Should psychology be written for the layman or should science be exclusively for scientists?

There have been times over the past two years when I’ve read a psychology article or piece of research and have barely been able to understand a word of it. Indeed scientific work in general often seems to be written in a code only decipherable to experts in that field; (the work described here is barely even English: http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2011/05/monday_math_a_rant_about_jargo.php)  something that I think could limit science in the long run and may also be partly responsible for all those media misunderstandings we heard about in the semester 1 blogs. That is not to say, however, that current styles of scientific writing should be removed, as they serve an important function in the scientific community.

One of the chief functions and ethical responsibilities of scientific research is to conduct research that will benefit society and add to the sum of human knowledge. Surely then, scientific knowledge should be made available to everyone. But all too often the theories are presented as being far too complicated for the layman to understand, which limits scientific knowledge to the privileged few. To be fair it would be unreasonable to expect someone with no scientific background at all to understand string theory if we just simplify the explanation. But on the other hand excessive use of incomprehensible language promotes academic snobbery and may be off-putting for laymen, thus limiting future public interest in the subject. Also, keeping science exclusively for scientists is likely to foster mistrust in science as a whole (for some reason I’m imagining a strange Orwellian dystopia, where all science has become a cult, and knowledge is only given to initiates deemed worthy/intelligent enough by a higher power….. oh wait, things are already like that). Anyway, with the spreading use of jargon in scientific papers is it any wonder that the public and media often have wild misconceptions about science? (http://xkcd.com/683/)

Every subject develops its own specific language over time; composed of jargon, abbreviations and references to well-known theories or discoveries from within that field; and this development is inevitable. While it may seem incomprehensible to an outsider (I doubt I would be able to make much sense of a paper on seismology, even with Google and Wikipedia on hand) most of these abbreviations and suchlike have usually been created to make published work easier to read and understand for other scientists in the same field. Imagine, for example, if all neuropsychological papers had to include the full names of brain regions. Having to write out ‘posterior region of the superior temporal sulcus’ in full every time you wanted to refer to that area would not only make papers a pain to write, but also make them extremely heavy reading for other researchers. Scientific writing is designed to communicate complex scientific ideas to other scientists in an effective and understandable way; and in that respect I believe it has definite value.

In my opinion, writing papers that are aimed at an audience of experts is absolutely fine and often completely necessary in order to communicate theories effectively and enable scientific progress. HOWEVER, I also think that this information should also be readily available (and understandable) for the layman). Magazines like New Scientist publish research in a way that is accessible for non-experts; and there are many internet sites (e.g. http://www.spring.org.uk/, http://mindhacks.com/, http://www.badscience.net/) that discuss theories and research in layman’s terms, without sacrificing the more complex concepts on the altar of simplicity. Also, thanks to sites like this one: http://www.archetypewriting.com/real/jargon/real_jargon_common.htm even creative writing students can sound like experts in psychology!

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5 Comments

  1. I agree completely with everything you said. I can relate to this as I come from an IT background so I’m used to dealing with jargon but I have another perspective on the matter. I used to deal with clients who had little or no IT knowledge. I would have to translate the jargon into simpler terms in order for the client to understand. This would be fine for simple tasks or explanations but anything complex would need to be reduced down into something technically incorrect. This level of detail might be fine for the client, as they don’t really need to do much with that information but the major problem comes when the client tries to give me information without using jargon (because they don’t know it). It’s very difficult to translate their language back into something that contains all the technical details I need. Each client would use different language to say the same thing because they didn’t use the standardised language (jargon). I’ve had people tell me their computer is ‘broke’ and how would they fix it. Well, I really can’t do anything with so little information. There are so many possible problems that could affect a computer to make it appear ‘broke’ it really could be anything. However, telling me the computer boots into Windows but then BSOD after 5mins of 100% CPU usage gives me a good idea of what’s going on. This article on the BBC gives a good overview of this problem of scientific jargon (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12663432)

    This is a problem I see with psychology being written for the layman. It may be nice to have for the layman but I think it would be useless for psychologists. I think it wouldn’t contain the level of detail needed to be useful at a professional level. I think, as you mentioned, that New Scientist do a good job at publishing for the layman. There have also been some great documentaries on Psychology recently (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xhgkd), which I think are great for the layman. I think having personalities that sit in the middle of the layman and the professional, acting as a go between to translate the jargon and promote the field also do the field wonders. I’m thinking the likes of Brain Cox for Physics, Richard Dawkins for Biology/evolution and David Attenborough for natural sciences. These people are highly educated in their fields and can explain complex ideas in some very complicated areas that even the layman can understand.

