Help! What term should we be using for a “lay audience”?

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,lay-lillie

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.)

None of these terms seem much better to me.  “Non-career scientists” was suggested by Michelle Larue, who says: lay-larue

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 (sheard@unb.ca) 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.

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36 thoughts on “Help! What term should we be using for a “lay audience”?

  1. crowther

    Might the best answer depend on your audience when using the term? When talking/writing to other PhD scientists, “lay audience” seems compact and clear (and not overly dismissive or disrespectful), but if I were to use that term in conversation with an actual lay audience, it would feel jargony, and I would feel compelled to explain it apologetically.

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    1. Crazy-About-Sciences

      “science enthusiasts”? with professionals there is an underlying enthusiasm as part of the reason you become a scientist, so “science enthusiasts” can comfortably refer to lay scientists without the clerical issues and threats to your life from wildly odd people with a severe lack of sensibility

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  2. Jim Robertson

    Being a lay-person who does not appreciate that term….. I voted for “everyone” as that is more inclusive (slightly?☺) than “general audience”. Being very picky “general” could imply/infer (I never get that right) “non-specialist” in any field.

    Surely the book will be intended for anyone who wants to write in a way to be understood by everyone.

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  3. sleather2012

    I’m not too unhappy with general public or lay audience to be honest, but if you want something that is positive and general, how about the “inquisitive-minded” or “anyone with an inquisitive mind”

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        I do like the sound of it, but it isn’t specific (that is, scientists are ALSO inquisitive-minded). So then we have to specify “inquisitive people who are not scientists”, which takes us right back to the problem I started with, doesn’t it?

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  4. Chandra Moffat

    List of terms ok with me: the public; the general public; non-specialists
    Not ok with me: anything with the word lay – negative connotation IMO and I think it can be taken as an insult by some

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  5. @manogenome

    Since I opted for something else, let me briefly state why I ruled out the listed terms in your poll.

    First, It was easy to eliminate both “a non-specialist audience” and “non-career scientists”. While a “non-specialist audience” could refer to another group of scientists outside a particular field of reference, a “non-career scientists” could refer to PhDs pursuing a career outside the regular academics.

    Then, choosing “everyone” would convey that one doesn’t know his/her target audience. Though “a general audience” is very close to “a lay audience” in this context, it is unlikely to be a catchy pitch to the publisher. The other phrase is too long and descriptive that cannot serve as a replacement for “a lay audience”.

    So, I would suggest to go with something like this – this book is written for the **audience/people beyond/outside the research/scientific network/enterprise**. I think any word combination of your choice from the above phrase should conserve its meaning and serve the purpose.

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  6. Eric Lawton

    Even scientists are “lay” with respect to most disciplines. For example, PhD in ecology doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a “scientist” with respect to quantum field theory.

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  7. Thad

    “All of us” – include yourself with the audience…we’re all searchers and learners. It makes it more personable. To put it in way “we all” can understand and relate to. Don’t divide the audience from the “experts”.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I understand the thinking behind this – I really do! But at least for a book proposal, it simply won’t fly. Publishers want to know that an author has thought about defining, and writing to, a particular audience. This is an explicit part of the instructions for a proposal, at least from the two presses I’ve dealt with! So we need a term with more precision…

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  8. Morgan Jackson

    Obviously this is a tough nut to crack, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, especially since our Twitter conversation a few weeks back. Who’d have thought language would be so tough to nail down…

    I still don’t have a good answer, and I’m not even sure one exists. However, I maintain my objection to “general public”, mostly because, to me at least, that puts those you’re not referring to (in this case taxonomists/biodiversity scientists) into a category akin to “exceptional public” by default. While I may joke that we taxonomists really are exceptional among our peers, I absolutely abhor that correlation being made regularly without thought.

    I still think I align better with “those curious about X”, even with the warnings of deficit model theory attached (although I should note I’ve yet to understand how that can be referred to as “the flip side of the deficit model coin” as Terry McGlynn pointed out on Twitter). I can’t force anyone to learn/read something, nor do I think anyone would care if only they knew more, but I can provide my expertise and resources to those who have questions and a curiousity about a subject.

