Many fields have their own jargon, which Wikipedia describes as “specialized terminology associated with a particular field or area of activity” that often isn’t well understand by people outside of that particular field.
While jargon can help people within a field communicate precisely, that doesn’t necessarily translate well outside of the field. It can be a problem when people attempt to communicate information to someone outside of their field, such as a doctor or lawyer explaining things in a way that their patient or client is unlikely to understand.
Another potential problem area is when people adopt specialized jargon for general use, but do so in a way that doesn’t actually capture the meaning of the terms being borrowed. I tend to notice this with scientific and health terminology, because I know a fair bit of that jargon in terms of technical meaning, so it jumps out at me when it’s used incorrectly. However, it’s certainly not limited to those areas alone.
Technical language is usually very specific in what it describes, but when it’s shifted into popular use, the meaning becomes far more vague. This is particularly problematic when this kind of language is used, without an awareness of underlying principles to prop up non-scientific concepts.
Energy as a physical property comes in different types (e.g. potential, kinetic, thermal, electrical) It’s clearly defined and can be measured, and its relationship to other physical properties can be described based on patterns that have been observed through experimentation. The only way of knowing if a physical property exists is to measure it, either directly or indirectly.
In terms of spirituality, the term “energy” is not used in the same way; it refers to things that are felt but not objectively measured. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be a problem if people don’t recognize the difference.
Trying to make the spiritual into something physical/literal can start to veer into nonsense territory. The New Age movement seems like it’s been a major force in the attempt to make things literal that have no business being literal. Take chakras, for example. They were developed long ago as a spiritual concept, but the New Agey version is a lot more literal, and some people throw in vibrational frequencies for each chakra. Spiritual chakras? Sure, if that works for how you understand the spiritual self. Literal, physically vibrating chakras? No, the concept just doesn’t translate that way.
The law of attraction could be a useful metaphor, but The Secret people insist that it’s not a metaphor, it’s quantum physics, and thoughts are vibrating at different frequencies and the universe is acting based on them. In a literal sense, that’s complete and utter nonsense. These people don’t seem to have the slightest clue about a) quantum physics, b) neurophysiology, c) the properties of matter, and d) really, anything about science at all.
However, because the metaphor can be very appealing, you can find loads of websites with people talking about quantum physics even though there’s no indication they’ve ever studied physics. Knowing some very superficial bits like terminology doesn’t confer actually knowledge of the subject matter, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from believing it does (this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I’ll cover in an upcoming what is… post).
Chemical vs. natural
Perhaps the periodic table of the elements shown below reminds you of high school science class. Every element on this table is a chemical, and they can combine to make chemical compounds (like 2 hydrogens and an oxygen make water). Everything is made of chemicals; it’s not a bad word.
“Natural” is a major buzzword that’s used as if it has some profound meaning, but it doesn’t actually have a scientific equivalent. There isn’t some inherent property that defines something as natural or unnatural, or makes things that are considered “natural” good and “chemical” bad.
The word toxin is often used to describe almost anything that’s thought to be unpleasant or harmful. Yet scientifically, the definition is much, much narrower, and encompasses substances made by living organisms, such as botulinum toxin (which is used in Botox).
Health and Physiology
A common error that I’ve noticed is the assumption that the body works in ways that intuitively make sense. It doesn’t, though, and that can lead to some erroneous conclusions.
Consider the term “chemical imbalance.” It was a simplification based on the “serotonin hypothesis,” which was suggested decades ago to account for the fact that drugs that helped with depression affected serotonin transmission. It was a simplification to begin with, and now it’s known to be an inaccurate simplification, yet it persists. In part, that’s probably because it’s an easy way to express that there is a biological element of mental illness, but it’s often interpreted literally, by people both for and against medications, leading to some flawed arguments on both sides.
It’s also common for people to talk about how their “system” is affected by certain things. That can be a useful metaphor, but the term doesn’t have a physiological equivalent . There are many different systems in the body with many different functional elements, and no matter how appealing it might be to generalize how something affects one’s “system,” it still doesn’t translate in a physiological sense. Metaphor, yes; literal, no.
Diets, detoxes, and conditions like adrenal fatigue proposed by alternative health folks all tend to borrow words from science without understanding the underlying process. That surface level knowledge is enough for proponents of these ideas to convince themselves that their knowledge is deeper than it is, and for them to sound believable to others who also don’t have background knowledge of the underlying process.
This may just be jumping around in my head because a) I’m a science geek, and b) language usage interests me. However, I think the bigger picture is that the internet gives lots of access to fairly surface-level information, like jargon from various fields, but that isn’t necessarily paired with follow-up to gain a deeper understanding. Before the internet, there was TV. And really, who didn’t feel at least somewhat qualified to work in an emergency department after enough episodes swooning over (insert favourite character here) on ER? And of course CSI has made everyone a forensic investigator.
What stands out for me is that as long as people are aware of the limitations of their knowledge, it’s all good. If someone things they can perform a tracheotomy with a rusty spoon and paper straw on someone who’s passed out from choking, that’s not so good.
Have you come across people using jargon they don’t seem to understand?
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