Cassie Rodenberg: Electron-ic Bonds

Science=jargon, iff 1<0
January 20, 2009, 6:08 am
Filed under: Musings, Science, Writing

“Free from jargon.” 

What an interesting marketing ploy to find on the rear cover of a biological anthropology text, marketed no doubt to the wary student, or perhaps to the lay consumer.

All it takes is the j-word to be thrown out to make me pensive. I found my stack of reference texts and flipped through; indeed, some hardly look user-friendly. “Inorganic Chemistry” certainly doesn’t. “Biology: Unity and Diversity” gives it a shot, only to fall victim to miniscule type and picture-less pages. After pardoning the chemistry text for being advanced, I stopped to think more of this word “jargon.”

As a writer, I know jargon is something to be avoided, a bit like sentences filled with adjectives in journalism. Sure, sometimes it’s acceptable, when the reader knows the whole of which you speak – but when do you ever want your reader to know everything? If a biological anthropology introductory text promised to be “jargon free,” (and after reading 20-odd pages I say they did a pretty good job) does that mean most science texts are jargon-filled?

In the days of superior communication, why have we allowed science texts to be consumed by jargon? Or have we? Is the book publisher simply trying to cater to our biases? That may be it in part, but it worries me to no end that science is seen as jargon-filled; in an age of instant gratification that has seeped into learning science is looked at by many as simply too difficult and tedious to fathom. Perhaps we’ve found out why…

It irks me, though, for someone to claim that scientists approve of, and rather like, jargon. Does anyone? Who wouldn’t rather read something with more of a plot or at least something more pleasant? Scientists are not a dull tribe who crave six-syllable words; I’d wager they’d like science to be nicely put and easy to understand as much as the rest of us. 

I would warrant that scientists fashioning textbooks have above-average minds: firstly to care that deeply about a subject to may a legible text, secondly to be able to organize their thoughts in a cohesive manner. No matter what anyone says, I don’t think the writers mean to confuse masses. Perhaps the jargon-filled fall into one of two trains of thought: 1. “I’m writing on a complicated subject, so it’s okay if the language is a little complicated. Maybe it’s even necessary.” 2. “What? You say this is complicated? Really? I worked so hard to make it relatable!” Here we find that they’re either proud of a little convolution or simply don’t know.

As a science writer, I frown on the proud bunch, though we all know such scientists are out there, and sympathize with the crowd that find themselves eternally surprised by their barbarous writing. I suppose that’s what we science writers are there for, for translation. 

So, in summation, for those that like to write with jargon, mainly textbook publishers and grant writers: kindly stop and put your efforts in more noble enterprises, like learning the average human’s attention span or the record of number of words retained per hour.


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