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Florida anthropologists respond to Gov. Rick Scott (jargon and all)

A few weeks ago, Florida governor Rick Scott made a few statements about wanting to divert education funding from some university programs in order to support science and technology fields. Let’s ignore the fact that the humanities and social sciences are just as deserving of funding and public support as the sciences for a host of reasons (I’m all for increasing funding for STEM education, but not at the expense of my colleagues in English or history) and focus on the particulars of Gov. Scott’s statement:

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Naturally, anthropologists weren’t too happy to be singled out as particularly irrelevant to the state of Florida.  I don’t think Scott’s statement would have been any more okay if anthropologists were “just” humanities scholars, but his assertions reflected a particular ignorance about what, exactly, anthropologists are, and the fact that they do a lot of cutting-edge science (including the fields of forensics, genetics, transportation, and public health).

Today, I came across a beautiful presentation made by Charlotte Noble from testimonials by anthropology students at the University of South Florida collected by the Neuroanthropology blog. The combination of short bios and evocative images go a long way towards conveying the wide range of work that anthropologists do, and as a geographer I think that the place-based nature of the piece is really powerful.

I have to admit, though, that as I progressed through the various projects, I was troubled– and not because I thought the research was unimportant or uninteresting. Rather, I worry that the underlying message– that anthropology is relevant to everyday Floridians, and that anthropologists provide much-needed services to the state– might be lost on some readers because many (though not all) of the posts are written in Academese. Terms like pedagogy, STEM, ethnography, the built environment, and needs assessment are jargon, used by particular fields or professions and therefore not accessible to many readers. Even words like quantitative and  interdisciplinary aren’t in common public usage. This kind of language adds an extra barrier between the reader and the writer, which is counterproductive if the ultimate goal is to reach out to Florida taxpayers and politicians, and not to fellow anthropologists.

I really don’t mean to pick on the already-beleaguered anthropologists! “This Is Anthropology” is a great project, I’m glad that it exists, and I hope many people (including Rick Scott) see it. Scientists and other academics (and professionals like doctors and lawyers, for that matter) are all guilty of using jargon. Scientists and academics (and I include myself here) should all be striving to make our research more accessible, all the time, especially given that we’re largely publicly funded. Unfortunately, this is a skill that most of us have to pick up on our own; when we’re in the spotlight, for whatever reason, this skill becomes crucial. So, apologies for putting you on the spot, Florida anthropologists! You’re doing amazing work, and everyone– from elementary school kids to immigrant farm workers to local business owners to millionaire retirees to governors– should know that.

If you’ve struggled with making your research more accessible, I recommend Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public, and Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter.

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Categories: Commentary Outreach

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Jacquelyn Gill

3 replies

  1. Translational science effort needs more translation…especially when the audience is comprised of politicians. Excellent suggestions on resources for those looking to expand the audience for their work! A lot of formal “translational science” efforts seem focused on medicine and biotech right now, including a journal on that subject, but there are efforts in Earth sciences and many social sciences, even though the latter already seem oriented on the “outside world,” still need some translation from academic jargon for the public to understand their relevance and utility. QED.

    1. I also think that a lot of the problems we have with making science relevant stem directly from communication problems– it’s not just what we do, but why it matters. I’m thinking of Sarah Palin’s comment about fruit flies; many scientists were shocked at her ignorance of the importance of fruit files in genetic research, but it’s not necessarily common knowledge.

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