Death to Obfuscation!

By Carl Zimmer | January 12, 2011 6:35 pm

The latest blizzard socked us pretty hard here in New England. If the streets and runways are clear enough tomorrow, I will be attending a conference called ScienceOnline in North Carolina for the next few days. One of the sessions I’m supposed to moderate is called “Death to Obfuscation.” Ed Yong and I concocted it as a workshop in which we would share our thoughts on good science writing. I’m going to lay out some of my thoughts here in advance, partly to clarify what I’m going to say–Ed and I are a bit nervous that what we thought would be a pretty basic session has exploded into a 60+-person crush, infiltrated by seasoned journalists. And if, on Friday, I’m still stranded here, the whole undertaking won’t have been a complete waste…

Good science writing is some of the most interesting stuff on Earth to read. Bad science writing is the most painful. There are many things that determine whether a piece of science writing is good or bad, but I can sort them into four rough categories: words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Good science writing demands lots of care and inventiveness at all these scales.

After a few years of teaching science writing, I’ve started to ban certain words from my class. I add new words to my list on a regular basis, as they make unwelcome appearances in assignments. I may seem obsessively picky, but I hope through my pickiness, my students learn that every word can make a difference to their story. This lesson is especially crucial for scientists, most of whom are not accustomed to writing for a broad audience. Starting in college, scientists get accustomed to using scientific jargon. It’s how they impress their professors. It’s how they get taken seriously. Pretty soon, they start thinking that everybody knows what interferometry is.

But you’re actually writing for everybody–not everybody in your lab, who have been living and breathing this stuff for their adult life–but everybody who might be possibly enthralled with this research, if only they didn’t have to read a monograph on the subject.

This realization can produce a surprising bitterness, I find.

“Isn’t this dumbing down?”

“Aren’t we trying to teach our readers something?”

“Can’t people use a dictionary?”

It’s one thing to use a dictionary. It’s quite another to actually understand all the concepts lurking behind a word like interferometry. Look it up online and you may find, “the technique of diagnosing the properties of two or more waves by studying the pattern of interference created by their superposition.” Rather than doing the writer’s work–in this case, elegantly explaining how interferometry actually works–you dispatch your poor reader to the quicksand of a useless definition. Believe it or not, it really is possible to write well about even the most difficult sciences, with a minimum of jargon. Just consider all the pieces of jargon Bill Bryson did not use while writing this lovely piece on particle physics.

Oddly, scientists are so fond of jargon that they even make jargon out of words that are not, in fact, jargon–that is, they do not refer specifically to some piece of equipment, some laboratory method, some chemical process. For instance, many scientist think it makes perfect sense to write, “Recently chemists have discovered an interesting property of molecule X,”–when, in fact, by “recently,” they mean nine years ago. By that logic, I could write, “Recently my oldest daughter was born,” when, in fact, my daughter now takes ballet lessons and likes making star charts. Sometimes people seem to choose a technical-sounding word as if it was their sole mission to drain as much life as possible out of a piece of writing–”utilize” instead of “use,” for example.

Using these sorts of words is lazy. Rather than searching for a surprisingly apt word, a word that delights and informs, beginning writers fall back too often on what they’ve heard again and again. And while scientists may be particularly prone to fall back on their own mother tongue, everyone can be tempted by all-purpose cliches. Telling me that a piece of research is a “breakthrough” is unforgivable, unless you’re writing about the discovery of calculus or something of equal significance. If not, then show me why a discovery is important, rather than telling me with an empty word.

Just as words demand care in selection, sentences demand care in construction. The right length and lilt of a sentence will let your reader take your meaning from it, and take it with pleasure. If your sentence meanders on like a verbal train travelling the Great Plains, made up of as many boxcars as you care to click together, the reader will lose patience, wondering what the point of the sentence is. It probably should be a paragraph instead.

You should also think about whether you’re writing sentences in the active or passive voice. Scientists have a fierce passion for the passive voice. I suspect it has to do with the abject humility that they claim as a virtue of their profession. No one has the temerity to actually write, “We discovered X.” Instead, “X was discovered.”

While the ethics here may be fine, they make for terrible writing. The action of the story diffuses away into wisps of abstraction. Someone has to actually dig up a fossil. Someone has to find a supernova (or at least program the computer that finds it). Scientists use tools to do these things: hammers, telescopes. The passive voice lets you avoid thinking about who is doing what, and how. It is, like jargon, lazy. So I force students to avoid it as much as possible, so they can start to learn how to do the challenging work of building up a story.

