Have you ever felt like you needed an encyclopedia while reading a science article? Science is both fascinating and useful, but its high-level language and obscure subject matter can put off even readers who are very interested and committed to knowing more. As science education in the US continues to lag behind, the general public struggles to navigate scientific research; meanwhile, scientists themselves can’t always remember their lives before expertise thanks to “the curse of knowledge,” making it harder for them to communicate with laypeople. So how can scientists learn to communicate their research effectively without drowning their audience in technical terms?
Researchers at Holon Institute of Technology (HIT) and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a program that identifies jargon, terms that non-scientists might not be familiar with, to help scientists know when they should either explain or avoid certain language in their work. The goal of the program is to increase public engagement, and to make that process easier and more rewarding all around. Called the De-Jargonizer, the free tool can be found at scienceandpublic.com.
The researchers behind the De-Jargonizer found that while scientists “intuitively understand” that speaking to the public demands simpler language, they mostly failed at achieving that level of communication in their work. The result was an unintentional exclusion of their intended audience. This is not solely a problem of research scientists attempting to communicate findings to the public, either; doctors communicating with patients, technical experts creating policy, and a host of other experts and professionals could use a tool like De-Jargonizer to make research, science, policy, and other high-level knowledge more accessible to the public.
Scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson have noted the importance of this mission. Recently Tyson took to Facebook to communicate the importance of everyday people understanding science, saying that his message might contain “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” In his brief video, Tyson explained why it was so important for voters to be scientifically literate, highlighting the need for people to understand the difference between facts and opinions. Bill Nye’s new show, which is geared toward adults, also operates from the myth-busting perspective.
Recent poll results indicate that large portions of the public simply don’t trust scientists. This makes the problem of communicating important scientific issues, such as climate change and the safety of vaccines, even tougher for experts. Arthur Caplan, Founding Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, thinks better science communication is the key to regaining public trust. This highlights the importance of a tool like the De-Jargonizer, which can create a more informed citizenry and a more productive dialogue by making research and science accessible to all — something absolutely essential in these complex times.