Come Again? Jargon in Scientific Communication
Posted by Jenna Capyk on July 18, 2011
There is definitely something to the adage: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Although today we might adapt that to “The podcast is mightier than the handgun,” obvious hyperbole notwithstanding, the meaning is essentially the same. The essence behind this idea, of course, is the power of language. Language is an immutable trait of the human condition. One could argue that it is the single most important trait in defining our species and, even more so, our societies. It is also our most powerful tool in binding together as a group. The power of our ideas expressed through language has been the most important force in directing the course of human history.
Something that I think gets lost in this general concept, however, is that the power of language doesn’t lie in the idea alone, but in the specific words that are used to get the point across. Any powerful truth or truly inspiring idea can become completely lost if the language that is used to express it is not effective in communicating that idea to the target audience. Related to this idea, the power of some words is actually in disguising the true nature of an idea or intent. Sometimes this is intentional, and sometimes unintentional, but either way the result is people being mislead or alienated by language.
One type of language that can be intrinsically misleading or (more often) simply incomprehensible is Jargon. Jargon is defined as vocabulary which is meaningful only to a particular profession or group. This is not a problem in and of itself, and can even be useful. The problem arises when the group that understands the language either forgets that they are basically speakign gibberish to everyone else, or worse, when they use jargony terms in the full knowledge that they are basically gibberish to everyone else.
The concepts of jargon and effective communication styles in general are incredibly important to the skeptic community. We are a group with a mandate to spread a message of critical thinking, and thus have more reason than most to be aware of the powers and pitfalls of words. Specifically, there are two “jargon communities” that are especially pertinent to those in the skeptic community. One is jargon within the skeptical community itself and one is jargon in the scientific community.
Examples of Scientific Writing
I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone who has ever, even once tried to read a scientific research paper that these publications are jargon minefields. I myself can find this type of writing particularly mind-numbing and have, I am ashamed to say, been found lying in a puddle of drool over a paper more than once. Almost any random example paragraph will contain multiple examples of jargony language. Take the following examples that I literally picked at random from literature searches using the key-word “evolution”:
“In Patient 14, site 16093 in cancerous tissue is homoplastic C, while in para-cancerous normal and distant normal tissue this site shifts to be heteroplasmic as C/T. This pattern was confirmed by DHPLC assay result: in cancerous tissue C14 site 16093 displays a single peak, whereas in para-cancerous normal and distant normal tissues it shows double peak” followed by the illuminating (Figure 2).”
“We transfected plasmids expressing each of the ten parental gp120 genes into CHO-K1 cells and analyzed the resulting secreted proteins on dot-blots for their ability to bind an anti-His-tag mAb, a polyclonal serum against gp120, and the human anti-gp120 mAbs 2G12, b3, b6, and b12.”
I’m not bringing up such examples to discourage people from going to the original sources, but to point out just how right our English teachers were: there is a different language to be used for each purpose. To use the tired old example, a grocery list is written differently from an office memo. Scientific writing is certainly a different animal altogether, but what is potentially surprising is just how much a paper like this and a political speech might have in common when we start talking about Jargon.
The Utility and Necessity of Jargon in Science
Notwithstanding its seemingly unnecessary stuffiness, the jargon used in scientific communication (to a scientific audience in the same field) is incredibly valuable. Dense and subtle as it may seem, this typical language of scientific communication actually aims to be as concise and precise as possible.
For those people who are already oriented in a specific field, jargon related to that field effectively condenses what is realistically a sentence or two into only one or two words. Particularly effective at doing this are the dreaded acronyms, unintelligible to all but those in the most closely related fields. As space, time, and carpul-tunnel savers, these tools are invaluable. The effectiveness of language depends on using the right words for the right audience, and talking down to an expert can be every bit as ineffective as talking over the head of a lay person.
Although everyone likes saving time, perhaps the greatest value of scientific jargon is its precision. The scientific thesaurus (if there is such a thing, hm, I think I want one of those for Christmas) is a heck of a lot shorter than the regular thesaurus. That is to say, that while in English we have many interchangable words, the scientific-specific words (read: jargon), tend to be much more specific. While in English we often must be cognisant of the connotations of our word choices, in scientific communications it is often the specific definitions that vary between words. Many a hapless graduate student has blushed in his supervisor’s office having mistakenly used the term “protein expression” when he clearly meant “gene expression” (as proteins, of course, are never expressed. Duh). What I mean to say is that although scientific jargon may seem convoluted, the specificity of its definitions allow scientists to express themselves in specifically meaningful ways with the fewest number of actual words.
