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

The Hunger Games: fiction that brings out racist, sexist reality

I haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie yet, but I’m soaking up lots of sociological analyses and outraged reactions on teh Internets. A story about a fictional, horrendous society seems to be spurring reactions that highlight real-world heinousness.

First, I read that some people consider Jennifer Lawrence to be ‘too big’ to play Katniss Everdeen.

Too big.

Just right.

You're right, Christian Bale. That's kind of messed up.

I’ll repeat that I haven’t seen The Hunger Games. But the movie piqued my interest because I was impressed by Winter’s Bone and by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in it. Not once did I think, oh, that apple-cheeked beauty is inappropriate; shouldn’t the daughter of a meth cook in the rural Ozarks be rail-thin with a paradoxically pregnant belly, ratty hair and missing teeth?

Should the star of a movie called The Hunger Games look hungry? Should a rail-thin, punk-rock, running-for-his-life, involuntary time traveler-librarian (as described in the book) be played by Eric Bana, aka The Incredible Hulk? Can you recall the last time someone commented on the appropriateness of a male actor’s body for a role, except to commend him for gaining a bunch of muscle (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) or losing a scary amount of it (Christian Bale in The Machinist)?

As L.V. Anderson points out,

If we held actors’ physical appearance to a standard of strict realism in all movies, most Hollywood actors would be uncastable in films set in present-day America. Movie critics suspend their disbelief all the time—and when they suddenly refuse to do so for a female actor whose body looks more like an average woman’s body rather than less, it’s hard to see that as anything but sexist.

Second, I read that several Twitter users outed their inner racists by complaining about the casting of two characters in The Hunger Games. At least some of those Twitter accounts have since been deleted, probably because they were being firebombed, and rightfully so.

I’m not clear on what people are referring to when they call ours a post-racial society. Have not the stories of Trayvon Martin and Jeremy Lin made it utterly clear that it is no such thing? We still see race and we still think in terms of it, consciously or unconsciously. Big black man = scary, dangerous. Tiny blonde white girl = innocent, pure. These stereotypes are so strong that some people’s minds actually whitewashed characters that the book clearly described as dark.

Actually, the only post-racial societies I can think of aren’t real. They’re science fiction. More on that later.

Nuclear War Still Not a Good Idea

A NASA computer simulation shows that nuclear war could throws up a huge soot cloud that warms, rises, and blocks sunlight to cool the Earth. Now that’s the kind of climate change we like to see!

Except there’s also that pesky nuclear winter thing. You know, where the crops die for lack of sunlight and millions of people starve to death.  Not to mention the huge amounts of mutating radiation and radioactive isotopes that cause widespread death and suffering for many years afterward.  What’s more, all that crap in the upper atmosphere helps break down the ozone layer and let in even MORE cancer-causing radiation from the sun.

The original story from National Geographic News gets it mostly right and puts the “nuclear winter” caveat up high. Unfortunately, it has an eye-catching, idiotic headline:

Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming For Years? (National Geographic news, Feb 22)

Which spawned a ton of stupidly angled follow-ups, some from usually decent news sources:

A Small Nuclear War Would Stall Global Warming (Live Science, 2011 Feb 28)

Reuters picked up the story more than a week later, which is a sign of desperation for copy. Their version of the story doesn’t mention nuclear winter effects till near the end, which is news-speak for “that part is not important or background.” Actually, it IS important, and if you spent five minutes THINKING about the background info, you would realize that putting global warming in the lede and head is a totally cheap scrabble for readership:

NASA: Limited nuclear war could pause global warming (Reuters, 2011 Mar 03)

And it’s just a matter of time until a conservative news source like New American pitches the story as proof that government scientists are crazy:

Govt Scientists Propose Nuclear War to Curb Global Warming (New American, 2011 Mar 03)

Really, this research is about NASA flexing its computer modeling muscles. That nuclear war would be a devastatingly bad thing is decades-old news. The NEWS is that we have a much better ability to describe exactly how bad. Wired, thank goodness, got it right:

How One Nuclear Skirmish Could Wreck the Planet (Wired, 2011 Feb 25)

Yay Boo everyone else.