Jargon v Real Knowledge – Qualities of the ‘Great Explainer’ Part 2

Since my last post I was glad to learn that many more of my colleagues are now more familiar with my favourite scientist Richard Feynman, meaning more of us can learn from this exemplary scientist and science communicator. I highly recommend you watch some of the interviews he has given on YouTube as they are simply enlightening and inspirational to all scientists.

In the last post, I began attempting to draw up the qualities that I believe made Feynman deserving of his title as the ‘Great Explainer’ in the hopes of generating some tangible take-aways for us to play with and apply to our own endeavours as science communicators.

1) To briefly recap, in my first post I talked about how Feynman often earned a familiarity with a concept he was to communicate or explain by actually rediscovering and building the concept up from first principles! I used the analogy that just as a builder of a house would come to know its ins and outs after working on it for several months, so would Feynman find himself intimately familiar with concepts that he had discovered, so he knew, if you will, all the rooms and corridors of the idea, which offered him a variety of hooks to engage a wider range of audience on any particular idea.

2) The next quality, and one that is linked to the first, is a skill, that his father encouraged in him as a child and that he had cultivated over the years i.e. to know the difference between jargon/definitions and an idea i.e. he knew the difference between knowing what something is called and really knowing what the thing is about.

To illustrate this point, there is a famous Feynman anecdote that inspired this quality. Feynman’s father used to take him to the woods in the Catskill Mountains as a child on weekends and they used to talk about the things they saw in nature. Eventually other mothers noticed this and wanted their husbands to take their sons on walks in the woods too. In Feynman’s own words:

‘So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

He said, ‘It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird–you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.’

Feynman jokes that as a result, he often doesn’t remember ‘anyone’s name’. However, it’s an anecdote that resonates with me because on one of the high school visits, I remember talking to a Year 9 girl who said that she would find science a lot more engaging if there was less technical jargon.

This is not to gang up on technical language, which of course has its place since it allows efficient communication among colleagues in any field of expertise. But if you intend for science communication to have broader aspirations and to be understood by the wider community, then substituting jargon for an explanation of the idea it describes in terms that are more grounded in a common experience will surely increase its reach and comprehensibility. Not to mention, it discourages any arrogance that scientists are often accused of, which at least in part stems from an unwillingness to remove jargon and be comprehensible. So we must check our motivations as well. Do we want to be easily understood?

Committing to this second quality also ensures, in the spirit of the first quality that you actually know what you’re talking about, and if you do, the audience are also likely to too. Feynman offers a handy tip, that you might remember having done in primary school, to know whether you really know something or if you’ve simply memorized a word:

‘Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language’.

If you know the idea intimately, then you should be able to.

If you don’t, then say you don’t, and then try to find out. This quality of ‘scientific integrity’ and ‘honesty’ will be the subject of the next blog post.

For now, Feynman reminds us that we must be sure that we really do know something rather than just its name.

He reminds us that to effectively communicate a new scientific idea, especially a complex and subtle one such as energy, that it is counterproductive to introduce it via a ‘mystic formula’ or jargon. He laments descriptions such as: ‘energy makes the wind-up toy-dog move’, in introductory science textbooks. This is because when you really think about it, you haven’t learned anything about energy, which Feynman says is a ‘very subtle’ concept that needs to be built up over experience and experiments. You’ve only learned a word, and you can substitute any other word and it could still make sense i.e. ‘Xena makes the toy-dog move’. He suggests a more powerful way to learn about energy in this example is to open up the toy-dog instead:

‘See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.’

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Once you understand the process and its subtleties, perhaps then you’ve earned the right to use the jargon for convenient communication with peers.

Here is a fun comic from one of my favourite science and technology webcomics, XKCD.

Have a look here! at http://xkcd.com/

Aside from there being some really downright hilarious and intelligent comic strips, it just goes to show that if you understand something well enough (first quality!) without the need to use jargon to explain it to others (second quality!), you can convey seemingly complex and profound issues in simple and far more powerful and memorable ways.