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Editorial: Science writing for non–rocket scientists: don’t dumb it down!

By Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 2000. Editorial: Science writing for non–rocket scientists: don't dumb it down! the Exchange 7(3):2, 5, 6.

Janette Busch, writing to the Scientific Communication e-mail discussion group, reported something rather disturbing:

"I was talking to the program director of a journalism school yesterday and she quoted the phrase I have heard before about the readers of newspapers having a reading age of 12. She was stating this as her justification for the way reporters 'dumb' down science."

I’ve heard this kind of advice many times, and what most irritates me about it is the naïveté of that particular notion. Among other things, it ignores the huge difference between “reading age” and “thinking age”. Anyone who’s taken the time to explain something complex to a 12-year-old knows how bright these people-in-training are, and knows that with a bit of thought, you can explain surprisingly complicated things to them. But the journalism director reported an even more disturbing revelation. In Janette’s words: “She had no students with a science background and neither did the other courses I know of.”

To me, this represents the tragedy of democracy: uninformed individuals have the right to make supposedly informed decisions about things they don’t understand in the least. I blame the uninformed and those who are supposed to be informing them (us, in many cases) in equal measure. Janette continued:

"When I am writing about science research carried out in my university, I regard my audience as being intelligent adults who can understand science as long as it is written using words and analogies that they understand. I don’t like the idea of having it reduced as far as the 12-year-old level, which I find is rather patronizing and runs the risk of dumbing down or trivializing the science so much it is hardly there at all."

Nancy McGuire added her own thoughts on this issue:

"The topic of communicating technical information (science in particular) to the general public came up repeatedly at the last two annual meetings of the Council for Chemical Research, and it’s a frequent topic of discussion at the American Chemical Society... Everyone seems to agree it’s a problem, but no one does much about it. The assumption seems to be that the general public wouldn’t care even if you did make the information accessible. Miracle herbs and toxic spills sell newspapers, but ‘real science’ will only confuse and bore… I would be fascinated to see if this discussion results in some ‘action items’. Maybe the science SIG could come up with an agenda for the STC to pursue in conjunction with some of the other professional societies and people in the popular press. I would be willing to help out with some letters or phone calls, if we can come up with a message that we want to put our name on. I forwarded Janette’s original posting to the head editor of our magazine, [who agrees] that this would make an excellent topic for our Viewpoint department.”

Nancy suggested that an article 800 to 1600 words long would be appropriate, and provided contact information if you’d like to pursue this: the ACS author’s guide is online at http://pubs.acs.org/ci; you can contact Nancy (n_mcguire@acs.org) for further details. Karen Graber reminded us of the technical communicator’s mantra:

"This goes back to knowing your audience. If your audience consists of academics with masters or Ph.D. levels of education then I think ‘dumbing’ down to a 12th grade reading level is too much. If the audience predominantly consists of people with high school diplomas, then it’s probably pretty close. It’s a personal decision fueled by each person’s experiences and beliefs. To use it as a rule of thumb is not necessarily the best course of action as there are always exceptions. My belief is that people who are interested in reading about science probably have more background/knowledge than the average high school graduate to begin with so it may not be necessary to dumb it down."

Lyndsey Davis reported that in the field of environmental consulting:

"...editors are most frequently involved in technical documents such as multi-volume Superfund remedial investigation reports and engineering evaluation/cost analysis reports… written by degreed experts and scrutinized by regulators. But we are also called on to prepare fact sheets and other newsletter-like documents that are distributed to the general public... These brief documents (generally fewer than 8 pages) are presented with short articles and simple diagrams. We’re instructed to edit for a 6th grade comprehension level… I’d suppose our mandate takes into account that the general public is less educated than the subset of readers that makes up newspaper audiences. So that our text isn’t overwhelmingly cluttered with explanations, we often resort to a glossary of terms as a way of defining not only the technical jargon that goes along with the various cleanup methods, but the regulator-ese that goes along with Superfund sites."

It’s not really all that hard for a good writer to explain something complex, provided the writer first understands it—something each of us must do daily as part of our work in scientific communication. The problem is that most modern journalists don’t understand what they’re writing about: they’ve taken little science at school (or no science, in the case of Janette’s journalism director), and as I’ve discovered many a time while tutoring children, you can’t explain what you don’t really understand.

None of this supports the notion that complex topics require complex writing: indeed, many of the scientists whose papers I’ve edited assumed that science journals won’t accept easily comprehensible writing and wrote accordingly in what they considered to be the “professional scientist’s” voice. Fortunately, journals are changing—slowly—in recognition of the fact that clear writing benefits everyone. Greg Egan expressed my own take on science writing so well that I adopted his comments as my e-mail signature. Egan makes the point sufficiently well that it serves as a nice conclusion for this editorial, with no need of further elaboration:

"Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic—referring to a possible encounter with an alien civilization—but if a science journalist had one responsibility above all else, it [is] to keep Clarke’s Law from applying to human technology in human eyes."—Greg Egan, Distress


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved