Explaining science: laypeople, layers of meaning and lazy writing

Xanthocnemis damselflies. Image from Adrian Paterson.

I would estimate that about half of my time as a University lecturer is in writing/reading science. The vast amount of this is either writing or reading articles by scientists written for scientists. Science writing values precision over clarity and a layperson has very little chance of easily following along. And that is fine. Most science is primarily of interest to other scientists and we speak to one another in a kind of special language. Each word is carefully chosen and often has multiple meanings.

There are times, though, when we want to communicate with the rest of the world. Sometimes we do science that is of direct interest to the public. Sometimes we do science that we know the public would be happy to know about in a ‘gee whiz’ fashion. Sometimes it is just nice to think that someone other than your direct science peers knows about the work that you have done. Suddenly we have to explain things to the layperson (or, usually, the mythical ‘educated layperson’ because, you know, we still want to sound a little mysterious and, well, science-y). A quick re-edit of your science paper won’t do, that is just lazy. No, it requires a complete re-write.

EcoLincNZ is an attempt to make our local ecological science more accessible. Image from Adrian Paterson.

The main reason that we keep the EcoLincNZ blog trundling along is so that New Zealand (and other!) laypeople can see what research is being done in New Zealand and by New Zealanders. We mainly use the rest of society’s tax dollars or donations to do our science, especially in the ecology area, so it is only fair that we attempt to explain what we do and what we find in English (rather than science English…scienglish?). I’m not sure how well we do but at least we try. Other science blogs attempt to do the same.

Another initiative is the Atlas of Science project which is attempting to collect as many layperson summaries of papers as it can in order to spread new science information quickly. As an example, a paper that I was involved in writing was on variation in a New Zealand damselfly group (Xanthocnemis). Lead author Milen Marinov has summarized the research in this article ‘How can we observe the evolution of the species? An example of the New Zealand damselfly genus Xanthocnemis?‘ For an alternative take, I summarized this research on EcoLincNZ as ‘Concerning Hobbit subspecies: Tolkien and the taxonomy of damselflies‘. Milen has emphasized the evolution in action angle and I emphasized the value of knowing species. Different layers for the layperson. Sometimes the concepts are tricky to translate into ordinary English but that should not stop us trying our best to do this.


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