How do you respond to the charge that something is “dumbed down”?

As a science communicator and ex-science teacher, the most common criticism I hear from academic scientists about my work is that it’s “dumbed down.” I just read the same phrase in this fascinating but infuriating account in PLoS ONE of the results of a survey of biologists and physicists about science outreach. I had such a knee-jerk rage reaction that I needed to stop and consider why I hate it so much. It strikes me as condescending and elitist. Scientists who consider communication to non-science audiences “dumbed down” imply that non-scientists don’t understand science jargon because they are stupid. This is kind of the same feeling I get watching Americans yell baby talk to anyone who looks foreign or speaks with an accent. They’re not stupid or deaf. They just don’t speak your language. And that goes for other scientists who aren’t specialists in your exact field of study. How many physicists understand what I’m talking about when I’m saying this new protein is a toll-like receptor?

Fellow science communicators, how do you respond when a scientist comments that a popular science piece is “dumbed down”? Do you have a handy phrase or two to substitute?

UPDATE: replies from the Twitterverse

3 Comments

  1. Hi Sandra,

    I faced the same challenge as a healthcare communicator. Some physicians had a resistance to communicating medical terminology in ways people without medical degrees could understand. And, communicating that information so it’s meaningful for the audience. I had to tell my local audience how medical care solved their problems or benefited them.

    Since doctors like data, I asked my target audience for feedback on my communications and the results determined which message was used. I didn’t have much time or money so I just asked hospital inpatients for feedback. It worked really well, especially for information I created for hospital websites.

    I hope that helps your case.

    • Sandra

      Hi Mary,
      This scenario sounds very familiar. I actually took my first, unknowing step into the field of science communication as a health communicator back when I was in college … but that’s a story for another day. I really like your approach of using data in the form of audience feedback to inform your choice of message. Thanks for sharing that! I will find a way to use it …
      I think scientists and physicians worry about not sounding smart and authoritative and/or coming across as condescending. The former is just silly, and the latter is more of a tone issue. Most don’t give a second thought to converting to vivid, jargon-free speak when they’re explaining something to children. Then I have to ask them how it is that children deserve clear, interesting explanations but curious adults don’t?
      The other point I like to make is that you can’t assume anyone understands what you’re saying. A lot of folks pretend to understand jargon because they don’t care what the speaker is talking about enough to sort it out (which is a failure on the speaker’s part to connect and make it interesting or relevant), are too polite or impatient to interrupt, or are afraid they’ll sound stupid when they ask you to slow down or explain unfamiliar words. I know this because I myself used to miss huge amounts of information for all of the above reasons, and because I’ve taught science and interviewed lots of scientists. In the case of a doctor talking over the head of her patient, her patient is going to walk away with a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance that could be harmful or even deadly. Primum non nocere, indeed.

  2. Patricia Yeargin

    Thank you. It does sound insulting to say that something is “dumbed down” for the general public. I’ve argued with others over the same thing — obviously, even scientists have to start somewhere. I think of all the intelligent people who don’t know science or medical concepts but have no trouble understanding if the ideas are explained clearly; however, your picture of someone yelling at person who doesn’t speak the language is much more descriptive.

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