The Incomprehensible Jargon of Science


We blogged recently about the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, especially when it comes to climate science.  The October 2011 issue of Physics Today contains yet another article addressing the very same concept.  From the article:

Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes.

We particularly like the table provided at the end of the article, titled “Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.” For example, the scientific term “uncertainty” translates to “ignorance” for the general public; the article suggests scientists use the word “range” instead. Error, which the general public reads as “mistake, wrong, incorrect,” might be better replaced by “difference from exact true number.”


Typical - if data doesn't work, blame the readers. The real problem is that climate change "scientists" migrated from science to politics, and the majority of people could tell. It has been one of the triumphs of the wisdom of the crowds that collective inaction was far better than any proposed action.

No one is rejecting climate science conclusions because they don't understand the concept of scientific uncertainty. It's because they understand the difference between scientific inquiry, and "give me all your money".

Mike B

The problem isn't the research or even so much the researchers, it is that the only remedy put forward by those that embrace the research is that we should all live in a mud hut and eat seaweed. Legitimate research has been hijacked with those who have an ancillary policy position. Scientists need to team up with economists and policy makers to put forward a slate of proposals that vary from "do nothing and deal with it" to "geoengineer the planet cooler". If the general public was able to see that they didn't have to give up modern conveniences like cars and meat they would be more inclined to do something about climate change.


Having just read the linked article, I'm appaled! What I'm reading is that the public rejects "scientific" findings about "climate change" because scientists haven't spun the message correctly.

If only we used different words then they would get it and agree with us. I think the public is a lot smarter that they are being given credit for. Pehaps the public should respond back to these egg head scientists with "simple, clear messages and repeat them often".


IMO using different words won't force people to 'get it', but it may force people to use better arguments.

Mike K.

I don't think climate scientists overdo the level of detail when they speak to the public. Climate activists, on the other hand, overdo the hype. For twenty-five years now, we've been told that we have five years left to save the planet. You can only use that line for so many decades before people stop believing you.

What would really get people to pay attention to scientists on this issue would be if, once in a very great while, they'd rebuke some of the nuttier purveyors of global-warming alarmism.

Mike B

To be fair we have made a lot of progress that probably pushed back several ecological meltdowns. Environmental conditions in this country were appalling 30 years ago. Today they are holding rowing events on the Cuyahoga River.

Russell W.

Talking more about environmental successes would also help sway the public toward the idea that the problem is not inevitable but avoidable. The second step should be to market what positive things can be done that don't reduce quality of life.

Eric M. Jones.

Yeh, well...I once sent a bunch of finance and management types in paroxysm when I told them, regarding a new design, that we would "play with it", which meant to a scientist or engineer-- "Examine its character and performance so as to ascertain its capabilities and shortcomings (among other goals)".

The list is a good start. They missed "Law", but it turns out that the "Law" of some things is due for a tune-up by the rock-solid "Theory" of other things.


In a way, I find these complaints amusing, because to me "scientific jargon" seems quite clear, while the various jargons used in most areas of popular culture leave me blank. Seems it's a universal problem, not limited to science.

Russell W

While I completely agree with the sentiment, I don't think this is a situation that is likely to change. In order for scientists to have constructive debates amongst themselves, specificity is a necessity. I think the purpose of educating the public about is better served by a specialist community of journalists and science writers. I know that when I'm writing for a journal, versus writing for my own blog, the writing style and the kind of thought that goes into are very different. Part of that is because I expect reviewers to be merciless, but the general public to be more curious than anything.


exactly! the whole point of scientific jargon is that it is direct and unambiguous in a way that colloquial speak is not. Consider rigorous math: for years, mathematicians struggled with the concept of a limit because they did not have a precise definition. Once they forged a definition that was feasible, precise and abstract, there were breakthroughs in analysis. Dedekind's cuts forged the way for Cantor's descriptions of uncountable sets. Precision is necessary for scientific discourse; it is not incumbent on the scientist to sacrifice her/his craft for the benefit of the viewer.


I suggest that a better word for "theory" be found. That word can be used to dismiss solid findings as "ONLY a theory." Further, it smacks of being nothing more than a mental, armchair exercise that is not necessarily founded on solid empirical evidence.


Or the opposite strategy can be employed and use "theory" in its correct context more often: theory of gravitation, electromagnetic theory, number theory, music theory, etc. Dismissing something as "just a theory" would hopefully just sound ridiculous.

Joe J

It has more to do with the several layers between the scientists and the public.
A quick listing of the hands of knowledge might help.
First hand knoledge- you personally ran the experiment.
Second hand knoledge- you read the scientific papers (no Physics today articles don't qualify) or personally, discussed with the researchers involved.
Third hand knoledge- You got your info from people who had 2nd hand knowledge, (physics Today might qualify for this) but might not. With some biases and filetrs.
4th hand knoledge- You get your info from people who got it from 3rd hand. Often with more biases tossed in, little better than gossip.
And So on.
Most people (including politicians) get their info from 4th or later hand info.

During each of those steps like with the telephone game, info can become filtered and biased. With any news article it goes from scientist, to their paper, to some science editor, to a reporter, whose work then gets edited by others who never read the original paper, to come out in a 3 minute news report, which then gets picked up by pundits and politicians of BOTH sides and twisted and turned to their own purposes.
This is part of the reason why the public has lost much faith in science.


Ahmed Zghari

* I'm loving it
* Open happiness
* Where magic happens
* Yes we can

People understand and engage with simple messages; and as a result they trust the messenger.

Scientists use convoluted arguments to impress their peers.

As a result, people that peddle trash become rich and change the world, while honorable people that want to change the world peddle to work.


What we need are people who are not experts but understand enough of science to serve as liaisons between scientists and the public. In any case, worrying about people not understanding scientists presumes that they actually want to!

The following essay should be instructive:


OR...the general public could get their collective cognitive sh@t together and learn to speak and read properly. Blame the education system that fails to teach basic science and is sometimes even compelled to teach total gibberish! That's right creationists, I'm talking to you.


Well here we go. You can look at this two ways, one they don't know what they are talking about, or they is no problem and they are making it up.
I'm a reasonably educated guy, and my bull crap metter works well. It seems that everything " scientific researchers" say ends up in babble, so I tend to not listen to any.