Science writers Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer know their business – they write about science for a general audience. They get through by avoiding technical language and using concrete examples and metaphors to explain complex ideas in a simple way – they choose their topics carefully and structure their arguments clearly. They argue that jargon is the enemy.Scientists seem to find it hard to avoid the specialist language they’ve become used to using when writing for one another, and this presents a barrier when communicating with a non-specialist audience. Now scientists are increasingly writing directly for the public at large (for example in blogs), but many have yet to learn the basics of communication.
In his blog on the topic, Ed quotes Tim Radford:
“No one will ever complain that you’ve made something too easy to understand.”
“Don’t overestimate your reader’s knowledge and don’t underestimate their intelligence.”
This seems like especially wise advice which could form the basis of a manifesto for anyone who wants to communicate about science, and I whole-heartedly accept it. I am a scientist, not a writer, and I have a lot to learn. I know I should reject jargon and I try hard to do so.
So what is jargon. Zimmer has helpfully put forward a list of banned words, which he describes as “scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches”. Most of Zimmer’s words (“orthogonal”, “anomalous”, “morphology”) fall undeniably into one of these categories and it’s easy to see why they should be avoided. On the whole, the exercise is useful, if a little prescriptive. But I have to say that one or two examples jumped out at me as inoffensive, everyday words.The clearest example is “process”. For some strange reason I feel compelled to rebel against the idea that my non-scientist friends and family will find it offputting. The suggestion just seems a bit bizarre to me and I feel irrationally driven to respond (just a tiny bit like Stephen Fry here).
The word “process” in common usage.
My Chambers dictionary includes several definitions. They include:
4. a series of actions or events
5. a sequence of operations or changes undergone.
These are not highly technical concepts, but scientists like myself are often involved in understanding and explaining systematic patterns of change, so it is a relief that the English language already provides a succinct two-syllable word for this key concept. Simpler sounding words such as “way” do not, for me, cover the sequential, dynamic character of a “process”, and I am forced to use less attractive terms like “sequential” and “dynamic” to explain the essential difference. So I would prefer to use the word “process”- I think my friends and family will understand it. Am I deluding myself?
Language is itself the subject of scientific investigation – we don’t have to rely on our own (or Carl Zimmer’s) intuitions about whether a word is familiar or not, we can look at the data. Word frequencies (the number of times a given word is seen in a representative collection of speech or writing) as an objective measure of the general familiarity of different words. Word frequency is related to reading comprehension – not surprisingly, texts using more common words are more easily understood.
One of the most widely used word frequency was developed in the late sixties by Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis. It’s a little out of date now, but it is still one of the best measures we have of how common or rare a particular word is in the English language. “Process” has a Kucera-Francis (K-F) frequency of 196. Here is a list of words with similar frequencies (between 190 and 200) in the MRC Psycholinguistic database.
It strikes me that words with K-F frequencies between 190 and 200 would be well within the grasp of most school-educated adults. Is there any real reason to think “process” is special and different? Like many words it can be used in a confusing or needlessly technical way. But I found several examples in recent editions of the British tabloid, The Sun, a paper whose skilled writers are reportedly able to produce copy that would be understood by a typical 14 year old. Here are a few sentences from this week’s issues:
“Keating put Childs through to the finals even though he frequently forgot his lyrics during the audition process.”
“The reigning champions have lost three out of four Premier League games – scoring just one goal in the process – and seen their lead at the top of the table wiped out.”
“Meanwhile, chairman Phil Gartside has begun the process of trying to retain the services of in-form striker Johan Elmander, whose existing deal runs out in the summer.”
“Having just filmed the video for the track, he is now in the process of securing airplay for the song.”
If tabloid journalists can use the word when reporting sports, news and celebrity gossip, then I think science writers need not be concerned that it will alienate or confuse their audience.
I think the second part of the Radford quote above is important – “don’t underestimate their intelligence”. A non-scientific audience is not an uneducated or illiterate one. So our choice of language should reflect our respect for the audience’s intelligence. Censoring myself over the use of the word “process” would feel dangerously close to being patronizing and dismissive.