Just as sentences are not words casually linked together, paragraphs are not just a random package of sentences. When we start a paragraph, we should know what we’re in for, and the paragraph should live up to that promise. It should not meander from subject to subject. And the link from one paragraph to another must be obvious and inescapable. While the connection from one paragraph to the next may be clear in your mind, the rest of us are not gifted with telepathy. Show us the link. In trying to do so, you may well discover that there is none. In fact, you may discover that you can delete a paragraph without disturbing the overall story at all. If that’s true, leave it out.

Finally, we come to the story as a whole. As you dive deeper and deeper into the guts of a story, it’s remarkably easy to forget the anatomy that a story needs: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning has to tell us what the story will be about. Here’s what the writer of the tome I hold in the photograph above wrote recently about good leads:

They should never promise what does not follow. You read an exciting action lead about a car chase up a narrow street. Then the article turns out to be a financial analysis of debt structures in private universities. You’ve been had. The lead, like the title, should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.

A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead. A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows.

But in order for a lead to be absolute to what follows, I’d add, what follows must be absolute to the lead. Do not forget what you have promised; do not get seduced midway by another story. The story needs to move forward from your lead to its closing, hewing as closely as possible to chronology. Dance around the timeline, and your reader will get dizzy.

I’d love to know what McPhee has to say about ending a piece. That’s the hardest part, I find. It’s always tempting to end with a variation on, “Further research is needed.” But that’s a truism. When isn’t it needed, after all? And what scientist would willingly say, in effect, “I’m closing down my lab–my work here is done, folks!”?

An ending has to make us understand why this trip has been worthwhile–perhaps with a surprising implication that we might not have thought of before we read the article. Sometimes, though, the best way to end a story is just to bid your characters farewell as they go on with life, with a gesture or an observation. When I was starting out as a science writer at Discover, I came across an ending that I can still recall. It’s the ending of  “Between Home and the Abyss,” written by Robert Kunzig, who was a senior editor at the time. Kunzig describes an expedition of a deep-sea research ship called Atlantis II. (It won an award from the American Geophysical Union, by the way.)

The expedition, led by Rich Lutz of Rutgers, was pretty lousy, pocked with glitches and empty hauls. Kunzig did not say further research is needed. Instead, he wrote this:

Lutz’s project, this Magical Mystery Tour, had not ended well, despite all its previous successes and all the insights that would yet emerge from the material Lutz already had in his lab. Back in New Jersey the plan for the cruise had seemed straightforward. The plan was to go to known sites and collect animals that were known to be there. It should have been like going to the supermarket, not like stalking the snow leopard. But circumstances had intervened. Something usually does when you’re working in the deep sea. Nothing is ever easy.

As Lutz sat in the officers’ mess that night, picking quietly at a late dinner, the ship was steaming toward the dock in Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. There it would exchange Lutz and his colleagues for the next group of researchers. Landfall came just after dawn, at a forested spit of land squeezed between the surf line and a bank of fog. The place was called Cape Disappointment.

______

[Update: Did I forget to say that proofreading is important too? Sorry about the typos. I hope I've fixed them all. Also, Kunzig link fixed]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta, Talks

Comments (45)

  1. Bobbie

    What photo are you referring to when you say “Here’s what the writer of the tome I hold in the photograph recently wrote about good leads” ?? There is no photo of you in the article above!
    Signed,
    A Frustrated Proofreader

  2. Bobbie

    Sorry, I finally realized that was a book in the photo — at first it looked like a sign in front of a building….

  3. 220mya

    Your ‘Home and the Abyss’ link is broken. Correct URL is: http://discovermagazine.com/1993/dec/betweenhomeandth318

    [CZ: Fixed. Thanks.]

  4. COREY

    check this article out

    How to write consistently boring scientific literature

    Kaj Sand-Jensen

    http://www.philippeweil.com/links/BoringWriting.pdf

  5. It probably should be a paragraph instead.

    This should have been preceded by a colon, not a full stop, just to please the pedants.

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thanks. I enjoyed reading this & will try to do as you suggest here in my own science writing. :-)

  7. Nijal

    Omg, I started in this article last night, good observings, then i came to your link “between home and the abyss” and i fell asleep in the middle of that story, here this morning, i have read both. I see what you mean about good endings and by avoiding scientific words – in webdevelopment we call it polish, the last 10% so the final product reaches 110%, makes good “usability” : )

    /N.R.

