Somebody out there thinks you’re stupid.

Its no secret that I’m into my Citizen Science – and I’m a huge believer in access to natural history, and that ecology and conservation biology can be made accessible and jargon-free without embracing the ‘dumbing-down’ of science for mass-consumption by the public.  I think that elitism in natural history actively works against the recruitment of new researchers by a process of intimidation and the provision of dusty tomes and keys which perpetuate the use of outdated terminology, to no purpose.  Take a look for yourself – this is the FIRST PARAGRAPH of a RECENT entomological key.  Tell me this wouldn’t make you despair and decide entomology is WAY to complicated…

This kind of jargon is particularly prevalent in the field of entomology, an area in which ‘new blood’ is so desperately needed.  I can’t help but think that there is no conceivable reason for entomologists producing keys to use complex and confusing terminology other than to use the reader’s lack of confidence to intimidate and put off all but the most determined.


This time last year, the Black Country Biodiversity Group held a microscopy day at Preston Montford Field Studies Centre, to identify the catch from last year’s beetle trapping.  Pictured above is Russell, who had never done microscopy of this kind before, and took to it like a duck to water.  But it is a credit to Russell’s determination and openness that he succeeded, and it is no thanks to the abundance of jargon in entomological texts that many others fail at the first hurdle.

photo of entomological keys and textbooksNow, I should be clear that I’m not referring to anatomical terms.  At the end of the day, if you are going to study an animal or plant, you should know what its body parts are.  So the student will have to learn terms like clypeus, gastral tergite, tarsi (although these are simply the area of the face above the jaw, the abdominal sections, and the lower legs, respectively); nor am I talking about directional terms such as dorsal (to do with the back), distal (furthest away) or anterior (towards the front).  What I’m talking about here are descriptive terms which are unnecessarily complicated, intimidating or downright pretentious.

Let me give you an example – a few descriptive lines from some entomological keys.

My Favourite Unnecesary Words from Entomological Keys
Term   What it actually means
Glabrous Smooth
Rugose-reticulate Wrinkled
Rugulose Wrinkled
Reticulated Wrinkled
Microreticulate With little wrinkles
Flavous Yellow
Fulvous Yellow
Rufous Red
Pileous Hairy
Decumbent Lying Down (as in hairs)
Adpressed Lying Down (as in hairs)
Plumose Feathery
Coriaceous Leathery
Transverse Lying across
Longitudinal Running Lengthwise
Cinereous Grey

I think you get the idea.  Its not like Joe Bloggs is unable to understand these terms, more that, when confronted with a wall of unfamiliar and needlessly complex terminology, many of us would simply not see the point in learning a whole new language, just to find out what bumble bee we’ve seen in the garden.  But it is the persistent use of this type of language that exacerbates the divide between the entomologist and the keen amateur, and ultimately contributes to the problem of a lack of uptake of new researchers of taxonomic groups like beetles and bees.

You’re not too stupid to take it all in.  But somebody thinks you are.

2 Replies to “Somebody out there thinks you’re stupid.”

  1. Reminds me of The Clarity Index which I first read about in 1975 in a Times article titled “The Art of Gobbledegook” about why British Leyland failed to get its message across to its workers.
    The clarity index is based on word and sentence length. Select a sample of around 200 words, or less, then use the following formula: –
    1)Count the number of words and major punctuation marks (.,?, etc.)
    2)Divide the number of words by the major punctuation marks to find the average sentence length. (Target is +/- 15 words per sentence.)
    3)Add up the number of words that have three, or more, syllables.
    4)Divide the number of 3+ syllable words by the total of words, to determine the percentage of long words. (eg 35 in 200 is 17,5% – Target is+/- 15%)
    5)Add the two (2. And 4.)
    The sum is the clarity index. (Target is +/-30)

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