A few days ago, Colin Schultz proposed to do an experiment to investigate to what degree scientific terms used in scientific news can form barriers to understanding by laypersons. Colin suggested to go through a science story and list all scientific terms that “might be a road block to an interested reader’s understanding”.
Instead of following Colin’s directions (sorry Colin!), I thought it would be nice to receive some direct feedback from a layperson reading a scientific blog post. In this way, I wouldn’t have to guess which scientific terms impeded their understanding of the story. The unfortunate laypersons in this experiment were none other than my parents. Yes, I know. Forcing your parents to read science blogs is a cruel, cruel thing to do. Because they’re such great people, they agreed to help me out.
Both my parents have no specific background in science (my dad manages institution for the mentally disabled, my mom’s a mental health professional). To make things easier for them, I asked them to read a blog post by the amazing science blogger Ed Yong. To make things harder for them, I asked them to read this blog post on the molecular mechanisms behind Rett syndrome.
I picked this post for a number of reasons. First, it is a difficult story featuring proteins, jumping DNA sequences and promoters. It’s as messy as molecular biology can get. I very much wanted to see how Ed tackles the abundance of scientific terms that scientists researching these subjects inevitably use. Secondly, both my parents have experience in working with mentally diseased or disabled people, so I thought they would be at least peripherally interested in a story on the genetic causes of a neurodevelopmental disorder.
If you would have asked me which scientific terms in the article could cause some troubles for them, I would have listed words like genome, sequence, protein, stem cell, promoter and neuron. However, after reading Ed’s post, both my parents indicated that the post contained no words that made reading too difficult. None at all!
This really demonstrates Ed Yong’s qualities as a science writer. He does a great job at explaining complex words and concepts using analogies that are short, spot on and evocative (fluorescent proteins are ‘glow-in-the-dark genes’, MECP2 is described as a ‘genetic gag’ and a ‘warden, restraining a mafia of mobile genes’). This gives him room to tell the story he wants to tell, without having to dwell on definitions and explanations.
Scientific terms that he doesn’t explicitly define, such as genome, have become fairly mainstream in recent years and are likely familiar to a large part of his audience. While both my parents indicated that they were unsure about the specific definition of the word genome, this doesn’t mean that they’re completely oblivious to what genome means (my mom deduced that genome was similar to gene, my dad guessed it meant multiple genes). While such interpretations aren’t entirely correct in the technical sense, they still allow readers to understand sentences sufficiently to follow the main story.
But saying you understand something is different than actually understanding it, so I also asked my parents to summarize Ed’s post (I told you, I’m evil). Here’s my dad’s summary:
The article describes the genetic mechanisms underlying Rett syndrome, a disorder of the brain which has severe consequences in the young children that suffer from it. The most important players are the MECP2 gene and Line 1 sequences. The researchers Muotro and Marchetto investigated the complex interactions between these genes, and used “glow-in-the-dark genes” to make these interactions visible. The data is promising, but doesn’t conclusively prove that these interactions are causing Rett syndrome. This research also provides clues on the variation and diversity of neurons in the human brain.
I was happy to see so many essential points of Ed’s post back in my dad’s summary. This doesn’t mean that my parents ‘got’ the story in its entirety though. Both of them indicated that the paragraph detailing the interactions between MECP2 and the promoters of L1 sequences went way over their heads.
Did jargon get in the way here? Partly. Someone familiar with the term promoter will definitely have a advantage. But to really understand this paragraph, it not only helps to know what a promoter is, but also to be familiar with the particular way molecular biologists think. Molecular biologists go ‘A inhibits B, B activates C, so upregulation of A decreases activity of C’ all the time. To someone unfamiliar with such kind of reasoning, it can take some time to fully digest what is going on.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Not only did my folks find this paragraph difficult to read, they also found it far less interesting than other parts detailing the overall implications or particular details of the study (my dad was enamored of the glow-in-the-dark genes in mouse brains for example).
The point is that people from different backgrounds will read about science differently. A mother of a child with Rett syndrome will read Ed’s post differently than a pediatrician caring for several patients with distinct neurological syndromes, or a researcher working on neuronal stem cells. Not all of those people will (want to) understand every single thing there is to know about MECP2, L1 sequences and Rett syndrome. Nor do they have to!
This doesn’t mean science communicators can get away with lazy reporting. It is still their responsibility to make sure that scientific jargon doesn’t stand in the way of what people are looking to learn from a particular piece of science news.
While striking the balance between explaining too much and too little scientific terms can make science communication tricky, I also think it makes things more exciting and rewarding. Finding the right analogy or explanation for a difficult concept can give a real kick. Instead of barriers, they can be made into the tools that make engaging and vivid storytelling possible.
You might also like: