No, Writing Intelligibly Is Not ‘Dumbing It Down’

Photo credit: Photo from www.gotcredit.com, used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo credit: Photo from http://www.gotcredit.com, used under a Creative Commons license.

My list of pet peeves is pretty short. I can’t stand things that are misspelled intentionally (nothing should ever be “kwik” or “lite”). I don’t like rude people. And I can’t stand it when people talk about science communication as “dumbing it down.” Ugh.

People usually use the phrase “dumbing it down” to refer to instances when someone who is writing or talking about science refrains from using jargon, as if the absence of jargon somehow changes the work that’s being discussed. Guess what? It doesn’t.

To be clear, I have nothing against jargon. Jargon is, in fact, enormously useful. It allows people with shared expertise to communicate complex ideas and concepts using specific terms. That’s great. By all means, feel free to include plenty of jargon in your journal articles. But jargon becomes an obstacle when you want to discuss the work with someone who does not share that expertise. And that, very often, is a goal of science communication efforts.

The problem is that someone who studies, say, viral proteins, knows lots of specialized words that have very specific meanings in the world of viral protein research. But geneticists, statisticians, or other researchers with expertise in areas other than viral proteins may not know what those specialized words mean. Or, even worse, they may think they know what those words mean, but the words actually mean something completely different (a reminder that context is important).

This can mean not only a lack of communication, but the possibility of miscommunication.

As a result, I try to avoid jargon when I write about research findings. Or, if I do include some technical terms, I try to define them as clearly as possible.

This is not dumbing it down. I refer to it as using “shared language.”

Geneticists tend to be fairly bright folks. So do computer scientists. Yet many geneticists would likely be flummoxed by some computer science papers, and vice versa. So when geneticists and computer scientists talk to each other, they need to use shared language – at least until they’ve learned enough about each other’s disciplines to master the jargon.

In a world in which interdisciplinary research is increasingly the norm, it makes sense to promote research findings in a way that is accessible to intelligent non-experts outside of a given field. You might even find new collaborators outside of your discipline.

So, please, enough with the “dumbing it down” stuff already. Let’s use shared language to let folks know what’s going on.

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7 thoughts on “No, Writing Intelligibly Is Not ‘Dumbing It Down’

  1. I like your term of “shared language” versus “dumbing it down.” I hate to say I use this term, more in reference to myself, than I’d care to admit. Mostly because I don’t have a scientific professional tongue period, so I’m trying to learn more about it, specifically neuroscience. Since I feel out of the loop, err dumb, reading a lot of the technical/scientific “jargon” – I find when I write my articles I “dumb it down” more for me than for my readers. We can go with “shared language” though, it’s probably a nicer, less self-loathing term than “dumbing it down.” Great article and have a great one Matt! -Iva

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  2. Nice thoughts. I tend to describe blogging about geology for non-geologists (other scientists or non-scientists) as “translating”. It’s a much more polite way of describing the process of communicating in a vocabulary and style that are accessible to a variety of people. “Shared language” is a way I haven’t heard that process described yet – I’ll have to start using that one too!

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  6. Jargon just makes people seem pompous and arrogant, if they want to get their message across they need to stick to (using your term) ‘common language’ we have lots of jargon phrases in my industry but i wouldn’t use them when i’m trying to explain anything.

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