Stephen Jay Gould quote from izquotes.com
Over the years, I’ve frequently needed to refer to that set of people who are not trained as scientists. It comes up in “broader impacts” sections of grants, in proposals to support science communication activities, in discussions of how to motivate societal and political support for science, and lots of other places besides. It’s come up for me most recently as I work on a new book proposal. My first book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, was written for scientists, but this one* will be written for – well, describing that audience of people who are something other than scientists is what this post is about.
My go-to term has been “lay audience”, but I’ve always felt a slight but nagging discomfort with it. That’s because “lay” as an adjective has two related meanings. In “lay audience” I mean it in the sense of “not of a particular profession <the lay public>; also, lacking extensive knowledge of a particular subject”; but in a related sense, it also refers to “people of a religious faith as distinguished from its clergy” (definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The potential for bleed-through from the latter meaning, about distinction from a priesthood, is what concerns me a bit. As Ben Lillie recently put it on Twitter,
I don’t like the extent to which society often seems to think of scientists as a breed apart, as somehow different from other people. We’re not – we may happen to know more about science, but otherwise we’re just like other folks, with the same virtues and faults and in line at the same grocery store**. Once people understand this, they may be more open to engaging with what science and scientists have to offer society. So if the term “lay audience” undercuts this, I’m sympathetic to replacing it.
But with what? The obvious alternative is “general audience”, but it seems extremely vague. I asked via Twitter, and among the suggestions I got were “non-career scientists”, “non-specialists”, “people who are interested in science but don’t necessarily work in research”, and “human friends”. (I’m assuming the last one was a joke.)
This is absolutely true! We couldn’t interact usefully with the world around us without using the same inferential skills that are formalized as science. But I don’t think it helps much with the terminology problem; there is a difference in backgrounds between scientific and other audiences, and thus a difference in what they bring to the table when they pick up something you’ve written. Recognizing your audience accurately is essential to good writing; and describing that audience clearly is essential to a book proposal! Moving on: “non-specialists” names the audience as something it’s not (as does “non-career scientists”, for that matter); in its own way, this seem at least as exclusionary, if not more, as “lay audience”. It also has an unfortunate whiff of the deficit model for science communication, which is currently in disfavour. And as for “people who are interested in science but don’t necessarily work in research” even the person suggesting it agreed that it’s a little cumbersome.
So here’s where you’re going to help me. Please take the poll below; and if you’ve got more to say, please use the Replies. Remember, I’m looking for a term that’s respectful, but that avoids jargon and that’s clear and transparent without needing explanation each time it’s used. (No, I don’t want much. J) And thanks.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) February 6, 2017
*^It’s early days, but I’m excited. My working title is The Strangest Tribute, and the book will explore Latin names that honour people – explorers, naturalists, heroes, and occasionally bums. We think of Latin names as stodgy and dull, and some of them are; but others tell amazing stories, if we let them speak. You’ve seen a few examples here on Scientist Sees Squirrel – for instance, names in honour of Maria Sibylla Merian and of Charles Darwin and William Spurling.
**^This is not to cut down the value of the expertise we hold. Plumbers have more expertise than most about plumbing, lawyers about law, farmers about farming, scientists about science. None of those claims is elitist; and understanding their truth is the key to securing for society all the benefits of plumbing, law, farming, and science done well and applied well.