Vigilance decrement.


Are you still focused?

If not, you aren’t alone. 

When members of the general public are exposed to scientific jargon they’re more likely to lose interest in a topic, even when definitions are provided, according to a new study out of Ohio State University (OSU).

Researchers also found jargon is more likely to make readers feel like they aren’t good at science and unqualified to discuss science-related topics.

The problem — according to lead author Hillary Shulman, an assistant professor at OSU — is that jargon can be discouraging, even when authors take pains to explain it.

“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” Shulman said.

“You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

The new study is the latest in a series conducted by Shulman and her team that focuses on engagement and language use. Shulman says all twenty of the studies conducted had similar results.

“We can get citizens to engage with complex political and scientific issues if we communicate to them in language that they understand,” she said.

For the study, 650 adults were asked to read three paragraphs about different scientific topics. Half read jargon-free versions and half of the group read paragraphs containing jargon.

Example from the study:

In a paragraph about surgical robots, the “jargon” version read:

 “This system works because of AI integration through motion scaling and tremor reduction.”

The “non-jargon” version read:

“This system works because of programming that makes the robot’s movements more precise and less shaky.”

Half of the people (25 per cent of the total respondents) who read the “jargon” versions were asked if they’d like complicated terms defined. All participants were then asked how easy the paragraphs were to read. 

“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,” Shulman said.

“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.'”

Many non-jargon readers, however, felt “empowered.”

“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,” Shulman said.

Effective science communication

Scientific terms are important, especially within an academic paper or in a professional setting with peers — but Shulman’s work provides takeaways for scientists who are attempting to explain their work to the general public.

The use of accessible language is important to consider, given the average reading level for many Canadians and Americans is below the university level, and there is evidence that concise science communication can help build public trust.

A fact sheet on effective science communication by the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends:

There’s also the “explain it to a child” concept, which is the first step in the Feynman Technique – a learning tool named after Nobel Laureate and physicist Richard Feynman.

When a teacher can explain a complex topic to a child in a way that keeps them entertained and engaged, the information is likely appropriate for a broad audience.

As an added bonus: This can provide the scientist with a deeper understanding of their research.

Read Shulman’s latest paper here.