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on good science writing. Enlightening! (This is not one of your “banned words”, is it?)

    [CZ: I don't have a problem with it, but please remember, my last name is not Webster.]

  9. Great post. I had to laugh at the “recently” comment, having just written a proposal where I pulled out “recently” to refer to a 5 year old article. Thinking a bit further about your guidelines for good science writing, I think that technical writing in general could be improved by following the same guidelines. I usually find journal articles a tough go, even knowing what the jargon means; the passive voice, the lazy choice of words, etc. But then again, I’ve been knocked professionally (by reviewers) for my writing being “too conversational,” so I’m not sure this sentiment is shared by other scientists. Of course, I’m don’t mean to imply that my papers and proposals aren’t saturated with these errors. I’ve used about every word on the banned list 1000 times over—and that’s only been this week. Do you have any opinions on whether these guidelines should (or could) be applied to, say, writing a journal article?

    Because literally, this would greatly elucidate how scientists utilize multiple methodologies, facilitating novel breakthroughs and paradigm shifts. :)

    [CZ: I would suggest that people writing a journal article should at least consider whether they could use less technical words, so as to avoid writing like a zombie. I also think that three-page paragraphs are awful, whether they appear in a magazine or in a scientific journal.]

  10. Man, it must have been interesting growing up in such a brainy family with the Zimmer boys. Was it competitive or congenial? You guys are both so smart, funny and good writers. I often wonder the same thing about the Gopnik family: famous writier Adam, brother and writer Blake, and scientist and writer Alison along with others.

    My brother and I aren’t dummies but were more likely to be laughing at cartoons or re-creating kung-fu movie moves than debating scientific method or turns of phrase.

    Great post, thanks.

  11. johnk

    A few thoughts on scientific writing:

    1. It’s the ideas that count. Putting ideas into words is hard. Sometimes — often? — it helps you, the writer, develop ideas.

    2. Avoid writing ‘murder mysteries’. That is, tell the reader where you are going. Don’t let it be a surprise. The ‘murder mystery’ approach makes the writer seem brilliant, but leaves the reader confused and feeling dumb.

    3. Avoiding ‘passive voice’ is good advice, but passive voice can’t be avoided in methods sections.

    4. Avoid noun modifiers and long adjectival phrases. Hyphenating can help.

    5. Using headings.

    6. Use figures, especially figures that help explain ideas. (videos too).

    7. Simple phrases the encapsulate ideas are terrific.

    8. Use analogies.

  12. John Olthoff

    Good advice… but I’m still keeping the word ‘mechanism’. Just sayin’.

  13. David B. Benson

    Carl Zimmer — Somewhere I read an article about determining that body lice evolved from head lice about 176,000 years ago. I would muchly like to read your take on this discovery. Thanks in advance.

  14. gaddeswarup

    I wonder whether one should start with some popular pieces of science writing and try to extract common elements, if any, from them. The article ‘The Itch” by Atul Gawande
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/06/30/080630fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all
    does not seem to conform to the above advice but seems excellent to me .
    About writing research papers carefully, there is this story of Rao-Blckwellization from
    http://jeff560.tripod.com/r.html
    “When Rao wrote to Lindley pointing out his priority, Lindley replied, “Yes, I read your paper. Although the result was in your paper, you did not realize its importance because you did not mention it in the introduction to your paper.” Rao replied, saying that it was his first full-length paper and that he did not know that the introduction is written for the benefit of those who read only the introduction and do not go through the paper! “

  15. jackd

    Thanks for the John McPhee references and especially the picture of _Annals of the Former World_. I only discovered the book about 10 years ago, but at about the same time I made a couple of flights across the country. To look down on the Basin and Range and realize how it was formed, as well as how we know how it was formed, was a profound pleasure.

  16. Marlene Zuk

    Great entry! I am always reinvigorated about my own writing after I read your advice.

    Now I want to ask your opinion about something I’ve gone back and forth with my own editors about: how much do you use constructions like, “Below I will discuss the meaning of life, followed by examples of the way life hands you lemons. Then I will conclude with a fantastic lemonade recipe.”

    Obviously this is exaggerated, but my question is whether you think it’s stilted, too academic, or just fine to explicitly flag the reader with what’s going to happen next.

