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Speak plainly to attract people to STEM, study suggests

3 March 2020

Jargon is a barrier to embracing not only the content at hand but also an entire field.

Communicating science workshop.
Instructors Julia Hathaway (right) and Christian Seiter of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science lead a recent science communication workshop at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Credit: Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University

Needlessly complicated language is off-putting. Whether in politics, law, medicine, or science, laypeople disengage when confronted with jargon. What’s more, according to new research, scientific jargon leads laypeople to distrust the content and to conclude that they are not good at—and don’t like—the broader subject area.

The research results, published online in January in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, don’t mean that there is no place for jargon. Among professionals, it can help convey ideas more effectively, precisely, credibly, and persuasively. But when communicating with the public or with students who have not yet learned the insider language, jargon can do damage, says first author Hillary Shulman of the Ohio State University School of Communication.

Shulman began investigating how language can be a barrier to people’s participation in political discourse. Then she and her colleagues turned to science and technology. They created an online survey in which 650 participants recruited from the general public were asked to read short paragraphs about self-driving cars, three-dimensional bio-printing, and surgical robots. About half the participants received jargon-laden versions of the paragraphs, while the other half received versions that contained more colloquial language.

For example, in the bio-printing paragraph, the jargon-rich sentence “Tissue engineering through 3D bio-printing is one of the most exciting innovations in MedTech” was reworded as “Replacing human tissue with fabricated tissue is an exciting innovation in health technology.”

The researchers found a strong correlation between inaccessible wording and readers reporting that they didn’t really like science and didn’t trust the material. Conversely, Shulman says, when the wording was colloquial, respondents reported interest in the immediate content and in science more broadly.

The two groups were further split, with some readers given a mouse-over option to look up the jargon they encountered or to translate the simplified language into jargon. That made no difference. “The use of difficult, specialized words is a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” says Shulman. “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like this message isn’t for them.”

Alan Lightman, an MIT astrophysicist turned novelist, is not surprised. “Almost always, there is a way to say something technical in nontechnical terms,” he says. “Once a term is defined, then you can use jargon as a shorthand way of referring to it.”

Passage with jargon.
Laypeople in a recent study were frustrated by jargon even when they could position their pointer over the difficult words and read the definitions. Credit: H. C. Shulman et al., J. Lang. Soc. Psychol., 2020

In science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM), Shulman says, the use of jargon may discourage people from supporting those fields and even pursuing careers in them. “People have an automatic response to difficult language. You can extrapolate to education and the adoption of technology,” she says. “Who knows who is lost?”

James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, has participated in faculty training programs at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook, New York. “The emphasis is on distilling the message and shedding jargon,” he says. If STEM fields want to attract more people who may have limited familiarity with science but “who have talent and passion,” he adds, “intimidating them with lots of fancy physics and math terms is not the way to go.”

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