little red riding hood and the wolfRelated to my earlier post about science jargon, this week I came across a discussion of just what a science writer’s job is when faced with such jargon. Explain it, or replace it with plainer but less precise language?

(The discussion was on an NASW mailing list, and let me tell you, these lists can be hilarious. Once a flamewar broke out, inspiring after several weeks the suggestion that perhaps people should be somewhat polite to each other on the list. That message started a barrage of emails from various participants about how we like flamewars, and if we can’t insult each other while making ridiculous arguments, what is the point of a mailing list? And then there’s the guy who regularly writes about how metric is the inferior measuring system because “base 12 arithmetic” is more in tune with the laws of nature, but I digress.)

One writer claimed that:

When “proper jargon” and “plain English” don’t mean the same, then “proper jargon” ought to be used.

…and that the writer should explain exactly what the jargon means, bringing the reader up to speed, so that the rest of the piece can be written with the specialized terms.

(One reply led to another, with each side accusing the other of protecting scientists’ egos at the expense of journalists’ and vice-versa. Each side also blamed the other for the scientific illiteracy of the populace at large. These lists give me endless amounts of entertainment.)

I find it lots of fun to explain concepts, but I’m a writer trying to tell a specific story, not a tutor helping a student cram for a test.

What if somebody is telling you the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you don’t know what a wolf is? Should the storyteller really have to tell you all about wolves? How much information do you need?

While an aside about Canis lupus could be fun[*], a simple explanation would suffice to get on with the story – “The wolf is somebody who wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood.” That wouldn’t tell you much about wolves, but would give you 100% of the what you need to understand the story.

Remember what I said last time about jargon being, to a specialist, shorthand for “all the things I’ve ever learned about this word”? A paragraph or two defining QTLs will not make the term as significant to the reader as it is to a researcher who has spent years learning about and working with them.

And so if I’m writing a story that involves QTLs, I might leave off the term entirely and say that “such-and-such disease is caused by many genes. This research team has identified one of them and is hot on the trail of another.” That tells you what you need to know about the disease, its basis, and the progress the research team is making – and now I don’t have to try to make the reader understand the subtle difference between a QTL and a gene.

Of course, I’m relying on previous writers to have explained the concept of a “gene” well enough that the reader already knows what one is.

In many cases, the jargon is an artifact of the current technology that’s in use and our tentative understanding of the subject. Genes are forever. Particular techniques for genetic mapping, not so much.

When deciding whether to explain a term or gloss over it, I consider both factors: Is it important to this story? And will it be important to the reader? (When you put it that way, it sounds so obvious!)

[*] I really liked the random educational chapters in Moby Dick, but it seems I’m in the minority.


gesture photoScientific American: With a wave of the hand: how using gestures can make you smarter – New research shows that students who make a certain gesture while solving a certain type of math problem do better when tested. One hypothesis: the gesture (incorrectly described as a “V” shape in the SciAm article) somehow teaches the concept of combining two numbers. My take: it sounds more like associating the concept with a gesture gives you an anchor to remember the concept. Like the parking garages that use a different color of signage on each floor, or the old-fashioned concept of tying a string around your finger.

The paper itself (free!) says that speaking a mantra didn’t do as well as the gesture (the gesture and mantra together worked very slightly better than the gesture alone). Both worked OK for the immediate post-test, but the gesturers did better on a follow-up test. The authors say that “These findings suggest that using the body to represent ideas may be especially helpful in constructing and retaining new knowledge.”

I wonder whether the gesture may have also helped children who learn well with spatial or visual mnemonics. The gesture involved sliding your left hand under the left side of the equation and your right hand under the right side of the equation. To me that would say this side has to be like that side, in a way that would stick, for me, better than the equivalent spoken mantra: “I want to make one side equal to the other side”.

Here are the authors’ thoughts on how gesture might help memory:

One possibility is that gesture offers a representational format that requires relatively little effort to produce, thereby freeing resources that can then be used to encode new information in a more lasting format. Indeed, expressing information in speech and gesture has been shown to place less demand on working memory than expressing the same information in speech alone … Another possibility is that gesturing directly facilitates encoding in long-term memory. Expressing information in gesture may produce stronger and more robust memory traces than expressing information in speech because of the larger motor movements involved or because of the potential for action-based, bodily encoding. Indeed, when speakers are asked to use their hands to act out an event conveyed in a sentence, their memory for the event is better than if they merely read the sentence or translate it into another spoken language. … Similarly, children understand stories better when they enact the story with objects or imagine enacting the story with objects than when they read the story twice … and actors recall the lines they produce while moving better than the lines they produce while standing still.

Gesture may also affect learning by engaging the external environment. Gestures, particularly pointing gestures that indicate objects and locations in the world, may make it easier for learners to link developing mental representations to relevant parts of the external environment. This type of grounding could then decrease errors in encoding and lighten processing demands … while at the same time facilitating new insights into the problem.

photo of scribbled edits on science writing Scientists aren’t actually bad at writing. No, I’m not trying to put myself out of a job – they still need me! 🙂 But the more impenetrable scientist-ese I read, the better I understand that what looks like gibberish to outsiders is not a symptom of bad communication – specialized, maybe, but not ineffective.

I remember the first few times as a student I was able to read a scientific paper and explain to someone else, with analogies and simple language, just what it was actually saying; this, I thought, must be a useful skill. Because the article I was translating sure wasn’t readable on its own.

