each other. Plus the issue of the job of scientists as compared to the job of journalists.

What constitutes jargon? Some is obvious — when acronyms and abbreviations appear, you might just be a redneck using jargon. In my field of atomic physics I will throw around terms like MOT and AOM, or occasionally speak of a BEC. That’s the terminology of the job, and I don’t expect people outside my field to necessarily know what I mean. (in case you are curious, MOT = magneto-optical trap, AOM = Acousto-Optical Modulator and BEC = Bose-Einstein Condensate). I think it’s pretty obvious that not explaining what these terms mean is a barrier to be avoided. I don’t think that’s the problem. If you’re throwing those terms around while attempting to communicate with a lay audience, you’re not winning.

I believe the issue is at a lower level. I think there’s an element of “I know it when I see it” to other terminology, but where to draw the line is a grey area. To use some examples from physics, are momentum or energy jargon? If I speak of the conservation of either, is there a barrier to understanding which is the terminology, or is it a lack of scientific literacy? This is an ongoing debate and I think that the testy exchanges between scientists and journalists will continue of we don’t resolve what we mean. When do basic concepts and their names or descriptions become jargon?

There is also the issue, as I mentioned, of defining what the job is, and I come at this from the perspective of being a scientist. Most scientists are not hired to communicate their work to the public. That’s an acquired skill. If you want to speak to a scientist, you need to learn the language, just as if you want to go to an area that doesn’t communicate in your language, it behooves you to learn that language. That is would be a good idea to train scientists to do a better job of communicating to the public (and I think it is) is a separate issue. But I suspect most scientists would think it a waste of time: We have a Public Information/Affairs Officer for that! coupled with I want to do research. There has to be a general feeling that such effort has value. Scientists have to prioritize their time, so if this is a desired goal, make sure that such communication is valued by the institutions where the scientists work.

If this communication is in the form of a discussion, we get back to the issue of meeting the scientists halfway. When someone with little to no background in a certain subject wants to pop in and be a part of the conversation, it’s a huge waste of time to expect a scientist to fill all of that background in — imagine someone chiming in on a discussion of an atomic physics experiment but has no idea what conservation of angular momentum is, or someone claiming that evolution is wrong because humans don’t have wings. Or this. In situations like that, I feel no hesitation to “drop a textbook” on someone.

To be fair, I don’t know exactly what Carl meant by the phrase, but I also haven’t seen anything that clarifies the issue on his blog. I would love there to be a reasoned discussion on the subject rather than having people reach for their blamethrowers every time this comes up.

One thought on “Watch Out or Someone Will Drop a Textbook on Your Sister

  1. I know at times I must embrace my blonde on some of your offerings, understand what I can, and be thrilled SOMEONE understands and clearly others follow. You are. so I don’t have to be. Emergency physics and quantum mechanics, I can direct the ambulance and take care of parking, whilst you deal with it. I am the placid duck to your frantic paddling duck legs, you are steering me and my kind away from the rapids, whilst we notice flowers on the bank and get sidetracked.

    I have to autocorrect as I read… MOT not the something to do with car rego inspections – equally vague, in truth, AOM something to do with getting an Order of Australia and BEC. Someone who is not responding to Bec…

    I know of Bose, I know of Einstein, and I think I had that condensate in the bottom of my fridge, when a couple of unspeakable things leaked, past their use by date, from a sweaty plastic bag…

    I like that you and yours exist, I can pop in and understand, every so often, even laugh at a science joke and sometimes read and think, “There are people here, reading this and preparing to quibble. Some even thinking, well that’s bleeding obvious!” and that makes me happy. 🙂

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