Don’t Dumb it Down

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, interpretation, that’s just dumbing down science so everyone can understand it.” If you’re an interpreter and you’ve ever said something similar, stop it. If you’re a scientist and you’ve said something like that, stop it. If you’re anybody else, not in one or both of those categories, and you find yourself using that phrase, stop it.

Putting something in terms that relate to that person’s experience or understanding is not “dumbing down.” It’s practicing good communication. And we certainly need more of that these days in all areas of work, home, school, and everywhere else we come into contact with other people.

I recently attended a panel discussion at the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs. The panel of four people offered different perspectives on the topic of the energy industry and its effect on the support (or lack thereof) of Congress and the American public on environmental issues. It was a fascinating discussion, filled with facts, analysis, opinions, and predictions. But what struck me as I listened was the need for more clear communication between the science community and everyone else, related not just to climate change but also every other topic that science touches on.

If scientists or interpreters claim that science needs to be “dumbed down” so that “regular” people can understand it, they’re being incredibly disrespectful to those very people whose support they seek. People are not “dumb” just because they are familiar with things other than that particular subject. Not all of us are nuclear physicists, just as not all of us are doctors, or biologists, or butchers. Everyone, no matter who or how old they are, or what they do, has a language of specialty related to their own experiences.

And this is where good interpretation comes in. Bridging between languages of specialty is as important as bridging between languages of country. You wouldn’t call someone who is fluent in other languages besides your own “dumb.” Instead, I would hope that you would work to find respectful ways to make yourself understood and to understand him or her. Using universal hand signals or pictures rather than words are certainly useful in those circumstances. Hmmm. Universals . . . there are concepts that are universal also, things that relate to almost everyone’s experience as a human being. Good interpretation draws on those universal concepts to help people understand and relate to the topic at hand. Not dumb. Different.

One of the panelists from the other day, Allen Hershkowitz (senior scientist of Natural Resources Defense Council), pointed out the need to get science messages out to the masses. He mentioned the frightening statistic that only thirteen percent of Americans follow science, while sixty-one percent follow sports. It’s no wonder we have people who still believe global climate change is a hoax in spite of the overwhelming evidence otherwise. Hershkowitz’s strategy of asking Hollywood stars and athletes to speak for science is brilliant. He refuses to preach to the choir, which is the fallback position of so many interpreters. We take the easy road, talking only to those people who come to our sites instead of reaching out to nontraditional audiences with important messages about our global natural and cultural heritage resources.

If we want to get those messages across, we need to challenge ourselves to translate more thoughtfully and respectfully, no matter who initiates or participates in the conversation. Stop “dumbing it down.”

Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Dumb it Down

  1. Great post! As someone who communicates about marine conservation I feel very strongly that one can’t alienate folks by using science lingo (which is the language needed to be accepted in science circles), you have to explain science and conservation ideas with clear language that will both make sense to and excite your audience.

    Thank you!


  2. Well said, Lisa. When I find myself wanting to substitute a ‘dumbed-down’ word for the one I really want to use (like ‘dihedral’, or ‘ophiophagus’), I stop myself, and purposefully use the more scientific word– in a context where the other words in the sentence point to its meaning. It lets people know that you believe they can handle the scientific terminology, and, if they don’t already know it, gives them a chance to learn a new word!

  3. Bravo! I find myself making the same argument with scientist science writers and technical communicators every other day. No wonder there’s such a disconnect between the public and basic science.

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