In a sense, that’s what my job is now; but it’s actually easier than that. I don’t have to sit around with a jargon-filled paper in one hand and a medical dictionary in the other, because the first step in an assignment is to call up the person who did the research, and have a quasi-normal, human-to-human conversation about their work. While it’s important to be able to read their papers so you have smart questions to ask, that’s only one part of the job. (“Duh, what was that paper about?” would work about as well in an interview as in my mandatory journal club class in grad school: not at all)

Some scientists are better than others at this sort of plain conversation. Generally, anybody who has run their own lab for decades has explained their work to countless funders, conference attendees, and prospective students. Those who are earlier in their career, or do less cross-discipline work, seem to be the hardest to talk to. They’ve learned how to communicate with colleagues in their field, but haven’t figured out yet how to get others interested in their work.

I’ve often heard people – some of them scientists, some of them readers who are baffled by scientific papers – claim that scientists are bad at writing or bad at communicating. That’s rarely true. The issue is that communicating with scientists in your field, and communicating with people who aren’t, are two very different skills.

Scientists are taught to speak with precision. Like when I took my first serious biology class in college – for the first time, our lab reports were expected to read like scientific papers. We were to speak precisely: say, not about the enzyme “doing” something, but about what the effects of such-and-such were in terms of Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Work in the multisyllabic buzzwords from class, we learned, because those are the words that actually mean something.

Those big words aren’t “sloppy thinking” or “bad writing”; in fact, each one calls to mind – for the right audience – whole areas of scientific discipline. Hepatobiliary disease? Oh yeah, the reader might say, I remember that whole course I took in hepatobiliary disease. It triggers memories that a simpler synonym (liver disease) may not. Are you developing efficacious treatments for a disease? That brings to mind the medical concept of efficacy, which is a little different than saying that a treatment is “effective” (or “works good”).

Like any good buzzword, the point of most scientific jargon is to give a name to a large or complicated phenomenon. So it makes sense that scientist-ese doesn’t consist of patient explanations in small words; rather, it’s a string of multisyllabic buzzwords meant to shovel information past the reading scientist’s eyeballs. When those buzzwords have meaning to you, this makes for a very skimmable text.

The best examples of shoveling are in the introduction of scientific papers. The intro sets the stage for the research by quickly blowing by the initial problem, the state of research to date, and the reasons why anybody should care. If you’re in roughly the right field, all the buzzwords will be familiar to you and you can get on to reading the research. The situation is similar to a recipe, a knitting pattern full of abbreviations, computer program code, whatever – if you know what the abbreviated concepts are (“form this type of loop on your needle by moving the yarn like so…”) you can breeze right by the “K 30” line and get what you need out of the more interesting parts.

In fact, the really interesting parts of scientific papers, like the interesting parts of recipes or code or knitting patterns, tend to be written in plainer english – because that’s the part where you have to explain what’s going on.

dna stairsFor years, it’s been legal to patent genes. You find a gene, study it, and decide you don’t want anyone else to be allowed to “use” the gene besides you? Go ahead and patent it. It may be in the DNA of 6 billion people (or trillions of mice, or untold numbers of yeast cells) but in the eyes of the USPTO, it belongs to you.

Finally, this is being challenged! The ACLU is suing Myriad Genetics, the company that holds the patent on two human breast cancer genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“Knowledge about our own bodies and the ability to make decisions about our health care are some of our most personal and fundamental rights,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The government should not be granting private entities control over something as personal and basic to who we are as our genes.”

The lawsuit also challenges genetic patenting in general, noting that about 20 percent of all human genes are patented — including genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy and asthma.

You read that right: 20 percent.

While generally “products of nature” can’t be patented, genes are fair game if you isolate the gene and specify what it’s used for. It’s also possible to get a monopoly on things like genetic tests, so that nobody else can provide a test for BRCA1, say, without licensing the technology from the patenter.

If you’ve got a patent on something interesting or useful, you get to be the only one to commercialize it, or you can license it to others for whatever fee you like. This is the whole idea behind patents – it grants the inventor a monopoly on their invention so they don’t have to worry about somebody else stealing the idea (until the patent expires in 20 years). The goal is to encourage innovation: go ahead and put in lots of work on your project, and you’ll be the only one who can make money on it for the first 20 years.

This system, invented centuries ago, arguably works pretty well. One of the early patents granted in Italy was for a barge that could carry heavy marble blocks. When the USPTO was formed, early patents included improvements on steam engine technology and printing presses.

Today, patents are still granted for machines and devices, but also for software, pharmaceuticals and – the thing that brings me here today – genes.

dna playground

In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that a genetically modified bacterium was patentable, thus opening the door to patenting other biological material, like genes and even whole mutant mice.

Which leaves you, the reader out there with the BRCA1 gene (we all have it; some versions are linked to cancer and some aren’t), the possessor of a copy of someone else’s patented material. Myriad isolated the gene and showed what it’s used for, so now they own it – even though it’s in your body, and everyone else’s.

[Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and a patent law professor at Yeshiva University] offered an analogy to describe the plaintiffs’ argument, saying, “It’s like saying if someone removes your eyeball … just because you remove the eyeball and wash it off, that doesn’t make the eyeball patentable.

“Now if they create another eyeball out of plastic or metal, then you can patent that.”

The ACLU says that gene patents limit research and the free flow of information, and that the high cost of Myriad’s genetic tests ($3000) kept some patients from seeking testing that could have helped them. (Without a patent, other companies could have offered the test at lower cost.) The plaintiffs in the suit include patients and universities, genetic specialists, and medical associations. Here’s hoping they win.