  17. My technical writing professor specifically instructed us to use the passive voice. We’d lose points for saying “I did” or “We did” something. My brothers, at a different university, had the same type of instruction.

    [CZ: We are talking about two different types of writing, then...]

  18. Yes, I realize it’s two different types of writing. You’re talking of writing for a general audience, while my professor was instructing us to write for a technical audience. I was only trying to point out one reason why scientists and engineers are so prone to use the passive voice – we’ve been trained to.

  19. fpqc

    Dear Carl,

    It may be the case in the empirical sciences that things like this must be eschewed, but in mathematics, I don’t think that the same prohibitions can be made in good conscience. The fact is, the general public is completely misinformed about what mathematicians do and completely ill-equipped to read even an introductory-level essay about a mathematical topic. I think that the crux of the problem is that in most of the sciences, the jargon can be explained in terms of real-world concepts.

    For that reason, I propose two different levels of jargon: “Real jargon” and “honest terminology”, where “real jargon” can be defined with one or two levels removed from the layperson’s knowledge, while “honest terminology” would require a 20 page digression to even get to the concept.

    For instance, how do I explain the concept of a simplicial simplicial set to a layperson? There are several ways to define it, and taking the easiest:

    A simplicial set is a sequence of sets (S_0, S_1, …) together with the data of functions between the sets (specifics omitted)… satisfying the simplicial identities (omitted)…

    Even then, to make something of this definition, we must then explain the concepts of functions and sets, which are, surprisingly, not well-understood by laypeople.

    And that’s just for the simplest definition. It adds none of the intuition we would like to have, namely that the sets should be considered as sets of oriented n-dimensional triangles (n-simplices), and the functions between those sets send an n-simplex to either one of its faces (an n-1 simplex via a “face map”) or to a degenerate n+1-simplex (via a “degeneracy map”).

    Interferometry seems simple to define in the face of this rather routine piece of mathematical definition-smithing. This is because it is based on empirical phenomena, where, even if the reader doesn’t completely understand the phenomenon of interference, he still probably has a rough idea of what it is.

    Maybe a science writer like yourself could weigh in on this conundrum?

    • fpqc: I just recently had reason to reflect on this particular subject myself. I was writing captions for pictures of tattoos for my upcoming book, Science Ink. The tattoos are arranged by scientific discipline, and so I spent a thick slab of time writing caption after caption about math. Math is unquestionably hard to write about without using the language of mathematicians. In fact, I consider it the Black Diamond Trail of science writing, because in many cases there is indeed no other way of describing something other than the way mathematicians describe it to one another. However, you can build up to a jargon-rich description of math, by introducing each concept in an engaging way. Metaphors help a lot.

      My current favorite example of this Black Diamond science writing is The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

  20. Additional moguls and ice on that Black Diamond trail: not only are the concepts of mathematics difficult to explain, but also the connections among them are hard to convey. The mathematician or the physicist goes from A to B using mathematical argumentation, showing that this statement is equivalent to that other one, adopting a model from this area and modifying it to work in another field. But the reason why statement A is equivalent to statement B is completely opaque if you can’t follow the chain of logical transformations. (“Wait, why is a bottle of boiling water like a magnet? Why is a black hole a useful picture for a high-temperature superconductor? Argh!”)

    The layman searches for book after book in the hope that he will avoid the complexities which ultimately set in, even with the best expositor of this type. He finds as he reads a generally increasing confusion: one complicated statement after another, one difficult-to-understand thing after another, all apparently disconnected from one another. It becomes obscure, and he hopes that maybe in some other book there is some explanation. . . . The author almost made it — maybe another fellow will make it right.

    — Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1964)

  21. I like popular expositions of mathematics and physics; I grew up reading them ravenously. So, I speak from personal experience when I say that, though they can stimulate curiosity and transfer some degree of knowledge, they can also produce a great frustration. That poor layperson Feynman was talking about? That was me, circa sixth grade through freshman year of university. I loved the books, but they didn’t tell me how to tie it all together or where I needed to go next.

    Another observation along these lines:

    The trouble is that physical theories are not like novels: rather, they consist of an intricate logical structure in which technical terms have precise meanings (which differ subtly but crucially from the everyday English senses of the same words); and it is hopeless to try to isolate the philosophical “themes” of a theory that you understand only at the level of metaphor. (For example, one non-scientist friend asked me, quite reasonably: Isn’t it contradictory for quantum mechanics to exhibit both discontinuity and interconnectedness? Aren’t these opposites? The brief answer is: quantum mechanics exhibits “discontinuity” and “interconnectedness” in very specific senses — which require a mathematical understanding of the theory to make precise — and these senses are in no way logically contradictory.)

