For science writers, this guideline is almost universal: don’t use jargon. But using jargon is an easy crutch when trying to describe something that’s complicated. It’s tempting to use one word to describe a scientific concept, rather than search for a jumble of general terms (that have the caveat of being inaccurate or misleading) to unpack it for the reader. Jargon is efficient; however, it’s also alienating. It says to the reader that “you don’t know enough about this subject to understand it, and I don’t have time to explain it to you.”
This is why Alan Alda recently laid down a new challenge to the world’s scientists: describe what a flame is in terms an 11-year-old appreciates. In other words, see if you can do it without using jargon.
The Flame Challenge
Before learning about the Flame Challenge today via multiple blogs and news stories, I never knew that Alan Alda was passionate about scientific communication. He currently teaches for the State University of New York at Stonybrook and helped found their Center of Communicating Science. How cool is that? I always knew him as an actor, but I find his academic role to be very inspiring.
I love his idea. He explains the genesis of it in his Science editorial (PDF). He was disappointed upon hearing a technical explanation of what a flame is (“it’s oxidation”) when he asked his science teacher as an 11-year-old.
But for Alda, the Flame Challenge is more than an interesting (and I consider fun) challenge. Alda explains that “scientists urgently need to be able to speak with clarity to funders, policy-makers, the general public, and even other scientists.” This challenges sheds light on what scientists need to do to help others understand science: use “clarity and vividness” to describe ideas. The stakes are pretty high these days. It’s imperative that scientists take this challenge seriously, and apply this anti-jargon approach not just to this one challenge, but to all of their communications.
My Struggles with Jargon
I admit that I tend to use jargon. The scientist in me is comfortable using this shortcut. For example, my challenge these past couple of weeks has been to explain DNA vaccines in terms that the general public can understand. I’m helping to write and edit website content for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. My first drafts were loaded with jargon. It was challenging to describe why DNA vaccines would be an effective method for triggering immunity without it sounding too scary (the idea that we inject healthy individuals with viruses that are loaded with genes from other viruses, like HIV, might seem crazy if not explained well). Therefore, using technical terms allowed me to take a step back and sound authoritative. But this conflicted with the tone of the website, and failed at informing people about how innovative these types of vaccines can be for preventing devastating diseases like HIV/AIDS.
I changed my approach to make DNA vaccines more relate-able. Because I didn’t know much about these vaccines before I started writing, I tried to grab onto what sparked my excitement about them as I did my research. I ended up enjoying the challenge of searching for terms to elegantly and efficiently describe a concept, and piecing them together in non-clunky sentences that flowed together.
My latest drafts may not inspire an 11-year-old, but I hope I succeeded in explaining these ideas to my audience in an interesting way. As I learned over the years, it’s all about your audience and sharing what inspires you with others.