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  9. Tobi

    How about not assuming the competence or level of understanding of the audience by using an unflattering prefix or patronizing adjective and simply refer to people as “the audience”? The word “audience” includes everyone but the speaker or the actor and nobody will feel insulted.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I understand the motivation, but unfortunately I think this fails on two points. First, as a practical matter, for a book proposal it is required that one defines the target audience, and “everybody” won’t cut it – that just leads an editor to assume you haven’t thought things through, or else are naive about publishing. Second, as a substantive matter: “assuming the competence or level of understanding of the audience” is part of one’s job as a writer. Imagine you are writing a piece about gorillas. It might be for J. Mammalogy, for National Geographic, or for your local newspaper. These have three different audiences and they do differ in what they bring to the table. Effective writers recognize that they are working with a particular audience! Not naming that audience just pretends otherwise, doesn’t it?

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      1. Tobi

        “Not naming that audience just pretends otherwise, doesn’t it?” The fact that we have non-experts interested in consuming scientific information says it all. Further, a lay audience may consist of scientists. It only means that they are not experts where an expert is operationally defined as a practicing individual. One of my favorite subjects is psychology. I went through the trouble of learning the theories and research methodologies. I have had conversations with experts in that field. Frankly, I don’t practice psychology but I’m interested enough that I would be able to conduct research in some areas. I admit that not all enthusiasts would go as far but a level of interest would certainly be in place for hanging out with experts. I also admit that some fields (e.g. quantum physics) are more obscured than others but the mode of communication would be more important in this case. I concede however that if a publisher requires that one define her/his audience, one might have to do so and there is commercial value for it. For instance, a non-expert might not willingly pick up a book on evolution or quantum mechanics unless it says “for non-experts”. The keywords in all of these are “experts” and “non-experts”. Either of these words can define a scientist and a non-scientist depending on the situation. That’s why I think the word “audience” might be a safe choice.

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  10. Macrobe

    Had this very discussion with a colleague many years ago when collaborating on an article for a popular magazine. After questioning both fellow scientists and non-scientists, we agreed that ‘general audience’ sufficed with no derogatory or pretentious subtleties.

    On the other hand, word usage is contextual. So the term you use may depend on your target audience.

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  11. Amy Savage

    I like public audiences. It corresponds well with public science and can include non-experts as well as scientists whose specialty is different from your own. It also lacks the negative connotation of ‘lay people’.

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  12. AthenaC

    As a non-scientist and as a Catholic lay person, I am completely comfortable with the term “lay audience.” I see it as simply a statement of fact using an established term, with no negative connotations that come to mind.

    I have enough confidence in myself (and remember enough about division of labor from my college economics classes) to see myself as a member of the “lay audience” not because of my relative capabilities, but because I happen to be doing non-sciencey things with my life.

    But I really do like the imagery of scientists as an arcane priesthood, with different rituals and traditions for, say, the Order of the Ornithologist, or the Brotherhood of Botanists. 😀

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  13. Manu Saunders

    I think the most appropriate term depends on what the text is, as there are varying degrees of ‘not a scientist’. Funnily enough, the term ‘lay’ comes from the Greek word laos, which originally referred to a group of people separated from ‘everyone’ by common interests/race/religion etc…kind of the opposite of how we use it now!

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  14. Jeff Rubin

    I think it’s a useful consideration, but you’re asking two different questions: the book’s audience and more general usage. I’ve never been wild about “lay public,” either, but I think “general audience” or “general public” is fine for the book. I think the interest/curiosity of the individual prospective reader will be the final filter, regardless of whether you choose a more specific phrase, so the less mental contortion, the better.

    For broader applications, as some of the other comments already mention, I think the audience is best defined by the specific occasion, but I’d still go with less contortion. In some of my presentations, I use “people who [don’t] do this for a living,” which seems understandable without creating a barrier. It recognizes that there are plenty of specialties out there, some of which are in the sciences.

