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Once more, with comprehension

The more sinister side of jargon

Bill Hanage 21 May 2006

Lab lingo: a bit of light reading

Language can be a brutal instrument in determining whether a person is part of a group, and most jargon has this precise end in mind

In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell sets out his view of what constitutes good political writing which, it is fair to say, for him pretty much constituted good writing in general. At the end, he reduced his manifesto to the following five points

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

And then added a 6th:

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

But he unfortunately offered no clues as to what he would consider to be outright barbarity. Re-reading this recently, I was struck by its relevance to writing in science, and not only as regards point (v). The use of the passive voice is endemic in scientific writing. It is beaten into us as schoolchildren and the indoctrination completed at university.

A friend of mine, on entering the civil service after a science degree, had to take classes in writing quick, concise reports aiming to summarise complicated information. At the end of one of the lessons, the instructor asked my friend to stay behind. When everyone else had left, the instructor said:

"I understand you have a science degree."

"That’s right!" replied my friend, justifiably proud.

The instructor nodded. "I thought so. Next time you use the passive voice, I’m going to break your legs. Just remember that."

The passive voice is used everywhere in the scientific literature, yet it is generally more difficult to use accurately, and to understand accurately, than the active alternative. Why is this so, in science, which prides itself on producing clear and straightforward descriptions of the world? Well, it’s because that’s hogwash. The use of the passive voice is a classic example of a tradition which we are stuck with, and which nobody wants to change because to do so would challenge the status quo.

This is not the only or even the most serious example of how Orwell’s advice is regularly flouted in the scientific ‘literature’. As human knowledge has proliferated through the scientific method, so has the dense undergrowth of verbosity involved in cataloguing it. Whatever field you happen to work in, consider for a moment the depth of the jargon you use and, just as an experiment, go to the library and pick up a journal from a related field to see how many of the paper titles you understand.

In some cases, this is simply because the relentless discovery of new things and phenomena demands new words to describe them. In others, it is more to do with power relations. Language can be a brutal instrument in determining whether a person is part of a group, and much, even most jargon has this precise end in mind.

Consider the following statement:

"The patient presented with coryza and other signs of acute rhinitis"

What the hell is that word ‘coryza’? It’s so obscure that Microsoft’s dictionary is insisting I spelled it wrong. It sounds a bit like a make of car ("The New Vauxhall Coryza with built-in sunroof"). Given the context, you can probably tell it is to do with medicine, and the end of the sentence may give you the clue that it is to do with a bad cold. In fact it means nothing more than "a runny rose". That well-known symptom of a head cold.

Now, what on earth is the purpose of the word ‘coryza’ in that sentence? Will the understanding of the intended reader be enhanced? No. The technical term contains no additional information about the symptom. The only extra information it gives you is that the person who wrote it is likely to be a doctor. And why should that be interesting? By using this technical, and rather redundant term, the writer is attempting to exclude and, it must be said, likely succeeding. It violates the actuality of Orwell’s fifth rule, the spirit of the second, and possibly even the first, because within the context of medicine, the term can be seen as a cliché with which it is assumed the reader will be familiar.

As I say, this should be distinguished from words which have a meaning, but a genuinely obscure one. The offensive thing about the previous example was the common nature of what it describes. If I see a paper with a title like Reverse cocking underlies the back switch phenomenon in BAPS thrusting, I have no idea what any of these things mean. But do not feel I should because I am not an expert in this field (in fact I have no idea what the field is!). If there is no clearer alternative, then jargon is allowed. If it becomes sufficiently commonly used as the things it describes become less obscure, it is no longer jargon.

But as the group of people who can understand you becomes more restricted, so the potential for abuse increases. It is quite possible to write stuff which is pure nonsense, but which nobody notices as such because no reader has full competency across the range of jargons covered. This has been most commonly associated with the humanities, in particular with a particular group of ‘thinkers’ who have helped themselves to terms from physics, and even equations, which they have then deployed in the service of making themselves seem impressive, even if the equations or concepts were utterly irrelevant. They got away with it for a long time because physicists are unlikely to find themselves reading cultural studies journals, and even if they did, they might assume they had misunderstood something about the context. However, the emperor’s new wardrobe was spectacularly shown to be empty in Bricmont and Sokal’s hilarious book Intellectual Impostures, in which they document the worst examples of this tendency.

Could science ever fall prey to the same thing? One would hope not, but I’m not quite so sure. In an example of how we need to be careful, three MIT graduate students wrote a program which generates random computational science papers, and even managed to get one accepted for presentation at a conference. You can try it out yourself here. It’s great fun – I just generated an article with the illuminating title Exploring the Producer-Consumer Problem Using Empathic Algorithms, which sounds like it should mean something, but doesn’t.

To be fair, the SCI-GEN program generates stuff which is pretty obviously fake, and the acceptance by the conference probably owes a lot to the greed of conference organisers for fat registration fees. But the growth of jargon, and the specialisation of science, leaves us prey to all sorts of abuse. The simplest way to fight this is to remember Orwell’s advice and avoid all unnecessary jargon in our own writing. Even more importantly, we should be unafraid to ask when we do not understand a word or term someone has used. There is no such thing as a dumb question; it is much dumber to remain in ignorance, and dumber still to have the wool pulled over our eyes by a posturing fool who doesn’t even understand what he himself thinks.

Now that is barbarous.