How to avoid ‘dumbing down’ science

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To be ‘dumbing down’ is to patronise your audience. In this blog, I explain why this is so and share a few tips for how to avoid dumbing down science and using patronising language. 

Communicating science is a balancing act, where it’s easy to start questioning yourself. Is this too complicated? Does this explain the concept enough? Have I assumed too little knowledge? But there’s one thing that anybody working in a charity should avoid – “dumbing down”. 

Stop ‘dumbing down’

‘Dumbing down’ might seem an innocent phrase. In my experience, it almost always means a joke about themselves. For example, I’ve been asked by colleagues if I could “dumb down” some science for them. Or after telling at a networking event what I do, they might laugh and say: “ah, so you dumb down science for people like me”.

I hate the phrase “dumbing down”, in any context. Even when used as a joke, it reinforces the idea that you’re an idiot if you don’t know what I know. It divides people into two group – people who have specialist knowledge, and morons who don’t. 

Sadly, I’ve heard scientists and some science communicators use this phrase when referring to talking about research to the public. 

People aren’t idiots. People are busy and have priorities. We all have things that we are experts in and other topics about which we know nothing. We are not “dumb” because we don’t know about something. 

Avoid patronising

Let’s move away from using the term ‘dumbing down’ and move towards something else. 

When we want to avoid ‘dumbing down’ a piece of scientific research, what we mean is we want to avoid people feeling patronised. One dictionary defines “patronise” as to speak in a way which appears to be helpful or kind, but which betrays a feeling of superiority.  

No one likes being patronised because no one likes feeling that they’re not being treated as an equal.  

The idea of “dumbing down” is particularly counter-productive for charity communications. The conversation we want to be having with supporters or with patients is two-way, a dialogue. But if they feel like you’re speaking down to them (even if they label themselves as needing information “dumbed down”), it does not motivate them to get involved with the charity’s work. And so, charities may not benefit from their valuable insight or contributions from donors. Nobody benefits.

Simple language is not patronising 

There is a difference between patronising language, and simple, clear language – they are not the same thing. 

I think this idea comes from the myth that experts prefer to speak and communicate in complicated terminology. Indeed, jargon can sometimes be useful. If you’re speaking to a group of people who all understand the same vocabulary or acronyms, it’s going to be easier to talk to them using that same jargon. 

But even experts prefer simple language, as this article from Nielsen Norman Group explains. There is a temptation to speak in the complex language to people we perceive as intelligent. I think this temptation comes from wanting to fit in and show you’re also an expert. But the risk is it might come across as trying to show superiority, which can mean that people feel like they’re being talked down, whether they’re expert or not. 

On the other hand, just because you need to explain something simply, doesn’t mean you need to ‘dumb it down’. It’s still possible to patronise a child, for example.  

Tips for avoiding patronising language

When it comes to science communication, pitching it at the right level gets easier with experience, but is always a challenge. 

I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture. As long as you pitch the overall writing at the right level, your audience will probably forgive you for the odd sentence that assumes too little (or too much) knowledge. 

Whatever level you’re pitching your explanation, there are a few tips I would recommend avoiding coming across as condescending.

1. Check your attitude

First, it might be worth having a look at your attitude. Ask yourself, why are you writing this? What’s the purpose? Is the answer something like “I’m the expert, these people don’t know this, so I need to explain it to them until they do”? If so, then tread carefully as you write, and pay attention to the tone you use. 

2. Know your audience

people in a crowd

It’s old advice, but get to know who you are writing for. Learn what your audience do and don’t understand or what language they do or don’t use. Spend as much time with your audience as possible, or in the places where they are. 

For example, if the audience you’re mostly writing for is your charity’s supporters, get to as many events with supporters as possible, and have 1-on-1 conversations with them. If your charity runs ‘lab tours’ with supporters, get along to a few of them. Pay attention to the questions the attendees ask the researchers. 

Have a look at how people reply to your charity’s social media profiles or talk on forums. What are the search terms that people use on your website? What questions do people send via email?

3. Keep it to the essentials

In your writing, stick to only the necessary information. This is best practise when it comes to science communication anyway, as I suggest in this article about writing lay summaries of research projects. The fewer new pieces of information you introduce, the better chance your audience will have of remembering them. 

But extra information not only makes an explanation less clear than it could be. It also might come across like you’re trying to show how clever you are. 

4. Tell other people’s story carefully

hospital bed

We’ve been focussing on avoiding patronising your audience. But if you’re talking about someone else, you ought to be careful to avoid presenting them in a patronising way too. This is especially true for people with lived experience of illness and conditions aligned with your charity.

For example, consider: “He suffered from depression so badly, he struggled to even get out of bed, let alone hold down a job”. It comes across as belittling and pitying. It doesn’t treat the subject of this story with respect. You may have phrases or words that you tend to avoid in your charity, such as describing someone going through an illness as ‘brave’, or a ‘hero’ or ‘fighter’

Phrases to avoid

There are some specific phrases and words that you should be careful when using to avoid coming across as patronising. Many are often unnecessary, so should be edited out for clarity anyway. 

  • References to a knowledge gap. Phrases like “Let’s break that down” or “Let me explain that for you” can appear like you’re trying to remind the audience that they don’t know something (and that you do). 
  • References to an assumption of knowledge. For example: “As you know…” or “you’ll remember from biology at school that…”. The underlying message is “I think this is really simple stuff”, which could seem like you’re trying to be clever. Even worse, how would that make someone feel if they didn’t know that, or couldn’t remember that from biology at school? Yes, there might be something that you can assume everyone knows. But if everyone knows it, do you need to mention it? And if so, do you need to refer to the assumption that everyone knows it? It’s unnecessary.
  • References to how difficult something is. On the other hand, I’d also avoid phrases which refer to any lack of knowledge. Such as “This might sound complicated, but it’s…” or “You won’t know this, but…”. Even words like ‘actually’, ‘just’, and ‘only’, can sometimes be a little condescending. For example, “Genes are actually just the instructions cells use to make proteins”. These words and phrases are like telling the reader “you probably don’t know this, so I’ll try and make it simple as possible” – it’s patronising. 

Overall, I think the best advice I can give is to treat your audience as an equal. Tell them the story of your charity’s work as if they are a good friend. And remember that simple and clear language doesn’t have to be patronising.

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