Scientific jargon: wrong means, right end

On July 25th Nature published a commentary by science writer Trevor Quirk, who called for the use of jargon in science communication because it captures the complexity and specificity of scientific concepts. The article challenges writers and the public to let go of their fear of jargon.

My letter in response to this, published about a month later, argues that while Quirk makes a valid point, there is a distinction to be made: writers do need to embrace complexity, but using jargon is not the best way to go about it. Repeating esoteric terms will do little to help the average reader (or, for that matter, a scientist with a different specialization) understand the nuances they intend to communicate. Science writers need to capture that complexity by breaking it down into simpler language — no easy task.

The process may well begin with overcoming a fear of jargon, and making the effort to understand complex concepts; but it must end with translating such concepts into language that gives easy access to their precise meaning. This shouldn’t be about swapping a specialized term for a more colloquial one, a practice that Quirk rightly condemns. It should be about describing the meaning of that term with the words needed to ensure accuracy, but as succinctly as possible.

Through this process everyone involved — the public, writers, and scientists themselves — will find it easier to connect the convoluted and often abstract world of scientific terminology with the very real and intricate world they are meant to describe.