Communciating science effectively or Dude, you are speaking Romulan

Sustainability and resilience are trans-disciplinary research areas that require communication among people from many different backgrounds.  Communication benefits from being clear, and avoiding unnecessary jargon.  Sometimes making the efforts to articulate thoughts clearly can significantly advance disciplinary knowledge.

Chemical oceanographer Chris Reedy has funny article about improving interdisciplinary communication from AGU’s EOS, Dude, you are speaking Romulan, which was reposted on the Plainspoken Scientist, an AGU blog on science communication.  Chris Reddy writes:

During the height of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, I joined a group of engineers and other scientists to discuss the evidence for an oil plume, at least 22 miles long and about a mile wide, floating 3000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. As the chemist in the group, I wondered aloud about how we could exploit the aqueous solubilities of the petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes to understand plume formation. I suspected the key to knowledge lay in the plume’s chemical properties.

“Dude, you are speaking Romulan,” one of my colleagues blurted out. The engineers in the group gave me a look, and steered the conversation to the relative merits of different types of statistical processing of data collected in and around the plume. I don’t know from statistical processing, so I hit back: “Dude, you are speaking Romulan.”

As Star Trek fans know, Romulans are a race often at odds with the Federation (they later signed a peace treaty). Romulans speak in three dialects and write with square or rectangular letters. Telling your colleague that he or she is speaking Romulan is a friendly way of saying, “I don’t understand you,” or that you are using jargon, speaking too fast, using acronyms, or jumping over the natural progression of an argument or idea.

What is surprising is that we have these communication breakdowns despite my colleagues also being my friends. We work at the same institution. I have been to sea with them. I know their dogs, eat dinner at their homes, and jointly lament the standing of the Red Sox. Even though we know each other well, our differing scientific specializations can cause us to speak different languages. For us, our small group was willing to recognize these differences and set the ground rules for using the “Romulan phrase.”

Almost every pressing scientific and environmental problem demands the attention of scientists from diverse disciplines as well as the expertise of economists, planners, and sociologists. With a little effort and less ego, we need to aim for a lingua franca that can be understood by a politician, a shrimp farmer, a toxicologist, a lawyer, an accountant, and a Romulan, too.

One thought on “Communciating science effectively or Dude, you are speaking Romulan”

  1. I’ve witnessed this approach backfire in my professional circle. Working in an agency that produces technical, but public documents, I have been told to tone down the jargon from time to time. What kills me is when I am told to write scientific, technical documents “at a 5th grade level”.

    One time this was taken literally and someone took a document home and had their 5th grade son read it. Anytime he came across a word he did not know, it was edited to be consistent with his vocabulary! The term “submerged aquatic vegetation” was changed to “plants that grow underwater”. “Salinity” was changed to “salt in the water”. Luckily, common sense prevailed this time and many of the edits were rejected.

    I will try not to speak Romulan, but, dude, please don’t make me speak “Dude” like I don’t have a grasp of the basic subject matter. It also insults the average audience.

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