Why do kidneys need cells?

21 April 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

At-Bristol: full of questions. Credit: Mark Boyce

"Why do kidneys need cells?"

This question was asked of me while I was volunteering in the At-Bristol science centre. It was the October half-term, and we had a number of Hallowe'en-themed activities for visitors to try out. At Hallowe'en, you might expect something about ghosts and ghouls, but  that's not real science. So instead, it was all about the human body and its gory anatomy. A popular stand was "make your own blood", where we would ask visitors what they thought blood was made of, and guide them through the functions of the different "ingredients" as they mixed them. Another was vein-painting, using the VeinViewer exhibit (see video) in the All About Us area.

Finally, there were also a number of microscopes for visitors to use, with slides showing different types of cell. One of the slides showed kidney cells from a mouse. One particular visitor, a mother whose child was busy digging up fossils, gave a semi-interested look at the microscopes, at which point I asked

"Hello, how are you today?" [http://1]

Kidney cells. Really quite important. Credit: EnCor Biotechnology

After a brief exchange about how much her child was enjoying their visit, I asked whether she might like to look down the microscope. She seemed curious, though perhaps not as enthusiastic as some people that day. She asked me what she was looking at. I told her they were kidney cells, which is when she asked the question I started with above:

"Why do kidneys need cells?"

This was the first time anyone had asked me that particular question, and I was a little thrown by it. Indeed, whenever I tell this story, people's reaction is one of amusement. How silly that this woman didn't know that kidneys are made of kidney cells! [http://2] I could have reacted the same way. Instead, I told her the following...

It's not that kidneys need cells like a car needs petrol. Rather, kidneys are made of kidney cells. Kidney cells are what make kidneys, kidneys. This is more fundamental, even, than a house being made of bricks. Whereas a house can be made of other materials, such as straw, a kidney has to be made of kidney cells, or else it isn't a kidney. In fact, every part of you "needs" cells in this sense - your eyes need (or rather, are made of) eye cells, your skin is made of skin cells, your brain is made of brain cells, and so on for all of you. [http://3]

I used the car analogy because I was fairly sure she would be familiar with it, and because I guessed she probably had heard of things like red and white blood cells (at the "make your own blood" activity, if nothing else). After all, it's more sensible to talk about blood "needing" cells, rather than being made of them.

The misunderstanding this visitor faced was around the words "kidney" and "cell". She had clearly heard of kidneys, and probably had some idea that they are part of the human body. (It would be speculative to say whether she thought of them in terms of "organs".) It was also obvious that she had some notion of what cells are. However, at least one of her definitions was "wrong" (I will leave the subtleties of accuracy and precision for another post). That is to say, the ideas she associated with the words in question were different from the generally-accepted scientific definitions.

And here we encounter that thorniest of issues in the world of science communication: jargon. Bearing the story I have just told you in mind, let's think about the meanings of words, both in science and other contexts.


One person's jargon is another person's technical vocabulary

"Ah. This is obviously some strange use of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of." - Arthur Dent in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I remember a session early on in my MSc Science Communication course. It was a writing session, and the first question we were asked to make a list of terms we considered "jargon", and thus blacklisted from any good communication. After a while of trying to impress each other with ever more obscure and unpronounceable words, I proposed "cell" as a candidate for jargon status. A few of the others scoffed at my suggestion. Surely everyone has heard of cells? Surely everyone knows what they are? I shared my story from At-Bristol. I got a few incredulous looks, but overall my point was made. After all, they say there's a first time for everything, and that includes hearing about the word "cell".

My point was (and is!) that "jargon" is a relative term. My degree involved learning about evolution, so I am comfortable with concepts like "punctuated equilibrium" and "mutation rates". To me, these are not jargon, because I know what they mean. But if I were to turn to someone at random in my office, they would most likely have a bit more trouble with these words. In this latter case, such terms move from being just technical vocabulary to being incomprehensible jargon. That is not to say my colleagues would not understand these ideas if I explained them properly, and therein lies a big clue to how we can resolve the problem.

To add to the complexity, it seems that there are two types of technical vocabulary. [http://4] Some words are easily identified as being unfamiliar. This is the case of many medical terms, especially Latin or Greek names of body parts, medicines or diseases. These, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, are known unknowns. Most people lacking medical education know that they don't know what "Langerhans cell histiocytosis" is. With some training, you might make an educated guess, but I think it's pretty clear that such a term is not a common phrase. Although impenetrable to many, this type of jargon at least has the benefit of being obvious. At least here we are only dealing with people's ignorance, which can be addressed quite simply through education. The problem is simple to identify.

