Brain power

Jargon can put people off science

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Jargon is often a highly efficient means of communicating with others from your field, but it presents significant barriers when communicating with those outside it.  New research1 from Ohio State University highlights how damaging this can be for fields such as politics and technology.

Indeed, the study suggests this goes further than simply being hard to understand.  It found that when people were bamboozled by complex jargon on science, they felt they were less good at the topic and less qualified to talk about it.

Crucially, it made no real difference if the complex terms were actually explained in the text, as readers were still disengaged when they had to trawl through jargon heavy copy. The mere presence of jargon was sufficient to discourage readers.

“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” the researchers explain.  “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

Disengaged readership

The study had its origins in the political sphere, where the researchers found that complex language tended to result in people tuning out.

“We have found 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,” the researchers say.

In total, they analyzed around 20 different topics across both politics and science, with the same results appearing across them all.  People only really engage in complex topics if they’re communicated in a language they understand.

The findings emerged after several hundred participants read paragraphs on a range of science and tech-related topics.  Half of the volunteers read content containing no jargon, with the remaining half reading jargon laden content.

At the end of each text, participants were asked to rate how easy it was to read.  They were also asked to complete tasks designed to measure their interest in and knowledge of science.  Not only did those reading the jargon-laden text find them harder to read, but giving them definitions didn’t help at all.

Lowering barriers

“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,” the researchers say.  “Exposure to jargon led people to report things like ‘I’m not really good at science,’ ‘I’m not interested in learning about science,’ and ‘I’m not well qualified to participate in science discussions.’”

The opposite occurred for those who were exposed to the simpler text.  They reported feeling empowered because they understood the text more, and they revealed that this made them feel they were ‘science’ people, and that they liked science because they considered themselves knowledgeable in it.

Perhaps more worryingly still, in previous work, the researchers found that when people were exposed to jargon laden texts about science, it made them doubt the veracity of science itself.

“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,” the researchers say.  “You can see how important it is to communicate clearly when you’re talking about complex science subjects like climate change or vaccines.”

It’s one thing using jargon when talking among oneself, but when talking to people outside of your bubble, the study reminds us that speaking in plain language really does have merit.

Article source: Jargon Can Put People Off Science.

Header image source: pxfuel.

Reference:

  1. Shulman, H. C., Dixon, G. N., Bullock, O. M., & Colón Amill, D. (2020). The Effects of Jargon on Processing Fluency, Self-Perceptions, and Scientific Engagement. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 0261927X20902177.

Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and Work.com, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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