AMSS 2019: Looking back at Jargon and Social Media

Last week was a whirlwind of presentations, talks, and workshops. It was a lot of information to take in over four days, but I managed to leave Anchorage with many new ideas, thoughts, and reflections bouncing around in my brain. Some of those ideas are going to manifest as changes on, but others will be shared here on 60º North Science.

Reflections on Jargon

Both over the summer and over the last week, we had a lot (and I mean a lot) of discussions about technical language and readability in science communication. I wrote a post on jargon in sci-comm over the summer where I discussed making your communications more accessible through careful word choice. It was a surprisingly difficult post to write, in large part due to the sheer amount of opinion and information on the topic. In the end, I settled on talking about using (or not using) technical language, and why I might decide to use one word over another.

“Dude, you are speaking Romulan”

My time at AMSS reminded me of one of my discarded ideas for the jargon post: sometimes, scientists even have trouble understanding one another.

While everyone at AMSS is involved in marine science in some way, we all come from different backgrounds and have different specialties and disciplines. Those specialties can be divergent enough that communicating across disciplines becomes difficult. This became especially apparent during the talks focusing on ocean acidification, sea ice loss, and stable isotope analysis. I know enough chemistry and oceanography to get the gist of these presentations, but the finer details may as well have been in Greek.

a graph showing carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis
I’m 99% certain stable isotope analysis is actually black magic. (Image: Müldner, 2009)

Christopher Reedy at the Plainspoken Scientist blogged about this very same topic in 2010. Reedy suggests that before we try communicating with non-scientists, we should try communicating with each other first. I really like this suggestion, and in fact, some of my first forays into science communication were talking about evolutionary biology and ecology with my engineering friends. And, in the future, I will definitely be picking the brains of any oceanographers or marine chemists I meet. 

Readability and science communication

In my jargon post, I really only touched on readability and largely ignored the wonderful world of readability tests and ease of reading. In general, the powers that be recommend that writers and journalists aim for a 7th grade reading level when writing for the public. But, as Jude Isabella discussed in the Communicating Marine Sciences workshop, sometimes it’s really, really difficult (if not outright impossible) to simplify science writing to that degree.

This difficulty primarily stems from how reading levels are calculated. The most popular method, the Flesch-Kindcaid reading test, uses a variety of factors (sentence length, word length, and total word count) to spit out a score that corresponds to reading level. The higher the score, the lower the reading level, and the easier the passage is to read. It’s a useful test, but use of any technical terminology is likely to lower your score and thus your “readability.”

Readability tests are a useful tool, but I don’t think scientists and science communicators should sacrifice meaning or precision in their writing just to achieve a better readability score. Like Up Goer Five, I think readability tests can be a fun exercise in complicating (or un-complicating) your writing, but I don’t let readability scores rule my writing.

screenshot of readability score
An early draft of this post scored a grade level of 13, which is my typical readability score.

Reflections on social media

Near registration, I found a really cool handout from the American Geophysical Union:


The information on AGU’s handout doesn’t differ much from what I shared over the summer, but it’s formatted into a nice chart and includes a sort of pre-planning worksheet. AGU’s website also has numerous resources and guides for social media and other forms of science communication. AGU’s resources expand upon the information I covered in my post from July, and are definitely worth a look if you’re interested in using social media in your outreach.

Like science itself, science communication is not a solitary endeavor. Talking with and more importantly listening to others is how we move forward with new ideas and fresh perspectives. AMSS was a great opportunity to do both of those things, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to attend.

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