    — Alan Sokal, Beyond the Hoax (2008), p. 12.

    When unchecked, this problem leads to what I call Gell-Mann’s Law.

    It seems to be characteristic of the impact of scientific discovery on the literary world and on popular culture that certain items of vocabulary, interpreted vaguely or incorrectly, are often the principal survivors of the journey from the technical publication to the popular magazine or paperback. The important qualifications and distinctions, and sometimes the actual ideas themselves, tend to get lost along the way. Witness the popular uses of “ecology” and “quantum jump,” to say nothing of the New Age expression “energy field.” Of course, one can argue that words like “chaos” and “energy” antedate their use as technical terms, but it is the technical meanings that are being distorted in the process of vulgarization, not the original senses of the words.

    — Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar (1994)

  22. Carl, fpqc: Excellent discussion, I particularly enjoy the phrase “Black Diamond science writing.” [http://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Symmetry-Exposing-Patterns-Numbers/dp/0691124922 Fearless Symmetry], is perhaps my favorite example, Andrew Wiles and Fermat’s Last Theorem, a realm of abstract mathematics recently inaccessible even to the world’s best mathematicians.

    However, it seems the discussion hasn’t really addressed the practical value in which good jargon can be used to express an idea much more succinctly and precisely than a jargon free explanation. An equation is perhaps the penultimate form of jargon, but once familiar it becomes like a good picture — better than 1000 words. Actually many good scientific figures are like this too: jargon that is powerful to express an idea only to the trained eye, but look like nonsense to the untrained eye.

    So black diamond science writing is when you must teach the jargon?

  23. Another complication in writing for a general audience about mathematics is that — unlike most of science — it isn’t always immediately relevant to anything outside of mathematics.

  24. Neal Goldfarb

    Just as sentences are not words casually linked together, paragraphs are not just a random package of sentences. When we start a paragraph, we should know what we’re in for, and the paragraph should live up to that promise. It should not meander from subject to subject. And the link from one paragraph to another must be obvious and inescapable.

    Interestingly, McPhee’s writing often doesn’t follow this advice. He doesn’t connect the dots for you: the connection from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph isn’t always immediately apparent. Nor, especially in his longer pieces, from section to section.

    His technique is almost pointillistic. But the points aren’t all there simultaneously. They appear one at a time; first over here, then one up over there, a third down in the corner, another one somewhere else, until gradually the picture starts to fill in.

    [CZ: It's not wise to try to become McPhee in the first few months of trying to be a writer. First come the basics. Think of Picasso--masterful figurative art came before the Cubism. ]

  25. fpqc

    Dear Carl,

    Thanks for the prompt and engaging response! I really appreciate it! However, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up an objection about the book that you linked: Probably eighty to ninenty percent of pure mathematics done today does not feature calculus or probability theoy in any sort of central role (although the techniques from calculus are often used with impunity).

    For instance, I do research on the homotopy theory of simplicial sets. Here is how I’ve tried to describe what I do in the past (to little success): A simplicial set (originally called a CSS complex) is a combinatorial device discovered in the 1940s and 1950s by Saunders Mac Lane and Sammy Eilenberg that allows us to give a sort of discretized homotopy theory (think of covering up a space by all possible configurations of simplices, and take this collection of simplices (along with the data of their orientations) to be a combinatorial object (this concept is extremely difficult to grok, but it’s something that we mathematicians use all the time)).

    However, work of Boardman and Vogt realized not only that such objects could model spaces, but also could be used to give a “homotopy-coherent” version of the diagram calculus of category theory. The way they achieved this was to raise the bar for what it meant for two simplicial sets to be equivalent.

    Their solution was to realize the classical homotopy theory of simplicial sets as a “localization” of their new homotopy theory….

    et cetera…

    My explanation requires at least basic knowledge of two areas that are considered extremely abstract and technical: category theory and homotopy theory. These are subjects about which most laypeople have never even heard, let alone studied. It’s so far removed to the ordinary experience, and involves the infinite even in its definition. For instance, any Kan complex, which is a simplicial set that has certain properties that make it extremely useful for computing the homotopy theory of spaces, has an infinite number of nondegenerate (nontrivial) higher simplices, which track all possible concatenations of edges, as well as which concatenations of edges admit a filler.

