An example of why you should know your readership

rogersgeorge on May 15th, 2012

—Because if you don’t, you can be misunderstood. Here’s a passage from a recent Wired blog post that mentions the issue of misunderstanding because of incongruent definitions.

Science, like most other specialties, has its own language (in fact, it probably has about as many languages as there are specializations). Most of the time, this doesn’t make much of a difference, but there are cases where that language has a namespace collision with the vernacular.

To give a concrete example, if you talk to a scientist for long enough, you’ll probably hear about a half-dozen things that he or she “believes.” For a scientist, that’s shorthand for “there is strong evidence or a compelling theoretical reason to think that.” But it sounds awkward to a lot of people, given that belief is commonly viewed as accepting something without evidence. As any of the writers here can attest, we ruthlessly purge the use of “believe” from our science content specifically to avoid this confusion.

It’s interesting to me that and ostensibly technical publication feels the need (correctly, I believe) to avoid a word that a non-technical reader is likely to misunderstand. The rule in technical writing is that if the reader misunderstands, the problem is with the writing. And yes, I know that some people are idiots.

This diagram is titled "Sources of belief."

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