The Power of Scientific Jargon to Alienate
Now that I’ve been bowing at the alter of scientific language, I think it might be time to scrawl a bit of graffiti. Yes, scientific jargon is absolutely necessary for effective and accurate scholarly communication, and yes, this type of language has all kinds of benefits when used with the right audience. This last point, however, is a very sticky one. The problem arises, and arises OFTEN, when research scientists use the same, or only slightly altered, language to talk to people outside of their field. To be clear, someone “outside your field” can range from a science-blog-savvy journalist, to the audience at a community meeting, to the guy across the hall from you who works in the same department but is not intimitely aquainted with the ins and outs of your project. If a scientist either doesn’t know how to, or doesn’t choose to, adapt their language to the level of knowledge of their audience, it can be very very difficult to get the truth “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak.
This can be a major problem for society at large when it starts to influence public policy. For effective decision making, not to mention policy making, the public needs accurate information. For many issues this is of course based in science. The problem is that the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge are all-too-often the research scientists themselves. As discussed above, these folks are generally accustomed to using the type of jargon-filled and overly conservative language they use when communicating with other scientists. The problem is that this type of language is at worst completely incomprehensible, and (unfortunately) at best often simply uninspiring to an audience used to the sensationalization of the evening news. In these types of scenarios, the alienation caused by lazy use of jargon can cause societal damage by decreasing the effective pool of accurate information people have access to.
The Power of Scientific Jargon to Mislead
The types of examples we’ve been talking about here all deal with the unintentional consequences of scientific jargon. Unfortunately, like any scenario where one group has knowledge and another does not, confusing language like jargon can be used to deliberately mislead those who are not in the know. Schoolhouse rock was right: “Knowledge is Power!”
Although this is not a pervasive problem in reputable research science, scientific jargon is used, worn out, washed, patched, put through the ringer, and used again by the proponents of pseudoscience. There are countless examples where explanations of pseudoscientific concepts are couched in profoundly scientific language. In many cases, these words aren’t just incomprehensible to the audience, but actually to those spouting them off as well. Frequently terms are so egregiously misused in these contexts that the exact meaning or grammatical role of a word become wholly indecipherable.
Although it can be pretty funny to read these kinds of disingenuous scientific descriptions if you know what the words mean, use of scientific jargon in this way is profoundly dangerous. It lends scientific credibility to what can otherwise be complete bunk, and most people who don’t hold a pipet on a regular basis will find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference. This type of language can even be used to get around making false claims. By using convoluted scientific jargon you can make pretty lame claims start to sound very significant, and worth a lot of money.
You don’t need a license to use scientific language. However, as it takes a certain specific knowledge to be able to properly understand and evaluate it, irresponsible use of scientific jargon can range from ineffective, to dangerous, to downright vicious.
Dealing with Scientific Jargon from a Consumer’s point of view
So what’s a girl (or boy, or grown, intelligent adult) to do? We could all obviously run out and get ourselves several advanced degrees as writing a thesis is probably the easiest way to become completely saturated in academic jargon. However, I recognise that this might not be practical to fit into every one’s schedule.
The next best thing is to be able to recognise jargon when you see or hear it. This sounds trivial, and in some cases it is. For example, if a word you’re reading looks more like ancient Greek than every-day English, there’s a good chance is a specialized piece of scientific terminology. It gets harder, however, when people co-opt terms that already have English definitions and give them new, area-specific meanings or overtones. Basically, if the meaning of a term seems both fairly crucial and not quite clear, its a good time to ask for clarification. People shouldn’t be afraid of asking for more information about the words their consuming, as any problem in understanding is the failure of the person on the other end of that communication. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and so is incomplete understanding. In many cases, misinterpretations are spread far and wide by people who understand half of the truth really well, and the other half not at all. These half-truths with the sheen of legitimacy are by far the most harmful.
So to wrap up, sometimes passionate people don’t fully realize the power or impotence of the words they choose. Language is an incredibly empowering tool, but its full effect can only be achieved if used in conjuction with an understanding of one’s intended audience, and an understanding of the responsibility one bears as a communicator.