Jargon: the new black sheep.

tl;dr:  Reducing jargon is good, but some jargon words are important and we need to keep them.  We should choose the words that give the public the best chance of understanding real science.  

The conversation about jargon in scientific communication has been thrust before my eyeballs a fair bit lately, starting with the Southern Fried Science piece – inspired by this paper – that got picked up by Boing Boing (which is where I saw it) and spawned an editable Google Doc spreadsheet of bad jargon words that should be replaced by “better choices”.  Then I noticed Christie Wilcox mention the issue while coining a term that I quite like:  “jargon walls”.  Her description of the issue is, frankly, awesome and so I’m going to quote it directly to set the stage:

Right now, science is almost entirely a one-way conversation. Scientists, as a group, pride themslves on doing cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of their field – then most feel that their part in the conversation is over. The problem is, these publications aren’t really communicating science to anyone but other scientists. Articles are kept locked behind expensive paywalls, and even those that are published in open access journals are still inaccessible, as they lie behind what I like to call jargon walls.

It’s not that non-scientists are too stupid to get science. Far from it. The average person simply doesn’t have the specific vocabulary to understand a scientific paper. I’m not stupid, yet when I take my car in to the mechanic, I don’t have the specific vocabulary to understand exactly what is making my check engine light keep turning on.

This jargon wall breeds distrust. Do I overall trust mechanics to know how to fix my car? Sure. But when one starts going on and on about how my timing belt needs adjustment, my fuel injectors need to be replaced, and there’s an oil leak in my engine that needs fixing, do I fully trust that he’s not just making up problems to get me to pay more for repairs? Not for a second.

And just before Christmas, another piece showed up in my Twitter feed from Deep Sea News by para_sight, with the tagline

Scientists must use the #language that we ALL possess, not the one only scientists possess

So many smart people have commented on this issue (and there’s a lot of links I’ve forgotten here, so please forgive me!) and agreed that scientists have to speak clearly and use more accessible language that the misgivings I felt when reading these blog posts and papers bugged me.  I commented on the aforementioned Boing Boing post at the time to express some of my shaky feelings on the matter:

Differences in interpretation are often ideological.  Someone mentioned climate change deniers above, screeching over “manipulation”.  What happens if scientists work really hard to change the words they use to exactly match the public use (which is a pointless moving target anyways; an example is the use of the word scheme, which as I’ve recently discovered means “government program” here in Australia), and climate change deniers and their ilk misinterpret the new word usage to mean whatever they want it to anyways?  You’re not going to solve the linguistic version of confirmation bias by changing the word you use – they’ll just move the goalposts and kick again.

Having said that, I’m not against the idea of reducing friction with the public by trying to avoid potential confusions.  It’s a worthwhile goal.  But I do think that you have problems coming from both directions;  ideologues will misinterpret you no matter what you do, and *every* field has its own jargon, usually for a reason. Solving that will probably require a more sophisticated approach, likely involving some combination of word normalisation as the paper suggests, and better education about common variants as other commenters have argued for.

But while I still think that these things are true, they didn’t really get at the heart of what was really bugging me about the anti-jargon push.  And then today, when I was reading para_sight’s piece, it finally hit me.  What really bothers me about this issue is that not all jargon is bad.  Some jargon words are really important, and we need to fight for them.  Some, we can abandon, but some must be defended.

What is jargon, anyways?

Let’s put the discussion on an even footing by beginning with a definition.  What is jargon?  The term usually implies one of two overlapping but distinct definitions.  The first is a terminology which is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event, and is what I think of when I use the term jargon.  But the other common definition (e.g. #6 on this OED page) centers on the exclusionary nature of jargon: “Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession”.  It is this second definition, I believe,  that most people are working from when they call for scientists to avoid jargon.  To an extent, I agree with this argument.  A lot of the words that scientists use in technical publications don’t belong in communications aimed at the general public.  para_sight points out that tongue-twisters like “Ekman transport”, “population dynamics”, or “thermodynamic-anything” just get in the way.  At best, you end up spending half of your piece defining them, and at worst you don’t define them and the audience simply abandons you in frustration.

Evolution is a jargon word.

But not all jargon words are bad, and this is the point that I feel has been missed in the recent articles on this subject.  If you go back and look at those lists (here, here), you’ll notice some big words have been left off.  It’s never explained why, but nobody suggests that we stop using words like evolution or climate change.  Why? Evolution is, by either definition above, a jargon word.  It is terminology especially defined in relation to the field of biology, and while it is not unfamiliar in terms of exposure (most people have heard the word), it is certainly unfamiliar to many in terms of meaning.  I’d like to tell you how many, but I can’t find those numbers;  I can find plenty of numbers on how many people believe in evolution, but none on how many people can define evolution.  Even qualitatively, though, a simple scan of the internet will show you that the word is used about as many ways as there are web pages, and many of those usages are partly or entirely wrong.  Worse, creationists and people like them will deliberately misuse words like evolution in an attempt to redirect the conversation.  Virtual gallons of digital ink have been spilled trying to sort out the meanings of the word “evolution” and explaining its importance.

