succumbing to peer pressure

Monday, January 03, 2011


I have a love/hate relationship with jargon. On the one hand, I appreciate the very precise meanings of the technical words in my field. They aren't just a shorthand to increase the efficiency of communication between members of my field (though they are sometimes that as well). In many cases, synonyms for these words don't exist. I could write out several sentences to explain these words, but often that's actually less clear than the word itself.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that it doesn't matter how good your idea is if you can't explain yourself. All too often researchers hide behind jargon to intentionally prevent their audience from fully understanding their ideas (think of every thesis or dissertation defense you've ever seen).

I agree that it is both difficult and vital to be able to boil complicated ideas down into an understandable form. But where do we draw the line in imagining the audience we want to be able to understand us? We often refer to a 'lay' or 'non-technical' audience. But when did this become a synonym for a lazy audience?

I'm in the process of writing/editing a book chapter, describing a very complicated statistical technique. My understanding is that the audience for this chapter is people who may not have advanced math skills, but are conducting research which might benefit from this technique - i.e., attempting to count things that are difficult to count. I know I'm biased here, but I honestly believe that the clarity of the chapter is increased by the use of mathematical notation. Of course, I will define and fully explain all the funny little subscripts and superscripts (there aren't even any Greek letters!). But this method is complicated, and it is often described inaccurately, using examples and words that approximate the method but hide its subtleties. And as a result misunderstandings, misapplications, and misinterpretations run rampant. So I want to be clear. And accurate. And I need to use math to do that.

So is it completely unreasonable that when the editors indicate that people will stop reading as soon as they hit a section with math I think, well, they shouldn't be using this method anyway? And if they're serious about the research we're all alleging to do (trying to count things that are hard to count) shouldn't they be willing to grit their teeth through a few equations? Am I asking too much?