Say what? Scientific jargon turns readers off, diminishes one’s interest in science

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Discharge petition. Laparoscopy. Vigilance decrement. Neuroplasticity. Political and scientific jargon like these are often quite hard to understand in articles and discussions. In fact, StudyFinds.org’s mission statement addresses this language: “StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon.” Good thing, too. An Ohio State University study finds that not only is specialized terminology difficult to understand, it makes people lose interest in science.

In the study, researchers had participants read one of two versions of a science article: one full of jargon and the other using more colloquial language. People who read the jargon-filled version reported feeling less informed about the topic, and less qualified to discuss it. Even if the difficult lingo was defined in the article, readers ultimately felt less interested in science.

The authors suggest confusing terms jump right off the page for some readers and push them to quit before really giving the article a chance. “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” explains lead author Hillary Shulman, an assistant professor of communication, in a university release. “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

Jarred by the jargon

Shulman and her team recruited 650 participants to read the three excerpts on self-driving cars, surgical robots, and 3D bioprinting. Half of the participants read a paragraph filled with jargon, the other half read a paragraph without any. The authors also gave half of the group that read the jargon-filled paragraph the option to see the definition of the difficult term. The definition used the same language as the paragraph that didn’t contain the science-heavy language.

For example, one of the sentences in the jargon-filled version of the surgical robots article reads: “This system works because of AI integration through motion scaling and tremor reduction.” Conversely, the cleaner version reads: “This system works because of programming that makes the robot’s movements more precise and less shaky.”

Afterwards, participants rated how easy the selection was read, and then answered some questions about their interest in science and their science education. Researchers weren’t surprised to find that the people who read the science-heavy paragraphs found them more difficult to read, even if they had the definitions.

“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,” says Shulman. “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 was true of people who read the paragraphs without any jargon. “They were more likely to say they understood what they read because they were a science kind of person, that they liked science and considered themselves knowledgeable,” explains Shulman.

Science made easy keeps readers interested

Shulman refers to an earlier study of hers that uses the same participants and reveals one of the big problems with using a lot of scientific jargon: people actually stop believing the science.

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

Shulman recommends the people who communicate science to the public adjust the language they use and make it more appropriate for their audiences. “Too many people think that if they just define their terms, everything is set. But this work shows that is not the case,” she concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

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