Talking about science

Sometimes I need to talk about technical or mathematical or scientific things in a way that aims to be understandable and interesting to people who don’t have the level of technical knowledge shared by people in my field. I always find it to be a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge.

Of course I need to avoid using jargon. It drives me crazy when I’m talking to doctors and they use words like “sagittal” and “transverse”, although I understand that’s how they talk to each other.

But other than that, probably the main thing is to leave out details that matter very much to experts, but not at all to anyone else. This sounds like it should be easy, but it can be psychologically difficult.

The problem is that when I am talking with somebody else who also does math or computer graphics, I feel like I want to explain it to them completely. That is what I do every day, and what I am used to doing.

Practitioners don’t like to leave out details when talking to each other, because the goal is usually to make sure that they can do everything for themselves after the conversation is over. Whether it’s explaining an algorithm or describing how some piece of machinery works, we are always striving to help each other to be fully functional and self-sufficient.

But that’s not your goal when explaining science to a lay audience. There is no expectation that they will suddenly become practicing scientists.

Your goal here is to give people a general idea of what is going on, what is important, and what might matter to them. You can’t say anything false, but you also must not burden them with every detail of the truth.

It’s a balancing act, but an important one. People have a right to understand the things that happen in their world which might affect them. Our obligation as scientists is to help make that happen in a way that is both honest and approachable.

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