    Should I just give up trying to talk to laypeople?

  26. Jeff Dougan

    A worthwhile read for any chemist, at least, is a book titled “The Chemists’ English.” It also addresses the topic of writing clearly, through the amusing device of likening English grammar to chemical bonds and reactions.

    As a high school teacher turned full-time dad, I have tremendous appreciation for the ease of producing bad writing and the difficulty of training good writing, especially when the conventions differ from one discipline to the next.

  27. My explanation requires at least basic knowledge of two areas that are considered extremely abstract and technical: category theory and homotopy theory. These are subjects about which most laypeople have never even heard, let alone studied. It’s so far removed to the ordinary experience, and involves the infinite even in its definition.

    As CZ said, basics first. Instead of explaining your own current research, can you explain what category theory is and why one should care about it? Instead of explaining category theory for people browsing the science shelf at Barnes-and-Borders-A-Million, can you explain it to students who’ve had a term of calculus? Science and mathematics could benefit from better exposition at all audience levels.

  28. I am late to this discussion but would respond to fpqc with a story told me by a UC-Santa Barbara mathematician, Bisi Agboola. Bisi works in advanced topologies and other types of high mathematics. Does he just give up and assume because he can’t use jargon, no layperson can ever understand the gist of what he does for a living? No, although it does make things more challenging. It’s not typical cocktail party conversation, but when someone asks what he studies at a cocktail party he says, “Look. Give me 20 minutes of your time and attention, and I promise you, at the end of that 20 minutes, you will have some basic grasp of what I study.” He doesn’t get 100% takers on this offer. :) But when he does, it always goes well.

    He can do this because Bisi has thought deeply and worked very, very hard to come up with non-jargon-filled, metaphor- and analogy-rich descriptions of his work. He takes the time to introduce and carefully define, in laymen’s terms, those concepts/jargon that must be part of the explanation, and gently walks his listeners through each step, answering any questions along the way. As Blake Stacey points out, Feynman was a master at this. But even he was hardly infallible; not everything he wrote was for a lay audience, or precocious 6th graders like Blake. (Which is fine, BTW. Not everything has to be. But we’re talking about whether it’s even possible. And I say that it is.)

    fpqc’s comment at #27 is a prime example of what NOT to do — and I recognize he wasn’t even attempting to put things in a way a lay person could understand. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Imagine how little would have been accomplished in mathematics if those same folks had made the assumption that certain things just couldn’t be done and that’s that.

    I don’t buy this “Well, you can maybe do it for calculus and probability but there’s no way you could do it for the hugely important and fancy math that _I_ do for a living” argument. It’s not easy, I’ll grant you that. Someone like me would need to study for years before even attempting it. But… really, fpqc? You can;t think of _any other phrases_ to use besides “discretized homotopy theory”? There is absolutely no other option than to talk about “concatenations of edges”? Would it kill you to carefully define what is meant by a combinatorial device, category theory, and simplicial sets, to give your listeners a framework for the discussion? Is there honestly absolutely nothing in anyone’s life experience than can be used as a rough analogy for your advanced concepts? I highly doubt it. You don’t notice the jargon because it MEANS something to you, a specialist’s shorthand. The trick is to bring your audience to the point where those words now mean something to THEM. It can be done. That part is just a vocabulary problem.

    Good communication is very, very hard, particularly when it comes to advanced math and science (although really, any discipline’s jargon is just as daunting — checked out literary criticism lately?). It’s a demanding discipline in its own right, and giving up too soon and concluding something can’t be done is — well, a bit like my former math-phobic self giving up too soon on math and concluding it just wasn’t my thing. We “laypeople” [and that is a loaded term in its own right, implying a sort of divine priesthood of pure mathematics] are not all stupid. Some of us are actually quite tenacious and may WANT to understand. We really appreciate it when we meet folks like Bisi who are equally tenacious in finding ways to improve our understanding.

  29. Greg Friedman

    @fpwc: I think there’s advice to be taken from the old maxim: know your audience. What audience needs to know about the specific details of your work in simplicial homotopy theory? If you’re talking to other topologists (such as myself), you’re probably mostly good to go . But since the original article seems mostly concerned with communicating to a broad audience, I agree that they won’t have the necessary background to appreciate the details, and so why give those details?

