Too vulgarized?

Last week I talked about the need of proper scientific writers and proper vulgarization. Today I want to elaborate on the “proper” part. As with everything, there are always two extremes with vulgarization. We mostly talk and refer to the lack of, when scientists (myself included) have a hard time taking their research and putting it into more common terms. Case in point, every time I have to explain to my grandmother what is it that I do. I struggle to avoid the very specialized terms I’ve come used to using with people around me at the lab, but I get there and she has the general idea.

However, there is such a thing as too vulgarized, and most of the time, when this happens people get misinformed and get the idea that finally, science is not such a big deal. For example, yesterday was our nephew’s birthday. He got the visit of an educational zoo, with lizards, snakes, a ferret…bunch of little animals. She did a great job simplifying the terms and facts about the animals, when explaining to the kids (average of age was 6). But when a couple of adults asked questions…she kept using the same terms that she used with the kids. Now, I am not saying this was her fault, it could be that she only has that information about the animals, or she simply didn’t want to get too much into details. But it got me thinking, how a lot of times, what is sold as vulgarizing a subject tends to rather be infantilizing the subject, underestimating the audience.

This is a problem for me for several reasons. It not only assumes that the regular audience is incapable of grasping certain terms/ideas unless explained to them as if they were kids, and it takes the ideas to such a basic terminology that the point gets lost. You can always go for simpler terms, while incorporating the right definitions, and off course, giving sources and means for people to get more in depth information, shall they be interested in it.

I have mentioned before that when doing a presentation you have to know your audience, and this also applies to any type of communication. While the terminology used on your paper or thesis might not be ideal to explain to you dinner party why is so important to vaccinate addressing them as if the complexity of the subject is beyond their grasps also perpetuates the image of the scientist that thinks of the rest as commoners. A lot of people can be offended when they are feeling patronized, and with reason.

The key here is to find that balance in your discourse that is engaging, understandable and yet, remains true to its scientific nature. I am not saying, by any means, that I know how to find that balance. All I am pointing out is that we have to be careful not to go to the extremes.

Do you have any examples of "too vulgarized"? Please share them in the comments, and in the mean time, keep doing good science. 

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