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Science Wednesday: Translating Science into English

2008 August 27

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Grace Camblos is a writer and photographer. Since 2006 she has worked as a student services contractor with the Office of Research and Development’s Science Communication Staff.

Photo of author, Grace CamblosIf an EPA scientist were to tell you, “we use Bayesian analysis to find the range of possible parameter values for our pharmacokinetic models”…would you know what she meant? What if you read in an EPA report that “exposure to residual oil fly ash increases airway reactivity and pulmonary eosinophils during allergic sensitization”?

If you have a background in science, those phrases might make perfect sense to you. But what about those of us without degrees in molecular biology or organic chemistry?

To a large chunk of people, the language of science seems full of mysterious jargon and phrases designed to make our eyes glaze over – or worse, that threaten to overwhelm us and make us feel stupid.

As a writer with EPA-ORD’s Science Communication Staff, it’s my job to translate the language of science into words that everyone can understand, regardless of their familiarity with science. I help write the articles, press releases, fact sheets and web copy that people might find as they browse EPA’s Web site.

Translating science into English can be challenging, to say the least. It’s a balancing act: my words need to be accurate enough to convey what the scientists really mean, but understandable enough to keep the readers interested. It does no one any good if I write about a fascinating, important study, but the reader gives up after the first two sentences.

My own lack of a science background actually has advantages in this situation. I have no problem asking questions when talking to scientists, because if I don’t understand, then there’s a fair chance that readers won’t either. (On the other hand, not having a science background does make getting through those dense scientific reports more difficult. But then, it’s my job to read through the science-ese so others don’t have to. Just think of me as the Cliffnotes version of EPA science.)

Communicating EPA’s science to the public is an important job. As a federal agency, we’re answerable to the public, and clarity of language goes a long way toward more transparency in government. Plus, as more people understand and support the work we do to protect the environment, more funding for environmental protection may come available, creating yet more chances to do good work.

Good science communication: It’s a win-win idea.

To read articles written by the Science Communication Staff, check out www.epa.gov/ord.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill S. permalink
    August 27, 2008

    Grace:

    I make my living almost EXACTLY the way you do. And I’ve been doing it for about 25 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve been reporting on EPA rules, policies, reports, guidance, etc., etc., for my readership. (In addition to the output of other federal agencies, states, and industry and environmental organizations.) Our readership is professional so I probably don’t have to simplify the technical language as much as you do. But our publication prides itself on rendering techno-speak into something more akin to business-speak.

    I often ask myself if it is possible in what I do to be both clear and accurate. I’ve decided that in most cases it is not. “Simplifying” a scientific concept or practice by re-writing or condensing the original language that describes that concept or practice is by necessity creating a gap, and sometimes a very wide gap, between the reader and the science. Hard science can be spoken about in generalizations that are probably true. Or perhaps is more correct to say they are not “untrue.” But when one ponders all that is left out in these generalizations and simplifications, it is really absurd to say that what we are writing is “accurate.”

    The goals, as I see it, are to be careful to not say things that are incorrect, to find those parts of the original document that are easily comprehensible and reuse them, and to be eternally grateful for executive summaries and those wonderful fact sheets and FAQs that federal agencies generate. And, if you are responsible for any fact sheets or FAQs, I’d like to thank you personally.

  2. Alex permalink
    August 27, 2008

    The guys at WNYC’s Radiolab just did a podcast which was about this kind of thing. It was actually a recording of one of the hosts giving a commencement address at Cal Tech. He spoke about how important it was for these scientists and engineers to make an effort to make their work understandable to non-scientific folks. Do check it out. It’s pretty great.

    http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2008/07/29/tell-me-a-story/

  3. California health insurance permalink
    August 29, 2008

    Hi Grace!
    You certainly do a good job in making your articles understandable to your readers.

    We also have the same concern when it comes to medical lingo. In an article in cbc news: a new study found that using complicated medical jargon can be confusing, anxiety inducing and potentially dangerous for patients. An example given is when you tell a patient, “You have a benign lesion on your liver.” The person might only hear the words “lesion” and “liver,” and assume they have a dire condition.

    These jargons often alarm people over harmless things. Their health would be more at risk due to added strain and tension when not construed.

    Regards,
    California health insurance

  4. Family Health Insurance permalink
    November 5, 2010

    Great post and information was insightful. I agree that things typically get way more complicated than they need to be. At least there are still some quality sites out there with great information like this one.

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