Dumb it down? Don’t be daft!

Science communication does not need to be simplistic if it can guide audiences through complex concepts in small, manageable steps. It is not just about dropping the jargon…

Rowlandson_-_Chemical_LecturesMy interviewee reclines in his office chair, his bushy, caterpillar like eyebrows furrowed in thought. Absent mindedly, his foot jiggles a beat that is underscored by the constant hum of computer fans. He ponders: how to explain quantum computing?


Leaning forwards and resting his chin on his fingertips, he tells

a tale of binary coding, his quest for a new language, and the search for an algorithm that harbors the potential to revolutionize computing. His story is fast paced and I regularly interject, seeking clarification of new concepts.

It takes an hour of discussion before I grasp the significance of his research; an hour, and a lifetime’s interest in science. Now, armed with only a few hundred words, I must convince readers to pursue this daunting topic that has little relevance to their daily lives.

Drop the jargon?

Many writers would now drop the jargon, simplify the story, and produce a readable, easy going article; in their attempt to make their work accessible they would inadvertently ‘dumb down’ the science.

Professor Jardine, president of the British Science Association, certainly thinks so. According an article in the Daily Mail, in her address to the British Science Festival in Newcastle tomorrow, she will argue that the BBC underestimates how much its viewers and listeners understand. She thinks that programme-makers steeped in the humanities assume that members of the public are as ignorant about science as they are.

It is easy for a science writer to lack trust in the readers’ ability to understand complexities beyond the obvious. However, the readers’ ability to comprehend surely mirrors the authors’ ability to write. I say the responsibility lies firmly with me, the writer: I must make my passage comprehensible but not facile.

Write right

A good writer will not ‘dumb down’ a difficult concept, but will break it into individual details, order these details logically, and then link them together fluidly, to produce a clear explanation of the difficult topic. Some research shows that sentence structure is more important than the elimination of jargon for clear science communication.

By drawing the reader in, one baby step at a time, the overall article will allow readers to take quantum leaps (in the true sense of the term) in understanding. As a famous physicist once said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler!”

If there were an algorithm for the communication of difficult science, it would assume the ability of audiences to understand in depth topics when explained eloquently. The basis of such an algorithm may be as simple as: one detail per sentence, and one overall idea per paragraph. Or, as Melissa Marshall aptly phrased it in her recent TedTalk: science, minus the jargon, then divided by relevance, and multiplied by passion, equals understanding.

I’d like to add to that neat equation an extra term related to the construction of sentences and paragraphs, but I reckon I’ll need help from my quantum physicist for help with the maths!

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Filed under: Tips | By Edwin on September 11, 2013 at 4:28 am

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