Arthur Dent realises quite how difficult the jargon problem is. Credit: Touchstone pictures.

More difficult, and where the most confusion lies, is the case of words with technical definitions that are different from their common ones. These, in the Rumsfeld analogy (admittedly I'm stretching it here), are unknown unknowns. People don't necessarily know that when particle physicists use the word "massive", they mean "having mass", as opposed to "being very big". Indeed, in most cases, particle physicists are likely to use the word "massive" about objects which are among the smallest in the known Universe! But defining "massive" as "having mass" doesn't really get us anywhere, because the word "mass" itself can mean a number of different things. To church-goers, it's a ceremony. To the physicist, it's a property of matter. And again, "property" and "matter" have their own meanings. You can see where the difficulty lies.

There was an interesting trend recently which illustrates how scientists try to deal with this problem. Up Goer Five was originally an xkcd comic about rocket science, using only the thousand (or ten hundred) most common words in the English language. Later, someone made a web-based text editor which highlights any words in a text which are not on the list. Many scientists took the opportunity to see if they could explain their work in simple terms. Being on such a restricted list meant people had to get creative. For instance, I wrote one about the notion of "false friends" in languages. Unfortunately for me, "language" was not among the http://1000 allowed words. Instead, I had to use the word "tongue". But was I really using less jargon? If anything, the cheat of using "tongue" to mean "language" involved using a more specialist, more obscure definition!

I would argue that this is latter type of jargon is trickier to deal with than its more obvious counterpart above, because it can be so easy to get used to how one uses language, and to forget that other people use it differently. This is the key to any successful science communication: you have to speak the same language as your audience.


Know your audience

"If a word has been used in the title of a movie or a television series, it’s not jargon." - Doctor Zen Faulkes

It is well known that the language of science is full of potential jargon. However, I would maintain that learning to "speak science" is just like learning to speak any other language. Just as there are words in foreign languages which are more-or-less similar to words in your own language, so it is with science. A good piece of science communication, in my view, uses only words which are familiar to the audience. However, that does not mean that good communicators do not occasionally introduce new words. Indeed, if you are trying to present a new idea to your audience, some new words are bound to crop up!

If I want to use a French word in my English writing, I have to be sure that my readers will understand it. If I overestimate their knowledge, I will have failed them in my duty as a writer. I think most readers will know the word bonjour, for example. Others they can probably guess, like the term par exemple. There are some, however, which are unguessable, and unlikely to have been come up before. I'm thinking of words like saperlipopette (if you're wondering, it's an expression of surprise with no direct translation). Do you see the parallels to unfamiliar science words?

The best way to introduce new understanding is to build on pre-existing familiarity (as opposed to just knowledge, which can be picked up by rote memorisation pretty effectively). To explain saperlipopette to a non-French speaker, I would give an example of a situation in which one might use it (as it happens, saperlipopette is quite archaic and normally only used sarcastically these days). Sometimes, however, that's not possible. It is true that some concepts in science cannot simply be attached to their required predecessors in an audience's minds, if these in turn are also missing. I cannot explain "polymerase chain reactions" to someone who does not already know a bit about DNA. There would be nothing to hook it onto. As the inimitable Richard Feynman says in this clip, although you could explain magnets in terms of rubber bands, you would have only cheated by moving the goalposts.



Having mulled these thoughts over, here are my recommendations

  • By all means, avoid using jargon. [http://5]
  • It is impossible to create an exhaustive list of what counts as jargon.
  • Where you feel like using technical vocabulary (and there are a number of reasons why this might be the case), be sure to make your meaning clear.
  • Be aware that some technical vocabulary does not look like technical vocabulary.
  • The only criterion which matters is whether or not your audience will understand what you mean.

That being said, I'm hardly a professional writer, so I invite you to draw your own conclusions, too. What are your thoughts on jargon?


[http://1] And not, as one student demonstrator at last year's Geneva Science Festival asked me, "An explanation?" (sic and meaning "Can I give you an explanation?" - No "hello"... No "What have you got there?"... No "Do you have any questions?" - This was before even making eye contact, as I had just picked up the demo and to see what it would do!) I answered that I wanted to take a look and see if I could work it out for myself, at which point he took the bow off me (it was a demonstration of resonance plates) and (very poorly) proceeded to show me the effect I was meant to see. I felt incredibly stupid and undervalued at that point.

