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Want to turn the world against you? Use jargon

Isabel Williams
Written By
Isabel Williams
Want to turn the world against you? Use jargon
Artwork by Louise Pau and Ina Jardan

Imagine you’re a traveling salesman who, of course, sells bandwidth plans door-to-door. You knock on a local farmer's door to find them yelling at their TV because the latest episode of Emily in Paris isn’t loading. This is going to be an easy sell.

This farmer isn’t tech-savvy, so he asks you, “What’s bandwidth?” You say “bandwidth is the maximum rate of data transfer across a given path. Bandwidth may be characterized as network bandwidth, data bandwidth, or digital bandwidth.” Here’s why you’re about to have the door slammed in your face.

In a 2019 study published in the Public Understanding of Science journal, or ironically PUS for short, researchers wanted to see how members of the public reacted to scientific jargon. Specifically, they wanted to see if jargon would

  1. increased or decreased the level of information processing
  2. increased or decreased a desire to resist attempts at persuasion
  3. and increased or decreased the level of perceived risk

The participants read explanations for how self-driving cars, surgical robots, and three-dimensional bioprinting worked. Half of the explanation included jargon, half of them did not.

Their results found that the presence of jargon significantly disrupted and reduced processing fluency, increased resistance to persuasion, increased risk perception, and reduced overall support for the technology. While other factors may have influenced their results, such as participants’ baseline knowledge before the study, these findings are vital for science communicators.

“When new technologies are introduced to the public, two outcomes become important for public acceptance: (1) the risk posed by these new technologies and (2) support for adopting these technologies.”

Now that we know why we should ditch the jargon, let’s return to the salesman role-playing.

Instead of explaining what bandwidth is in technical terms, you say, “Bandwidth is like cars on a highway. When more cars or big trucks are on the road, traffic builds up. By increasing your bandwidth it’s like making more lanes on the highway for cars to fly by.” You’ve got yourself a deal.

When speaking with the public, scientific jargon does not translate to expertise. Analogies are a much better route for communication, as expressed by Standard Professor, author, and neuroscientist David Eagleman on the podcast Think Smart, Talk Fast.

Analogies are great for scientific communication because:

  1. They tap into audience’s established knowledge and emotions
  2. And they can explain the inner workings of a technology in a setting familiar with the public

I’ll leave this post with a piece of advice from David Eagleman; when you go to explain your technology, imagine you’re speaking to yourself, but before you knew anything about the subject.