    I admit that it’s frustrating to not be able to communicate precisely what we do, but there is some satisfaction to be had in walking out to where the audience is and bringing them at least a little bit of the way. When people ask me what topology is, I usually start by reminding them that in geometry they learned about squares and circles and triangles and that size and length mattered. Then I tell them that in topology we don’t worry about size and length and angles and that to us those are all equivalent things. Then to give them an example of what I mean by that, I talk a little about knots and how a topologist only really cares about how the knot is knotted and not how long the piece of string is. Most people appreciate these concepts. When they ask me what that’s good for, I say a little about protein knotting. Does all of this have anything to do with what I do? Not really. But telling “lay people” that I do work on the intersection homology of high-dimensional stratified spaces is a quick way to end a conversation. If you really want to tell people what it is you do, you’re going to have to build a bridge with analogy.

    So maybe the short answer to your question about whether or not to give up on talking to lay people is yes and no: you shouldn’t give up talking to lay people about mathematics, but perhaps getting lay people up to speed on your research work is too big a task and an unnecessary one. Don’t give them what you do – give them an idea of what you do. If it’s a longterm relationship, build up to the details.

  30. fpqc

    Dear Greg,

    Yes, when I try to explain things to actual laypeople, I start with the notion of triangulating polyhedra, then non-triangulable spaces, singular complexes, etc., but to even get them that far is a huge challenge. When people ask me what it’s good for, though, I say a little bit about 3d modeling and animation, but I feel like I’m not being completely genuine when I cite that example.

    Dear Jennifer,

    I think that if I expanded out each and every one of my jargon terms, I’d be forced past any sort of page limit. My problem is that not only do people not share a reference frame with me, but they often don’t know enough to make anything out of anything defined algebraically. I could draw things on a blackboard and maybe get the audience to understand what I mean, but not in any sort of useful way.

  31. fpqc

    Dear Jennifer,

    For instance, here is Greg Friedman’s illustrated introduction to simplicial sets (which is excellent, by the way) http://faculty.tcu.edu/gfriedman/papers/simp.pdf , but it’s written for math students, and even still, it’s 50 pages long!

    I think that calculus, some probability theory, some number theory, and some combinatorics might be accessible to laypeople given the right presentation, but there is a certain boundary in mathematics, which delineates “how far you can get doing mathematics on the side” and “how far you can get doing mathematics as your main area of study”.

  32. fpqc

    Anyway, Carl, since you’ve written all of these biology books, you should write a math book for us! We’ve been awfully patient! Maybe you can show us how it’s done! =)!

  33. fpqc: Thanks, but I still bear scars from a failed attempt to write an article about surreal numbers.

  34. fpqc

    Aw, Carl, you’ve gotta walk before you can run! I mean, the surreal numbers are an extremely technical subject that practically nobody uses! You could try writing a popular book or even an article on category theory, which is becoming increasingly important in physics and is really something like the foundation of modern algebra, topology, and geometry (disclaimer: not everyone agrees with this statement). I’m not going to brow beat you any further, but I’m just going to give you a vote of confidence!

    Your most humble of servants,

    fpqc

  35. Jennifer Ouellette wrote: “…The trick is to bring your audience to the point where those words now mean something to THEM. It can be done. That part is just a vocabulary problem.

    Beyond vocabulary, one aspect of talking about mathematics that I often see overlooked has to do with the value of ideas to different individuals in different fields. Often that value doesn’t carry over from one field to the next, or a general audience (and the change can go both ways, lest you think math is always less valuable outside of mathematics!). That matters a lot to how things are framed and described.

    It’s been my experience that many mathematicians have only a foggy notion of the potential value of their work outside of mathematics, and that can greatly hinder their ability to give a good “cocktail party” summary of what it is they do. Furthermore, the (many) mathematicians that do work on something of value in other areas are often poorly equipped to translate what it is that they do and why that has value to an audience of non-mathematicians.

    Being able to eloquently interpret mathematical questions and results into some other context with different values, objects, processes and questions is often a very difficult thing to do. In most mathematics programs, nobody is taught how to translate “mathematical question and it’s mathematical answer” into “science question and science answer” as this is a substantially difficult thing to do in many cases — especially when you also need to explain the science Q&A to a general audience.

    So it seems then that writing about mathematics requires three levels of insight: 1) knowing the relevant mathematics, 2) understanding how to interpret the results into some non-math context, and 3) knowing why any of that matters to your audience.

