Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Telling It Like It Is

Please allow me a brief personal diversion into a topic that I feel quite strongly about.  I don't mean to disparage any particular academic or researcher, so I won't divulge specifically the source of these sentences, but please read the following that crossed my desk in a scientific article recently:

Unsafe conditions (exposure to hazards) are shaped through a series of disaster risk drivers generated from processes, priorities, resource allocation and production–consumption patterns that result from different socio-economic development models. In essence, disaster risk drivers emanate from the ways the basic goals and parameters for growth and societal definitions of development are established and implemented.

I believe what the authors were saying could have been more simply stated, perhaps like this:

Because social and economic conditions vary by community, we expect to see each have their own unique priorities, different patterns of production and consumption, goals for resource allocation, and patterns of physical growth and development. These characteristics, in turn, contribute to unique exposures to hazards or risks that must be addressed.

Without having completed the original research, I'm only interpreting the writers' intent.  And as you'll see in reading entries in this blog I'm as guilty as anyone for resorting to imprecise, jargon-clouded language.  But my point is that we should all try to find ways to say what's needed in a manner that is more easily understood by all.

"The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed on October 13, 2010. The law requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use."  The Federal government's web site addressing this law includes a number of guides, helpful hints, and even some humorous examples to illustrate the need for the use of plain language in all government documents and records.

When it comes to the topic of hazard mitigation and resiliency in communities, where citizens and government officials need to be "on the same page" with the scientists and engineers, it goes well beyond simple "best practice."  When addressing natural hazards and preparing for potential impact on human activities, clear communication is absolutely critical and can save lives.

It's not just external (community) communication either.  There are real benefits for scientists and researchers themselves to adopt a more "plain language" approach for all technical writing--even among peers.  Lily Whiteman, a contributor to the Washington Post and a senior writer for the National Science Foundation, shares the following:

Plain language is one of our best tools for improving scientific literacy and encouraging wise decision-making by the public on science-based issues. It is important for scientists to use plain language not only to reach the public; but also to reach one another. Indeed, scientific information conveyed in plain language invariable reaches bigger scientific audiences than information conveyed in technical language. Evidence of this includes the following:

A recent study showed that medical articles reported in The New England Journal of Medicine and then reported in The New York Times receive about 73 percent more citations in medical reports than do articles not reported in The New York Times.

The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine is a nationally successful journal with the best readership growth trend and advertising growth trend in its market. But The Cleveland Clinic Journal wasn’t always so successful. Until the mid-1990s, it was a forgettable, low circulation journal. How did the editors of The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine dramatically increase their readership? By replacing their journal’s dense, long-winded, jargon-filled style with an alternative style that incorporates the principles of plain language.

The quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

I couldn't have said it better. Or more clearly. 

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