By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 06/03/2020 9


It’s the cruellest Catch-22 in science: you spend years learning intricate jargon about your specific area, then this jargon makes it nearly impossible for ‘outsiders’ to understand what you’re on about.

Anyone who has submitted a blog to Sciblogs in the past few years has probably received an email back from me pleading for them to remove or explain jargon. What I really want them to do is remove it, but to buffer the blow I suggest it at least be defined.

Telling a researcher not to use the short-hand jargon they’ve spent years learning, that enables them to communicate accurately with their colleagues and displays the depth of their knowledge: it’s cruel, bordering on sadistic.

But now I’ve got science on my side.

In a study published in January, US researchers argued that using specialised jargon when communicating with the public doesn’t just make the language hard to understand, it can turn readers off.

Ohio State University’s Assistant Professor Hillary Schulman said the mere presence of jargon can be discouraging:

“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong.

“You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

In their study, the researchers had participants read a paragraph about each of three topics: self-driving cars, surgical robots and 3D bio-printing. Each participant read either a jargon-laden paragraph, or one written in more simple language. Here’s an example:

Self-Driving Cars Conditions. Schulman et al. (2020)

Which is easier to understand? Unless you’re up-to-speed with the latest in driverless cars, we probably all agree on the right-hand column: the jargon-free paragraph. Not too many surprises there; the participants also reported the ‘no jargon’ text was easier to read.

As I wrote at the start of this post, I normally ask Sciblogs contributors to remove or explain jargon, but the researchers examined that, too. Half of the participants who read the jargon text also had the option to hover over jargon to see a definition (these definitions were worded the same as in the non-jargon version).

But it didn’t work.

“What we found is that giving people definitions didn’t matter at all — it had no effect on how difficult they thought the reading was,” said Schulman.

But did the jargon stop readers from understanding the information, or did it have another effect? Previous work by this research team has found that if information is perceived as being easy, we’re likely to feel it’s familiar to us, even when it isn’t. We might even conclude that it feels easy because we’re the ‘type of person’ who already knows this information.

In this experiment, those who read the simple-language paragraphs reported feeling empowered: they were a ‘science kind of person’, liked science, or considered themselves knowledgable.

But jargon appeared to cause the opposite effect. After reading the jargon paragraphs, participants reported things like:

  • “I’m not really good at science”
  • “I’m not interested in learning about science”
  • “I’m not well qualified to participate in science discussions”

It’s enough to break your heart. There are so many people looking for ways to get and keep people engaged in science, but are we turning them off right from the start because of an over-reliance on jargon?

Schulman also said a previous study with the same group of participants found jargon left people more inclined to disbelieve the science. “When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue. You don’t like what you’re reading. But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies.”

She concludes:

“Too many people think that if they just define their terms, everything is set. But this work shows that is not the case.”

So I will continue to plead, cajole and badger science writers into removing jargon. And I make no apologies: if our science isn’t understood by the audience we most need to reach, it isn’t doing its job.


9 Responses to “When jargon makes you feel like you don’t belong”

  • But how far do you go? Even your example has “ride-sharing” “app” “driving-assistance”, not to mention “radar”. I hear our tech support people very patiently explaining jargon terms like “internet” and “wifi” all the time. At some stage you end up saying “magic talking box needs to be connected by special string to magic not-talking box until this light changes from red to green” (in jargon that is “charge your smartphone”).

    Caution is also needed about common-misuse terms, like quantum leap (which is also accidentally used accurately), and things like kWh vs kW which drives engineers crazy… sometimes all you can do is use different units and often some churnalist will mistranslate that for you anyway. Do you just roll with the misunderstandings? “this solar farm produces 300MW a month”?

    There’s a lot of judgement calls and guessing about your audience required, and getting it wrong means you’re back pushing walls of gibberish at people.

  • Victor Hugo dedicated a whole chapter in Les Miserables to discuss Argot, the specialised “language of the dark” in nineteenth century Paris. Its use made it easy for street urchins, thieves, murderers to communicate, while making it impossible for other people in the street to understand.

