May 30, 2009
Related 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.