[http://2] I owe that visitor may thanks and congratulations. Aside from feeding into these thoughts about jargon, She made my day by being brave enough to ask a "stupid" question. She's the kind of person who takes her child to a science centre during half term, despite not being particularly confident in her own abilities or knowledge in science. They are the best kind of visitor, who says things like "I was never any good in school, so I've brought my kids here to give them the best possible chance". To them, I say "It's never too late."

[http://3] Yes, it's more complicated than that. There are far more types of cell than there are types of organs, but you have to be able to judge where to stop going into detail, or you risk losing your audience. I felt that someone who was new to the concept of organs being made of cells at all might not be the best person to try to explain the myriad diversity of cell types to. Let's not forget she had a young child nearby to look after. People have to prioritise.

[http://4] I owe this observation to my Dad.

[http://5] The importance of explaining away jargon is reinforced when you realise that it can be abused. "Blinding by science" is a common technique used by charlatans trying to pull the wool over their audience's eyes, from marketing to postmodernist literary criticism. But that's another story.


Further reading:

  • Although I have been thinking about these ideas for a while, actually taking the time to write this post was prompted by a comment made by David Dobbs in an interview he gave about science writing to go with the Wellcome Trust / Guardian Science Writing Prize.
  • Matthew Francis wrote in defense of jargon and expertise (note: this is specifically in response to a particular session at a particular conference, but many of the points he makes are worth considering more generally).
  • There are some notable examples of words which scientists use with a specific, unusual meaning.
  • Matt Shipman wrote about the importance of defining terms in science communication.


Over to you:

  • Why do kidneys need cells?
  • Do you know any other examples of scientific "false friends"? i.e. words which have one meaning in your field, but a different meaning in a more common context?
  • What words does your science use with an unusual meaning?
  • Are there examples of jargon in other languages?
  • It's not just science which uses technical language. What other fields have peculiar uses of words?


18 Responses to “Why do kidneys need cells?”

  1. sTeamTraen Reply | Permalink

    Upgoer Five made me laugh because Upgoer is not even a word, and even if you split it in two, Goer is only just a word.

    My original example for the "two types of jargon" thing is Judo moves. European beginners learn the Japanese names for the various moves, and since those have no other meaning to them, there's no possibility of confusion. It tuns out that in Japanese a lot of the moves are basically bits of the hokey-cokey http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJBVglgufyY (left foot in, etc; yes, this is a gross caricature!) and so my guess its that they are potentially confusing for Japanese speakers as they are ambiguous in the way that much computer jargon is to English speakers.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      ah, I don't think you'd mentioned the Judo connection before.

      As for "goer", I think you'll find it used repeatedly in Monty Python's "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" sketch, so it passes the "is it a real word" test in my book.

  2. Marianne Reply | Permalink

    I was surprised the point about 'theory' and 'fact' didn't come up.

    People often have their own definitions of these words; they might have a theory that Dave's always a bit annoying because he doesn't get enough sleep. But it's not a theory in the scientific sense of the word, and a lot of people don't know what a scientific theory is, which leads them to saying stuff like "evolution is just a theory".

    There have been posts about that elsewhere, though. E.g. http://thinking-critically.com/2010/07/08/theory-scientific-vs-laymans-definition/
    and http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=just-a-theory-7-misused-science-words

    Can't find the specific page I was thinking of, typically.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I felt the post was long enough without trying to tackle specific words, but indeed theory and fact can be tricky

      Your second link is actually one of my "further reading" links already. I'll take a look at the first one, too.


  3. Invader Xan Reply | Permalink

    My opinion is that jargon is only "jargon" is it isn't adequately explained. If a writer is good enough, there should be no concept too complex which cannot be explained and understood. For instance, I once read a couple of childrens' books aimed at primary school kids, which explained the basic concepts of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Very well too, I must say.

    Of course, as you say, it comes down to knowing your audience. If I say that nucleosynthesis is the way in which stars transform hydrogen into heavier elements, I'm relying on the audience knowing what hydrogen and elements are. It gets to a point where, when discussing a technical subject, you need to assume a certain level of prior knowledge (say, high school level). It can be a tough call to make, because you need to help people pick up on the pieces they don't know while not boring those who do.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Xan - you don't happen to remember the name of the book, do you?

