Driving out hard jargon

Science has a jargon problem. But when jargon actually reduces the complexity of scientific language, what's a science writer to do?

The published work of Charles Darwin, one of the most groundbreaking scientists of the 19th century, was written in a style very different to today's jargon-heavy scientific literature. Megan Rosenbloom/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The published work of Charles Darwin, one of the most groundbreaking scientists of the 19th century, was written in a style very different to today's jargon-heavy scientific literature. Megan Rosenbloom/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


This is an editorial for Issue 9 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan. As a proud human person, he frequently uses words to convey ideas, just like he's doing right now.

As the editor of a science communication magazine, it's not a stretch to assume I care about language. Communication is all about language — and while there's certainly a place for non-verbal language when it comes to expressing complex ideas, words still rule the game. Science, as most people will tell you, is full of complex ideas, so words and science go together quite well. Separating them can be done, but it's tough — trust me.

There's a popular misconception about the language of science, though: that, like the ideas in science themselves, it is convoluted and hard to understand. But it's not. Well, it shouldn't be. 

When scientists talk to other scientists about science, accuracy is incredibly important. Because of this, good 'scientific language' is precise in its meaning, and therefore theoretically quite easy to follow — the sentence structure is typically basic and to the point, it isn't overflowing with obtuse metaphors and indecipherable idioms or drenched in layers of subtext. Scientific language is supposed to be exactly what it says on the tin; in fact, it aims to be the tin itself: bare data wrapped in explanations of the contents, and usually a recipe or two. 

So why doesn't everyone think this is the case? Science graduates, myself included, can probably tell you of the first time they attempted to read an article from a scientific journal — how nothing seemed to make sense, how the paragraphs formed near-solid walls of incomprehensibility. For me, it was like trying to read a foreign language in which I wasn't quite fluent; if I slowed my eye to a crawl and repeated each sentence three times, it started to make sense. If scientific language is simple, this sort of stuff shouldn't happening, right?

The issue here is, of course, jargon. Because science relies on accuracy, jargon — highly specialised and semantically precise words — is a must: it stands in for the complex ideas that comprise the bulk of the theories and facts in which science trades. 'Subarachnoid hemorrhage' is more succinct than 'bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain,' and it's more accurate, too; when medical scientists speak to each other, they already know the jargon, so they use it. Jargon words are in-group linguistic shortcuts, and they work fantastically for that purpose.

But here's the problem — if you don't know what a certain piece of jargon means, the surrounding sentence or paragraph goes from short and sweet to near-meaningless in a heartbeat. So the very thing that allows scientific language to be concise neatly isolates it from anyone unfamiliar with most of the concepts in a certain field of science, which tends to be most people. Jargon is a true double-edged sword in this sense: it cuts through waffle, but what is left behind becomes, somewhat paradoxically, unreadable.

The tension between the simple structure of science writing and the dense layers of jargon that cling to its skeleton produces a similar tension within scientists and popular science writers alike. Scientists, typically, don't love to write — but because their careers depend on publishing papers and submitting grant applications for funding, they churn out page after page of utilitarian prose. Jargon wears you down; it's not fun to construct sentences that under no circumstances should be misconstrued.

Science writers and communicators have a different problem: conveying the meaning of jargon without using it. If taken to the extreme — like Randall Munroe's book Thing Explainer, which explains scientific concepts using only the top 1,000 most commonly used words — you sacrifice vital detail and nuance for the broadest possible understandability. But if the problem is ignored, you produce books, essays and documentaries that are little better at getting science concepts across than the academic literature. Like with many things, there's a middle ground, but it's hard to navigate successfully. 

A complicating factor is that what is and isn't considered jargon varies depending on context. As a genetics PhD student, I frequently use terms like 'phenotype,' 'linkage disequilibrium' and 'quantitative real-time PCR' around the office because I know everyone there will understand me, but when I talk to my parents about my work, I dial the jargon back quite a lot. That makes sense. But how can I know what pieces of jargon a certain random person on the street will understand? 'Gene' or 'DNA' might be jargon to one person but not to another; do I have to explain what natural selection and nucleotides are before I talk about my research into gene family evolution? Should science communicators take core ideas like that as a given and build on them? Or do you have to start from the bottom every time? It's hard to know.

This is perhaps why so many science communicators are passionate about improving K-12 science education — if you raise the baseline level of knowledge in the community, it becomes easier to explain more complex ideas without doubling back on yourself. Crucial discussions about gene editing, bioethics, climate change, agriculture, energy generation and Internet technology need to be had in our society at the moment, and necessary jargon prevents a large proportion of the population from joining them. Teaching people what a core subset of this relevant jargon means could go a long way towards opening debates up to everyone.

Of course, jargon isn't just science's problem; law, politics, medicine and philosophy are all guilty of needing linguistic precision at the expense of accessibility. But science alone has had a recent and powerful resurgence as a field that demands popular understanding. Hopefully one day, in the not-too-distant future, much of the jargon science uses won't be jargon, but simply words. 

There's lots more about words in this issue of Lateral — go check it out for yourself! 

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.