Evolution.  Natural selection.  Climate change.  Stem cell.  Herd immunity.  Quantum mechanics.  Pretty much anything from medicine.  These are all jargon words.  Why aren’t they on the lists of words-to-avoid?

They’re jargon, but they’re important jargon.

It may seem obvious, but we don’t avoid using the word evolution; we use the word because it’s an important word, even if it is jargon.  It is the central idea of biology (must … resist … overused Dobzhansky … quote) and instead of using a different word or just blithely re-explaining the word every time we use it, as biologists we spend a lot of time trying to get people to understand and remember this particular piece of jargon.  This is the battle we have chosen to fight:  we’ll try to avoid using words regression, or sensitivity, but we will not give up on words like evolution.

Climate change / global warming faces the same challenge.  Sommerville and Hassol note that “… many people confuse climate change with the ozone hole. They incorrectly identify the ozone hole, aerosol spray cans, toxic waste, nuclear power, and the space program as causes of global warming”.  Climate change is, in fact, jargon just like evolution or Ekman transport, but climatologists and other scientists involved in the fight to bring about change on this topic show no signs of avoiding the word.  Instead, they take every chance they can to go head-on with deniers and explain patiently, over and over, what the word really means.  They are trying, in other words, to teach the jargon to the audience.

So what?

The examples I’ve used are obvious and unlikely to cause dispute.  I’ll be really surprised if people show up at this blog post to tell me that we should stop using the word evolution because it’s jargon or because the public doesn’t understand it.  Yet I raise them because they’re an example of my point, which is that not all jargon is bad.  Some jargon must be retained and explained, no matter how many times we have to do it or how many problems it causes.  And so I would like to propose an unpopular idea:  that the message of reducing jargon is good, but incomplete.  It is incomplete because, in coordination with other members of the team (science communicators, social scientists, policy makers, etc.), we must have discussions about which words are unnecessary jargon and can be avoided, and which are necessary and must be retained.  This won’t be easy, because it will require not only detailed conversations among many parties with an axe to grind, but it will also require data and reasoning about which fights can be won (or should be fought even if we can’t win them).

I think the first discussions could be had about the list published at Southern Fried Science.  Here’s the list that they published there:

If I had any power over this, I would agree that some of these are unnecessary.  I can accept the “better choices” associated with words like assay, power, recent, or sensitivity.  Words like these, with obvious alternative meanings that conflict and cause confusion without the corresponding benefit to keeping the word seem like obvious choices to me.  But others on this list do not.  Gene is a good example.  Not only do I think that the “better choice” is most definitely not better – how is the public going to know what a “coding region” is without a lot more explanation, anyways? – but the word itself is so powerful within biology that explaining it and fighting for it brings tangible benefits.  In fact, I propose that we should value particular pieces of jargon in proportion to how much power they will grant the public in understanding the scientific world around them.  The scientific literature is not going to abandon the word gene any time soon, so if we spend our time explaining what a gene is to the public I would argue that it will pay off by giving inquisitive laypeople a boost over the jargon wall.  They can learn about the statistical meaning of confidence if ever they need to, but knowing the technical meaning of gravity will pay dividends in understanding the world around us that a fight over the meaning of the word primer won’t.

Back in the heyday of ScienceBlogs.com, before Pepsigate and the Mass Exoduses of mid-2010, there was a series of posts that attempted to explain basic concepts in science.  A few  of these directly address the ideas I’m talking about in this post, such as Larry Moran’s article on “What is Evolution?”, and I believe that this is one of the strengths that blog writing can bring to the table:  a platform for working scientists to directly address the public about the things that the public should (or might want to) know about science and the world around them.  As part of an overall strategy of scientific outreach, we can use blogs to fight for the jargon that is important, while learning the techniques of good science communication from good science communicators.

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3 thoughts on “Jargon: the new black sheep.

  1. Really good post! I’d like to add ‘species’ to the list of words we should be defending! Every time I see someone use ‘types’ or ‘kinds’, I die a little bit on the inside (and that alternative is even worse). Yes there is considerable debate among academics regarding what constitutes a species, but at a time when global biodiversity is under considerable threat, why must we ignore the terminology that defines it’s building blocks?

    • stevenhamblin says:

      Thanks! :-) I wonder if we could use contested words like ‘species’ as a gentle and partial introduction to the scientific process itself; while educating people on the meaning of the word, we could explicitly show them how science can progress by the refinement of ideas like what a species really is.

      And yeah, the ‘types’ / ‘kinds’ things gets my goat too. Especially because of the creationist overtones to the words (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraminology)….

  2. [...] not overly political here.  That’s not to say that I’m not opinionated (I’ve got plenty of opinions), but I don’t tend to post specifically in order to weigh in on timely political [...]

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