Jargon, a specialized language or set of expressions used by a specific group, is by its nature exclusionary, so it’s likely no surprise that scientific, technical or legal jargon may leave outsiders in the cold. A series of studies from researchers at Ohio State University suggests that jargon may turn off people well beyond an offending passage, and that one popular way to soften any harm – using jargon but immediately defining it – may not work.
“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” Hillary C. Shulman, an assistant professor at OSU’s School of Communication, told her university’s press office. “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”
And it gets worse. “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,” Shulman told OSU. With complex issues like climate change,
privacy and disinformation online, and political polarization top of mind
globally, having a literate population able – and willing – to address these
becomes particularly important.
Shulman and co-authors Graham N. Dixon, Olivia M. Bullock,
and Daniel Colón Amill detail their latest findings in this line of research in
a new paper, “The
Effects of Jargon on Processing Fluency, Self-Perceptions, and Scientific
Engagement,” in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. The underlying
study draws from experiments with 650 adults who the researchers worked with
online on a variety of complicated topics from science and politics.
is good news, though, and on two fronts. For one, plain talk can have the opposite
effect of jargon. “We have found,” Shulman told OSU, “that when you use more
colloquial language when talking to people about issues like immigration
policy, they report more interest in politics, more ability to understand
political information and more confidence in their political opinions.”
And on a more meta level, Shulman and her colleagues’ latest
paper has struck a nerve, with a remarkable
amount of interest outside of the academic study of communications. This
suggests that there’s genuine interest in lowering the barriers that jargon
erects and raising public understanding of complex issues.
Social Science Space editor Michael Todd asked Shulman a few
questions about jargon, starting with the approach taken in this new paper.
looked at jargon from other perspectives. What led you to use metacognition in
your research and how was that novel?
I’ve been doing
research on metacognition (“thoughts about thoughts”) for the last couple of
years so I approach most of my research questions by trying to figure out how
metacognition plays a role. What interested me in this instance was that when
jargon is talked about in translational contexts, the question is how “expert
language” is received by “non-experts.” In these contexts, the assumption seems
to be that non-experts won’t understand these terms and as a result won’t
understand the conversation as well as they could. We wanted to examine whether
the effects of jargon were a) more subtle, and b) broader than
misunderstanding. Our results suggest that this was the case. Even when
participants had the ability to get the jargon terms defined (and thus, clear
up any misunderstandings), they chose not to.
to me that the problems of jargon use are not an obvious misunderstand because
if this was the case, participants would be motivated to receive jargon term’s
definition. I believe that the introduction of metacognition in translational
contexts offers a novel explanation for why the negative effects of jargon
persist even when these terms are defined.
I’ve worked with in media trainings often insist that jargon imparts nuance
that more conversational terms generally don’t enjoy. While we can always find
anecdotes that support this, do you feel this is generally true or more of a
crutch to keep using jargon?
depends on the audience. The nuance of jargon can only be captured if the audience
is well versed in the subject matter and speaks the same common language. In
small settings, this familiarity may be relatively easy to assume, and in these
instances, jargon should be used freely. As group size grows, however, and more
and more people are exposed to the information, then the assumption that
everyone speaks the same language becomes a bit more tenuous. In these
instances, the casual use of jargon may be particularly problematic because
those who are “new” to the group may be more aware of its usage and
particularly self-conscious if they are unable to translate the term.
Can the bad
feelings that a lack of understanding creates reduce the incentive to become
science literate? If so, which do think came first, too much jargon or too little
from this study would suggest yes.
it is often assumed that characteristics such as “scientific interest,”
“scientific knowledge/literacy,” and one’s “identity” are relatively stable
traits. Many studies have found that people who report higher levels on these
traits are more likely to engage with science (and be more science literate).
What our experiment showed was that these traits seem to actually be responsive
(at least in the short-term) to the information environment and – as such –
these traits actually vary. If we still assume that higher reports on these
traits are associated with literacy (or future literacy) than information that leads
people to report lower values should, potentially, compromise this literacy
moving forward. This is the concern.
As for whether
too much jargon or too little science literacy came first, I would definitely
say “too much jargon.” Everyone needs to start somewhere and literacy has to be
learned. If expert language challenges, or impairs this learning process, then
literacy rates will be compromised in the long-term.
that greater scientific literacy and understanding among non-experts is good.
But does translating science do damage to science?
I think that
examples of when science is damaged from translation are instances when the
science was translated poorly. To be more clear, one needs to separate one’s
intention, or desire, to translate science from one’s ability to
accurately/effectively do so. So, in a sense, no I do not think
translating science does damage to science, I think translating science poorly
does damage to science. This is why learning how to translate science clearly,
accurately, and successfully is so important.
Is some use
of jargon intentionally meant to make someone outside the ‘priesthood’ (i.e.
that type of person) feel less capable, or perhaps to protect the status the
holder of the information?
I think there
are some contexts where a cynical person could say yes. A context that comes to
mind is politics. In political science, people who are “experts” are called
“elites,” and then there is everyone else (“publics”). There are some theories
of democracy that suggest that only “elites” should participate (i.e., vote)
because their opinions are “better” than the general public. If one were to be
cynical, it could be argued that when elites talk about politics, they
strategically weigh down political information with jargon terms (e.g., policy
names, historical contexts, legal terms). And, when this is the case, less
politically knowledgeable publics may disengage. Again, if the end goal was to
have only elites participate, then overusing jargon in political discourse
would be one strategy to accomplish this goal.
How did your
research affect how you approached writing the resulting paper?
paper was written for an academic audience (and for an academic journal) so –
perhaps problematically – I did not think too much about my use of jargon.
Instead, I just wrote this journal article in the same conventional way I write
other journal articles. That said, the attention received by this paper has
really caused me to reflect a bit more on my academic writing. Without thinking
too much about it, I probably overuse jargon in my academic writing as a way to
signal belonging and – ideally – intelligence to my peers who will be reviewing
the paper. But if I were to subscribe to my own advice, I should probably knock
it off and try to write my ideas without relying on these esoteric terms.
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