    Science has its own version of Argot with a different aim: efficiency of communication between those in a particular field. The consequence of its use tends to reduce comprehension for those not in the field.

    Science communication is about making it easier for others to understand, so the use of Argot should be discouraged, plain English encouraged, parallel to similar moves in writing legal documents.

    An excellent article, Sarah-Jane.

    • Thanks George – I’m planning to have another go at reading Les Miserables this year, so this gives me even more inspiration!

  • Though you are right in the overall thrust and people should write to their audience, there is a real problem with eliminating “jargon”. In the technical sense in what the word or acronym is used, it has a precise meaning. When this is modified, that detail or accuracy is lost. And then people who oppose what is said start piling it on. Moz gives good examples. There are plenty of others around the unreliables a.k.a. new renewable generation.
    There is also a big issue that too many issues are dumbed down or modified for the “easier” understanding too much. You can’t encapsulate a big complex area of science or engineering into a Tee shirt slogan. Many do. That is why people think there are simple cheap solutions to difficult problems. Then they get frustrated by people who do know what they are talking about saying “hold on”. Covid 19 is the current scare showing how the message gets massaged. The “us versus them” and conspiracy theories come out of this misunderstanding.

  • Good points Moz. Languages change all the time, and new words are added as appropriate. So we have “radar”, “laser”, “lidar” integrated into English as the technology advances, usually capitalised initially, as they are acronyms. Science communication has a strong educational aspect, so must endeavour to use the correct term and explain, so that in future the new words become commonplace, and comprehension is enhanced.

    So all writers have a delicate balance, in this case monitored by Sarah-Jane, as there is a broad range of readers. It is hard to get it right.

    Chris has a valid point about mis-information, and the potential for conspiracy theorists to thrive if communication is incomplete.

    Mistakes are another matter, and should be corrected, irrespective of whether they are “trivial”. My friend Don MacDonald keeps complaining about such things. Don’s classic complaint was the dropping of the word million when a news item stated that a supernova was 240 light years away. With an appreciation of how far this is, his first reaction was “Then the Earth is toast!”. The Broadcast Standards Authority deemed it was trivial and imposed a $50 fine on Don, and my suggestion that we arrange a cheque with a millionth of that value (5 millicents) did not eventuate, as another friend of Don’s paid the full amount. Eventually the High Court ruled that the mistake was trivial and that the fine be re-imbursed.

    Nowadays the media have only a few journalists who are scientifically skilled. The work of the Science Media Centre has been of very great assistance over the years, to help inform the media and the population. I now live in a country with much lower scientific literacy and fully appreciate its value.

  • I’ve given up deciphering jargon.
    What, for instance, is “Organic salt” ( seen on a label on a salt container in a Wellington cafe)?

    Why would I want to live in a Carbon-Zero environment?

    And what do we do with Tuatara, spiders, royal albatrosses, Powelliphanta, and Peripatus in a Predator-free NZ?

  • It gets better than that, Maggy. I have seen some produce and other goods labelled chemical free. Even water advertised as deionized (what pH is that?)
    These examples aren’t jargon. It is people who don’t understand even basic chemistry, or trying to convince others who don’t. They are using incorrectly what they think is scientific terminology to sound impressive – the Mrs Malaprops of the chemical world perhaps?.

  • Ron
    On the link you provided it says “Deionized water (DI water, DIW or de-ionized water), often synonymous with demineralized water / DM water”
    Demineralised is the correct scientific terminology and expresses accurately and succinctly what is done. Ask anyone who has to work with ultra pure water like that used to cool large turbogenerator sets what it is called.
    https://www.suezwatertechnologies.com/handbook/chapter-08-ion-exchange
    Demineralised (with either an “s” or “z”) is better understood by the general public than your attempted description. When paired with columns, it gets about 4 times the number of Google hits and most of those are technical, while a lot of deionized ones are junk science sites .