      As for hydrogen and elements, that's something I struggled with for this post.

      I'm not sure a good explanation has to be "boring" to someone who already knows what you're talking about. Again, I think the context of the communication is important, too.

  4. Sara Mynott Reply | Permalink

    Really excellent post. It brought me back to when I was volunteering at @Bristol too. My favourite moment was asking a kid of maybe 5 why he thought we had salt in our blood. He paused for a moment, and then started talking about how we put it on fish and chips and then we eat the fish and chips and - and then he paused again (at this point I was getting really excited - this kid was 5, and he had already grasped the idea that when we eat we digest the food and the products get taken up into our blood stream!) - "and that makes it tasty... so maybe it makes us tasty?". Ah, I seem to have got ahead of myself a little. Despite that, it was a joy to explain why we did have salt in our bodies (noting, of course, that being tasty was a possible upshot of this for those that aspire to eat us).

  5. Theresa Liao Reply | Permalink

    Great post! I have a related question for you. I was recently in a discussion with others about how scientists in the same field tend to “forget” that the terms they use might not be understood the same way by those outside of the field. I heard that in some particle physicists use the term “quark” loosely to include quarks and anti-quarks, which does not make sense at all for those outside of particle physics (Is this true? You probably know this!).

    Another few cases came up in mind:
    - Once during an outreach event, another grad student was trying to explain to a bunch of grade 3-4 kids what the "central dogma of molecular biology" is - it was not until I saw a bunch of confused faces and asked "does anyone know what a protein is??" that he realized nobody knew what he was talking about.
    - Even different understanding of the word "functional" can cause problems in scientific research. I wrote about ENCODE on my blog. (http://scienceichooseyou.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/i-have-a-headache-reading-about-encode-moving-into-the-realm-of-big-science/)

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Theresa, thanks for your comment! Apparently, even Watson didn't know what the word "dogma" meant when he coined that term... so it's hardly surprising that outsiders to biology haven't heard of it, let alone know what it is.

      As for quarks, I'm afraid i don't know whether that term ever includes anti-quarks, but I'll try to remember to ask around.

      I can see how "functional" could be a tricky one, too. Good example!

  6. ChasCPeterson Reply | Permalink

    Your questioner knew the word "cell" but it meant 'small room in a prison or abbey' to her. 'Why would kidneys need small rooms?' is not so silly a question.

    I'm a biologist, so probably I don't recognize my own jargon as jargon, but this phenomenon: "scientific "false friends"...i.e. words which have one meaning in your field, but a different meaning in a more common context" seems to me especially common in sociology. I've seen it impede understanding in online discussion many times. (of course, I'm blanking on good examples...that's embarrassing)

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Chas, thanks for your comment.

      From being there at the time, it was clear to me that the At-Bristol visitor knew about at least some biological connection to the word "cell", and wasn't thinking about prison cells. But it is interesting to note that the word cell was originally coined because cork viewed under a microscope looks like small compartments or rooms in the first place!

      I think I know what you mean about sociology being full of jargon, though I'm not aware of any actual research comparing one field with another in this respect.

  7. Hazel Reply | Permalink

    Great article - I often come across this in geoscience communication, especially with words that are commonly misused ('crystal' is personal bugbear)!

    Recently I was giving a talk about language use in geology and at the end someone asked me if I thought geology was more jargon-heavy than other subjects. I replied that although geology could be pretty impenetrable, it was very much in the middle of the field in my opinion (you could 'get' most of the language with a bit of work), but not the worst scientific subject for this. Reading your blog has made me wonder if there is one subject that is worse than any other for jargon, or if science communicators underestimate the general understanding of scientific langugae so much that they are all equally difficult to access (when looking at the public as a whole). What do you think?

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I can imagine "crystal" being quite tricky - that one is so common it's even a first name!

      The question of comparing scientific fields in terms of what I've suddenly decided to call their jaronicity is an interesting one, though I doubt there's a simple answer. My assumption would be that there is no one field that is fundamentally more or less accessible with respect to complex ideas. Difficult physics or difficult biology are both probably the same "distance" from lay understanding as each other. After all, PhDs in one are not considered harder than the other (note we have expressions for both "it's not brain surgery" and "it's not rocket science"). As for how well individual practitioners communicate their fields, that's a more practical question.

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