The Lost Art of Plain Language in Science
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
- George Bernard Shaw
Our world is equal parts mystical and complex. Although most of us may not dabble in quantum physics or thermodynamics, viral immunology or genetics, we understand that each area requires its own unique terminology.
But for those who struggle with the jargon, it might as well be Greek. And though this technical language is a necessary component to generate common themes, words, and terms specific to each field - it ultimately reduces its accessibility to anyone outside it.
This is not to say there isn’t a place for technical speech and writing. Especially in scientific literature, the goal is to communicate on a like-level that speaks to specialists in a given field. The use of higher, technical language remains a fundamental aspect of journal publication. And as each niche is highly specialized, it requires consistent messaging to connect novel research theory.
However, outside these specific circumstances, scientists are facing a public relations crisis with the general public.
Overcoming Gaps in Public Knowledge
The goal of scientific innovation is to ultimately create a better tomorrow. In order to do so, scientists must identify and investigate real-life problems and offer creative solutions. But this remains only half of the equation. Scientific innovation extends past experimental or theoretical solutions. It requires real-life application and the ability to resonate with the needs of its audience to envoke change.
Human nature dictates a predisposition to shy away from things we do not understand. For the general public, the often abstract nature of science can all too easily alienate an ill-informed society.
As scientists, we underwent extensive education to understand complex scientific theory and develop the critical thinking skills essential for study design. Without this knowledge base, the general public is not properly equipped to tackle – or even to accept – many scientific concepts. In addition, science is an evolving field. With every experiment, previous research is either strengthened or weakened. Though scientists typically approach their study with a hopeful, yet apprehensive trepidation – our public counterparts haven’t been taught how to critically evaluate research. Nor should they be required.
Rather, it’s the STEM community’s ethical obligation to help disseminate research in a manner that resonates with our general audience counterparts.
Countering the Stem 'Exclusivity' Paradigm
The most common misconception about science is that it is reserved for only the few. The STEM community has overcome many previous challenges. Although historically an elitist club of generally white, male intellectuals, we’re seeing significant efforts to improve the inclusivity among various genders and cultures – but we must also take strides to increase how we connect and commune outside the field.
To do this, we must embrace the dynamic role of plain language over technical writing in scientific communications. As scientists, we are responsible for how science is discussed and accepted. Unfortunately, it’s not normal for scientists or specialists in a field to spearhead the dissemination of scientific material. In most situations, this material is overturned to ill-equipped media outlets who are forced to convert technical information to layman’s terms for their audience. And we know how well this goes.
Time and time again, scientific messaging breaks down in a form of ‘media telephone’ – often exchanging research for flashy headlines. Consequently, the scientific community is continually confronting the rise of misinformation. As non-scientific minds continue to poorly relay scientific communication, we’ve bred a general public with a natural distrust toward scientific innovation.
But by improving the way we communicate science that encourages the integrity of research, we can begin to heal the country – and the world – of the ‘exclusivity paradigm’ we have inadvertently established.
Never before has the budding field of science communications become more paramount. Developed to help scientists gain the necessary skills to communicate science to various audiences, it’s now becoming a growing field of its own.
It's allowing a shift in perspective about how science is being communicated. The growing field of science communications is bringing to light a new group of shakers and movers in STEM. With a focus on increasing comprehension and accessibility, we’re expanding the use of plain language in scientific writing.
From the University of Madison, Wisconsin to Vanderbilt – the rise of experimental programs focusing on bridging the gap between the STEM fields and the general public has begun. Although young, these programs are not amateur in design and are helping to establish the credibility of the field.
But like any movement – it requires action.
Transforming science into a more inclusive field requires a multifaceted methodology. By enhancing our reach to a variety of young minds, inviting more open discourse of experimental science, and increasing the accessibility of simpler, digestible scientific content we can begin to bridge the gap.
Furthermore, it's necessary to have corporate self-awareness that not all are well-equipped with the necessary skills for scientific communication. Thus, I call upon biotechnology, medical device, pharmaceutical, and technology companies to assess the way they translate their research to their audience. Examine your teams and determine if your R&D or Translational Science teams are properly supported in their transfer of scientific information to your marketing or sales teams.
As we continue to increase efforts on awareness, respect, trust, and ultimately enthusiasm of science, we must also perpetuate growth in the field of science communications:
Universities - continue to expand the resources available to STEM students, opting for academic classes focusing on science communications.
Corporations – it’s not enough to offer innovative STEM services and products. You must tap into your audiences and assess how well you’re contributing to customer trust, transparency, and engagement.
The goal of science communications is not just to help specialists tap into the underestimated potential of improved scientific discourse.