Jargon

Andy Fire visited Vanderbilt yesterday and spoke as part of the Discovery Lecture series. The grad students in our lab got to meet with him and take him through a data blitz, and then we heard his lecture. During the group meeting, I was struck by how quickly he followed our research and had ready, relevant questions. His sharpness was also obvious during his lecture, and when processing it afterwards with my labmates, the consensus was that the lecture was among the best we have heard.

Part of what made the talk great was Dr. Fire’s quiet passion for his science, present as an undertone throughout. The other part is that his presentation of the material was undeniably clear. He has mastered the delicate middle ground between overloading the listener with and not using enough jargon. Jargon can be dangerous for scientists and scientific communicators alike. Too much jargon and you quickly lose your audience, not enough and they may be insulted. How do we, as scientists and communicators, reach the perfect balance?

In this Nature column, Trevor Quirk urges science writers not to shy away from jargon, suggesting that important shades of meaning are lost when we do. Quirk underlines his belief in the importance of jargon thus:

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.

In contrast to the more absolute statements from Quirk’s piece, two amazing science writers, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, make great points about the need for balance when using jargon here and here. Says Yong,

Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

So as I continue to teeter between the assumption that my audience can understand the language I use and pedantically explaining the heck out of the science, I will also continue to be thankful for hearing great examples of science communication like Dr. Fire’s Discovery Lecture.

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