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  15. Karen Tremblay

    Depends who the sentence is for. In a proposal to the publisher, I’d go with more formal sounding: (like @manogenome’s suggestion: this book is written for the **audience/people beyond/outside the research/scientific network/enterprise). For a dust jacket: “This book is written for people who are curious about science (or scientific names?).” Doesn’t automatically exclude “scientists” (who may enjoy a book about taxonomy), but has an implied “you’re curious because you don’t work in science” feel?
    2¢ from a general public. ; )

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  16. drake1987

    I agree with an earlier post. There are 2 goals trying to be achieved here.

    Book proposal:
    I think that there is a way to “sell” your book’s general audience as the “science literate,” the “science fan” or the “science faithful.” I don’t think scientists should be concerned about the use of religiously ensconced words. People are “faithful” to sports teams, just like they are “fans” of them. For a publisher, it gives them a specific, manageable (and marketable), clade of people to figure out if the book can be sold to for a profit.

    For Use As a Career Researcher/Scientist Describing Audience:
    The best I have managed to come up with was the “science consumer.” I think this is good on many aspects. Although we all consume science on a daily basis, researchers/scientists also produce that science. Farmers, like their costumers, also eat the produce of their labor. Yet they have a specific designation based on what side of the production line they are on. I also believe that it is a good label not only for the audience, because it makes them feel connected to the process, but also it is good for us, the scientists. By labeling someone a consumer of an item, it gives inherent value to the consumed product. In a terrible use of bad logic, if something was consumed, then there was a high probability that there was a demand for said product. Basically it means that the “science consumer” wants the product we are producing as science producers. And at the same time, this label neither demeans the audience, nor does it necessarily elevated the speaker/presenter. The consumer has come to a marketplace to “buy” what we, the science practitioners are “providing.” There is a mutually interest in the transaction. Also the “science consumer” label works over “lay audience” because it can be modified to provide a general sense of the level of science interest/literacy. Just as there are people that drink a lot of coffee, there are those that drink little. So, the phrase could be a “regular science consumer” or “frequent science consumer” compared to a “light science or infrequent consumer of science.” I admit, if you want to keep specifying and becoming more descriptive, it gets a bit clunky. But it does work for a general term for those interested in science ideas, literature, and whatnot.

    Cheers!

    Joe

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  17. James Tucker

    Popped over from twitter.
    I am coming at this from the perspective of a historian; we too have our ‘lay audiences’, and if a new term is brewing, then it would be useful to have it widely applicable (‘broad audience’, as suggested above, would do this). But my main point is largely that of AthenaC, that I don’t see the term as especially problematic. I’m not a churchgoer, but I do religious history, and one thing we see a lot of in recent research is really deep lay involvement– laymen are the sponsors, the governors, the founders, of religious institutions in the Renaissance, for example, and far more than just a receptive audience.
    Now, because this is about relating to the wider public, perceptions matter, and if the distinction’s not well-enough understood then I can be as correct as I like, and a change might still be advisable.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for this perspective! Do you think historians are less nettled by analogies to religion than scientists might be? And if so, do you think the “general public” might be closer to the former position than the latter? (Which would suggest scientists are projecting our dislike for the term “lay” onto people who don’t mind.)

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      1. James Tucker

        I don’t know– I study early modern religious history all day, so I suspect I’m more likely to be outlier here. It’s possible that my colleagues who work on, say, the Cold War are less likely to think this way. I do think some prominent scientists have adopted a bit of a baby-with-bathwater approach that gets my guard up, but shouldn’t like to assume that’s the common position.

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  18. Jeff Rubin

    I don’t have a problem with any religious connotations; the term is used in most every discipline (even CPR classes have been targeted to either “professional” or “lay” rescuers). I just think it can carry a sense of condescension, regardless of intent.

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  19. Pingback: Knowing, and naming, your audience (with “lay audience” poll results) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  20. Pingback: You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate science | crazyaboutsciences

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