On Vulgarization

The image of the lone scientist observing natural phenomena or creating systems and theories in ("splendid") isolation is now understood to be an unrealistic image --a myth, now viewed as an idealization even in the science of previous eras.

      --Manual of Scientific Style, 2009.

As I've mentioned a couple of times, after deciding I no longer wanted to remain in academia once I finish my PhD, I would like to go into scientific writing. It seems funny to me how much in need of people dedicated to this craft our society is. 

You might be puzzled by what I just said, but the thing is, a lot of journalist that are in charge of the science area of your newspaper or even TV news (and this is when there is a science area) are people who sadly lack a scientific background. Without such background it can be hard to pass the right message on scientific developments. Off course it can be done, but as anything, the more you understand one subject the easier is to explain it to others and make it more accesible.

One of the definitions of vulgarization is "To disseminate widely; popularize". However, there is a faint line between popularizing a subject and just using less complicated words and assuming that is enough. Case in point, I was reading about the case of a man in Kansas, who died due to an infection with a brand new described virus (Bourbon virus, you can read a bit more about it here) on an article from my local newspaper. 

At the end of the article, the journalist wrote that the person died "even though doctors had given him antibiotics". The thing is, you cannot treat a virus infection with and antibiotic. We discussed this with my boyfriend, A, and we had several hypothesis: maybe he had a bacterial infection along with the viral infection and that's why he was getting antibiotics; maybe the journalist meant antivirals instead of antibiotics. Either way, the information was erroneous, and what is worst, it can be read by someone without enough knowledge as if some viruses could actually be treated by antibiotics. 

My point here is that the person reporting this news should've had the knowledge, but because not a lot of us actually go into this path...well, that's what you get. There is a ridiculous believe that vulgarizing can be bad, amongst certain scientist (not pointing fingers, but mostly older ones, sorry!), that we should stay in our high horse, riding along with unnecessarily complicated jargon and look over our shoulders for the "laypeople"...And then be offended when a so called celebrity gets people to stop vaccinating. 

No, we as scientist have the responsibility to not only share our knowledge with our scientific community, but also with the rest of the world, and we have to be able to do so in simple, but not simplistic terms, an issue I will tackle next week. We have to be able to share those amazing things that we see everyday and explain what makes them so amazing to others. That is why I want to be a scientific writer. That is why I think we need more of them. 

What do you think of vulgarization? Please let me know in the comments, and in the mean time, keep doing good science. 

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