By Eric Crampton 13/01/2016


Jargon is good for two things. The first is a good one; the second, not so much.

Let’s start with the good. Jargon is a convenient shorthand among experts, allowing them to convey a complicated and lengthy idea in a single word. Within an established community of experts, you don’t need to reconvey the whole parable or theorem each time. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra is sufficient: everybody who matters knows what you mean, and you can just get on with things.

But when that shorthand exists for complicated concepts, they’ll get appropriated by folks who want to sound like they know what they’re talking about but who really don’t.*

And so we come to Richard Feynman:

I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad. The book has some others: ‘gravity makes it fall;’ ‘the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction.’ Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction, is sad, because it’s not science.”

Feynman’s parable about the meaning of science is a valuable way of testing ourselves on whether we have really learned something, or whether we just think we have learned something, but it is equally useful for testing the claims of others. If someone cannot explain something in plain English, then we should question whether they really do themselves understand what they profess. If the person in question is communicating ostensibly to a non-specialist audience using specialist terms out of context, the first question on our lips should be: “Why?” In the words of Feyman, “It is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudoscience.”

Be cautious with jargon.

* Like when public health people use the term market failure.