When it comes to climate change, there’s a plethora of interchangeable jargon such as “net-zero” and “circular” being used to describe and explain what’s going on. And according to a new study out of Ohio State University, all this jargon could be a stumbling block for fostering interest and care about climate change.
For the study, 650 people read paragraphs about self-driving cars, surgical robots, and 3D bioprinting online. Half of them read paragraphs filled with cringe-worthy phrases (like “AI integration”), while the other half read phrases translated into plain English (make that “programming”). After they were finished, those subjected to obscure words said they felt less interested in science — even when those words were defined.
Hillary Shulman, the lead author of the study, says avoiding jargon matters for anyone who wants to get their message to a broad audience. Although the study wasn’t about climate change itself, it’s highly applicable. Obscure words in articles about rising sea levels and supercharged weather could discourage people from wanting to learn more about a planetary crisis.
The solution is to put jargon and buzzwords into simple language that anyone can understand. It takes some effort, of course. A good example is “Up Goer Five,” a diagram by Randall Monroe, the cartoonist behind the website xkcd. It explains how a rocket works using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. Simplifying lingo related to climate change requires a similar process. Take a cold, clinical word like “biodiversity” and turn it into the more evocative “wildlife.” A real head-scratcher like “climate mitigation” becomes “reducing emissions.”
Forget “dumbing down.” Using a more common language is “smartening up,” said Susan Joy Hassol, director of the nonprofit science outreach group Climate Communication in North Carolina, who coaches scientists and journalists to write and speak more conversationally. “The only thing that’s dumb,” Hassol said, “is speaking to people in a language that they don’t understand.”