    Reply
  2. psychblogld

     /  February 21, 2012

    I agree with the point you make and I often prefer and enjoy reading complex articles that have been simplified for the ‘layman,’ its often an excellent way of accessing a topic before deciding if you want to continue or whether it interests you. But I think there is a fine line between Scientific Jargon and Scientific Terminology, and in certain situations it is necessary to identify a technique, region of the brain, or method using its scientific terminology as there is no other word to describe it. More recently the use of composite words and terms that the majority will understand such as ‘biotechnology’ or ‘neuropsychology’ allow individuals to deduce what the meaning of a term is and allow topics to become more accessible.

    The definition of Jargon often includes that it is difficult for individuals outside of the associated group to understand, yet Jargon appears in all fields and professions from the uniformed services to mechanics. When terminology is ‘abused’ to the point of confusion I think this is where it becomes Jargon. In other fields such as Business and Politics Jargon is deliberately utilised to confuse others and make them feel as if they are a step behind. Here is an article about the uses and abuses of Jargon from one of the Layman oriented sites you linked: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/use-and-abuses-of-jargon.html

    However at the end of the day if you are truly interested in a topic and wish to learn more then learning the terminology is just part of the experience, and in doing so you are enabling yourself to access, understand, contribute and feel a part of that field.

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  3. psuca7

     /  March 10, 2012

    Inspiration can often come from something we don’t fully understand; we may read about something controversial to our own ideas or hear a talk about a specific field of learning and we become interested in pursuing a topic or increasing our knowledge of that field. This can be a problem for science, when it comes to the scientific language and jargon used in research papers and reports; if we want people to be interested in science and perhaps bring a new way of thinking or investigation to the field, people have to be able to comprehend the language so that they can be inspired to act upon their thinking. If psychology writings were aimed solely at those individuals specialised in the field then no outsider would be given the chance to understand the findings and implications of psychology research, as they would not be able to interpret the writings. If psychology is written in a way that most people can understand, it increases the interest in the field as more people are exposed to the literature, they can understand it more, which in turn may prompt more individuals to take up psychology as their chosen career, furthering the development of the field of psychology.

    Even though it may be useful for papers to be written in an understandable format, I agree with your point that in order for science to progress, some papers must be written in a more formal and jargon-based manner, enabling concise and intricate theories to be communicated effectively with others in the area of study.

    Reply
  4. I agree with the point you made that if science was exclusively for one community it may harbour distrust between scientists and the general public. To add to this: Turner (1996) highlighted that it is not the responsibility of the public to demand science but the scientists to understand the needs of the public and provide the information. I think this is very apt. If scientists had a good and effective way of distributing findings people would have the option to read it. Plus it would avoid the mess created when tabloids report research to the masses and tell everyone that everything in the world will give you cancer (as an example) when really the research did not focus on what they write about.

    However, I don’t think you always need to jargon bust when presenting scientific research to non-scientific people. Whilst jargon and flowery wording can make reading difficult, I feel that being spoken to as a knowledgable other can involve and help the public. Miller (2004) said in an article that this is exactly the case. In a longitudinal survey by the US government people have become to increasingly trust and look to science especially for environmental, social and technological domains. Non-scientific publications like those mentioned above (Scientific American, Wikipedia, etc) can use jargon along with definitions to teach and inform the public.

    In this way I hope to have furthered you argument as well as provided my own take on scientific jargon to demonstrate the importance of science for the layman 🙂

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2896%2990283-4/abstract Turner 1996
    http://pus.sagepub.com/content/13/3/273.short Miller 2004

    Reply
  1. Comments – blog 2 « psuc5d

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