From Jargon to Storytelling
How has human language evolved? What is the essence of longevity? Is life on mars possible?
These are only three out of many questions which scientific research is currently trying to answer. And even if you aren’t a scientist yourself, you probably know that these research activities are taking place.
Why do you know? You know because there’s science communication.
Science communication is a specific kind of communication. Its aim is to disseminate news on research projects and research results. In a nutshell, science communication is the discipline that has scientists on one end and the general public on the other. And in-between, there’s a science communicator connecting the two.
This seems simple. But it isn’t. Because the two groups – scientists and the general public – share neither common knowledge nor a common language to communicate smoothly with each other. Even when they speak the same language, say, English. Let me explain why this is the case and how it’s done.
Communicating among Specialists
On one end, there are scientists doing science. When scientists communicate among themselves, they speak a language that helps them communicate efficiently – a so-called jargon. A jargon is the lingo of a professional community. It equips professionals of the same field with specific terms that make their communication fast and clear and allow them to efficiently talk about their projects and expertise. This applies as much to communities of linguists, biologists, and economists as it applies to communities of carpenters, gamers, and football aficionados.
Linguists provide a good example. They have many specialized words to discuss linguistic concepts, like “fricative”, which describes a human sound produced by a friction in the speaker’s mouth that hinders the air from flowing freely. “F” is a frequent fricative in English. The word “fricative” simplifies linguistic discussions in that it gives linguists a shortcut to a concept that is much easier to use than a wordy description. And this is precisely what jargons are for: they describe a field in very precise terms. Each discipline has its own vocabulary, which is learned together with the corresponding knowledge.
Yet, scientific jargons are not just about vocabulary but in fact also about grammatical style. They are grammatically elaborate and use rather complex sentences. This complexity originates from the need to transmit complex information, which requires the language to be unequivocally precise. This is why scientific jargons use full sentences only. In addition, they must focus on objective, replicable facts, which entails that they lack irrelevant information and emotions. Scientific jargons are precise, factual, and free from personal values.
There are many benefits to scientific jargons. They condense information and make it accessible to all members of the scientific community irrespective of their cultural background. A scientific text written in accurate scientific language is a perfect repository of scientific knowledge. At the same time, given its lack of emotions, a scientific text only engages those who are intuitively interested in its content.
From Science to the World
On the other end, there’s the audience: the public. This audience is unfamiliar with scientific details as well as with the jargon, so the content and form of the message have to be adjusted to the audience.
And this is what a good science communicator is able to do. They explain science in a way that the target audience will understand. They reduce the complexity of scientific content and rephrase scientific jargon in less specialized language without missing out on truthfulness. The only thing that is lost is detail.
Science communicators thus need a profound understanding of scientific research, its jargon, and the audience. They must know how to translate the message into a language that the target audience will understand. This turns science communicators into translators – translators of knowledge from complex language to plain language, from one culture to another.
Science Communication Tells the Stories of Science
So, if science communication is like facilitating communication between two different cultures, how do science communicators achieve that?
They engage the audience. Science communicators know their audience and turn scientific information into a story the audience will care about. They use relevant examples, metaphors, and imagery, and very often, they add emotions. In so doing, science becomes tangible, visible, and emotional.
Take linguistics again. One branch of linguistics studies how a language changes when it is in contact with another one. Linguists discuss linguistic processes in a way that may be unexciting for non-linguists; they describe features, frequencies, and implications. A good science communicator, by contrast, focuses on how these processes are experienced.
A science communicator in the US, for example, will explain how misunderstandings emerge when a Spanish-speaking teenager in Boston speaks with her Puerto Rican grandmother. The teenager will probably say phrases like “te llamo pa’ atras”, which is a direct translation – a calque – of English “I’ll call you back”, and Grandma probably won’t understand her because she may not have heard such a phrase in her native Spanish. And given that many other Boston teenagers are bilingual too, Boston Spanish will probably establish this expression as part of its grammar. This is how language change takes place under the influence of contact. And when explained with such an illustrative example, this process is easier to understand than linguistic discussions around calquing, grammaticalization, and patterns of usage. In other words, science communicators transmit science in a way that will reach the audience.
Now, the obvious question that arises is this: is it necessary to be a scientist to inform about science? No. In fact, a scientist is more likely to get lost in detail and to struggle with translating their expertise into the language of a layperson. Science communicators, by contrast, are storytellers. They’ll do the job.