I love Jargon: my three biggest peeves about how we think about science communication. #SciComm

I have a fundamentally tactical approach to science communication, which occasionally puts me at odds with more conventional practices. Some of the most common pieces of advice in scicomm tend to be the least effective for accurately and precisely communicating your message to a target audience.

Release the Kraken.

1. The J-Word.

Jargon. Jargon. Jargon. We’re all supposed to eradicate jargon from our outreach. Jargon should be avoided. We need to rehab our use of jargon. Hone your science writing by only using the ten hundred most common words (because ‘thousand’ isn’t among the top 1000 word). Sure, these are good exercises for thinking about how you communicate science, but as actual communication advice, it’s big animal that makes white drink back end drop.

Jargon is beautiful. Jargon is powerful. Not only are jargon words often more precise than their generic equivalent, but jargon acts as a form of shorthand. It tells your intended audience “hey, friend, this article/film/tweet/podcast is for you”. Outreach in all forms is always targeted towards a specific audience. Using jargon well helps define that audience and helps that audience connect to your piece. Smart use of jargon can make a good piece of outreach into a tactical piece of outreach.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t think about jargon use at all. Understanding how different words are used in different contexts and how technical language can alienate non-specialist audiences is essential to producing high-quality outreach. But the general advice that we should all just avoid jargon the least effective approach possible.

2. The endless debates about who should and should not “do” scicomm. 

Scientists must do outreach! Hire professionals to do scicomm! Only PhDs should do science outreach! And on and on and on (I’m intentionally not linking to anyone, but you have google if you really want to find the longest long-call in scicomm).

If you want to talk about science and you care about getting things right, you’re fine by me. SciComm isn’t a union. You don’t owe anyone any dues. We all started somewhere.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t devalue the work of scicomm professionals. It’s a skill that take a tremendous amount of work to do well and many great science communicators have built a career on it. But just as the existence of journeyman carpenters doesn’t prevent a hobby woodworker from making beautiful tables, SciComm should not be a discipline of gatekeepers. Especially online. It’s a big internet.

3. More data is needed.

I see this advice all the time, particularly in relationship to scientists giving talks where they end with advice or a call to action. It usually occurs in the form of “don’t ever end you talk with more data is needed!”

Here’s the thing, though: particularly in conservation and policy-relevant realms, “more data is needed” is a critical precautionary statement. More Data Is Needed can have a huge impact on whether or not a new development moves forward. It can have major consequences for whether an endangered species is listed or unlisted, whether a wetland becomes a parking lot, or whether a Dutch millionaire gets to release a giant, un-moored boom into the Pacific to drift aimlessly through the ocean, colliding with marine life.

“More data is needed”, when used effectively, is a tactical, consequential statement. Use it well.

April 27, 2018 • 6:28 am

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