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:
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.”
“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.