Do We Dumb Our Audience When We Dumb it Down?

Over on Nature Trevor Quirk explores mainstream aversion to science jargon:

I find it troubling that the same antipathy that some writers express towards jargon has taken root in the public’s general attitude towards erudite language. I submit that this is no coincidence. People seem to resent not just specialized language, but any language that requires a large degree of labour to understand, appreciate and use. When hearing someone complaining of having to consult a dictionary — especially when that consultation does not even involve moving from the computer in front of them — I am overcome with the desire to grab that person’s lapels and shake them until their teeth rattle. Why are people so unwilling to work for the pleasures and insights that language harbours? When writers avoid jargon unquestioningly, readers start to think that it serves no purpose. The world increases in complexity every day, and we should not let shrink our capacity to describe it.

This last bit is important. Think of the major issues in national and global economics, technology and science. Each field comes replete with specialized language that the non-experts among us find difficult to parse and understand.

Try to explain difficult concepts in “regular” language and you can hear experts in these fields gnashing their teeth about how we’re missing the nuance and getting things wrong. Keep the specialized language and your audience falls to sleep. It’s such a difficult nut to crack that there are conferences about such things.

It’s also why we thank great journalists who can parse their way through these two poles. The best, I think, are those that both respect — and demand — audience intelligence while still taking the time to explain difficult concepts.

Speaking of which, and in a random aside, Kavli Science Journalism Award submissions are due in a few days.

Video: The winning submission in the Center for Communicating Science’s Flame Challenge by Ben Ames, a PhD working in quantum optics. The contest was to explain the concept of fire so that an 11-year-old could understand it.

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