    [PS: Just so people know where I'm coming from here, I'm currently finishing up an applied mathematics PhD, with a heavy biology/ecology background.]

  36. dj

    With online articles it is simple to define terms with html/css popups. Also there are resources like dictionary.reference.com. imho, people and organizations that do an excellent job explaining technical material of all sorts: PBS and Nova, Scientific America (hosted by Alan Alda) Frontline; Simon Singh, who wrote “Fermat’s Last Theorem”; plus.maths.org; John Allen Paulos. Science is competing with a lot of other media forces and demands on people’s time.

  37. Jennifer Ouellette wrote: “…The trick is to bring your audience to the point where those words now mean something to THEM. It can be done. That part is just a vocabulary problem.

    Beyond vocabulary, one aspect of talking about mathematics that I often see overlooked has to do with the value of ideas to different individuals in different fields. Often that value doesn’t carry over from one field to the next, or a general audience (and the change can go both ways, lest you think math is always less valuable outside of mathematics!). That matters a lot to how things are framed and described.

    It’s been my experience that many mathematicians have only a foggy notion of the potential value of their work outside of mathematics, and that can greatly hinder their ability to give a good “cocktail party” summary of what it is they do. Furthermore, the (many) mathematicians that do work on something of value in other areas are often poorly equipped to translate what it is that they do and why that has value to an audience of non-mathematicians.

    Being able to eloquently interpret mathematical questions and results into some other context with different values, objects, processes and questions is often a very difficult thing to do. In most mathematics programs, nobody is taught how to translate “mathematical question and it’s mathematical answer” into “science question and science answer” as this is a substantially difficult thing to do in many cases — especially when you also need to explain the science Q&A to a general audience.

    So it seems then that writing about mathematics requires three levels of insight: 1) knowing the relevant mathematics, 2) understanding how to interpret the results into some non-math context, and 3) knowing why any of that matters to your audience.

    [PS: Just so people know where I'm coming from here, I'm currently finishing up an applied mathematics PhD, with a heavy biology/ecology background.]

  38. I mean, the surreal numbers are an extremely technical subject that practically nobody uses!

    The “Wow! Zowee!” factor of surreal numbers is much higher than their “you need to know this to work in applied mathematics” index.

  39. fpqc

    Dear Blake, I mean something far more substantial: Among mathematicians, even, the surreal numbers are something of an odd man out. They lack the connections to other subjects of mathematics that delight mathematicians. For instance, there is a very deep relationship between the algebraic theory of numbers and the theory of algebraic geometry. Algebraic geometry can then be seen through the lens of algebraic topology and vice-versa. Galois theory becomes a special case of the theory of the étale fundamental group, and Galois cohomology is precisely the étale cohomology of fields in algebraic geometry. Methods are applicable backwards and forwards and all over. For instance, Quillen’s proof of the Quillen-Suslin theorem (at one point called Serre’s conjecture) considers chain complexes of modules as topological objects and uses covering arguments to prove it, even though the statement of the theorem is entirely algebraic. Deformation theory in algebraic geometry is governed by the so-called cotangent complex, which is more legitimately an object of _derived algebraic geometry_. The application of algebraic topology, in particular, stable homotopy theory, to algebraic geometry promises much more, including, among other things, a powerful interpretation of what the field with one element is (a paper of Andrew Salch shows that the sphere spectrum is the elusive universal base of algebraic geometry). The Langlands program promises to derive a deep relationship between the analytic theory of numbers and representation theory, and the geometric Langlands program aims to connect all of this to algebraic geometry.

    The surreal numbers are an interesting construction, but they don’t really have applications outside of combinatorial game theory. That is the sense in which I meant that practically nobody uses them!

  40. Having taught biology now for over 4 decades I totally agree and you would end up burying most textbooks in the process. Let me cast the first shovel of dirt in the grave. The average general biology textbook will introduce 4000 new terms! And in the process the conceptual forest is lost for all the terminological trees. Over 20 years ago a colleague and I wrote a nifty little biology book that taught the concepts bereft of all the jargon and no one would publish it, and most faculty hated it because “there wasn’t enough easily testable material”, i.e., nice terms that can be put into multiple guess questions and graded on opscans. As if that wasn’t bad enough these textbooks and many teachers put the terminological cart in front of the conceptual horse. Do you introduce a term, then define it, and then try to explain it? If so, you the problem. Nuf said.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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