Science, Pseudoscience, & Media Literacy

The Use and Misuse of Jargon

The use and misuse of jargon - diagram of science equipment

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

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.

Vibrations

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.

periodic table of the elements
National Library of Medicine

“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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35 thoughts on “The Use and Misuse of Jargon”

  1. Oooo this is interesting! I was just thinking of fancy ass terminology that, as you say, doesn’t always translate well past the specialist folks using them, where layman terms are better digested. I hadn’t thought of translating across fields altogether but you’re right, the adoption of jargon doesn’t always adequately match its intended purpose or meaning. And then there’s the issue of whether jargon is even quantifiable or provable, which I think is pretty apparent in the wellness fields and health, especially around food with “healthy” products versus “unhealthy” products. Great post, Ashley! xx

    1. That notion of healthy vs. unhealthy is so interesting, because if it’s not quantifiable or provable, that can be reflective of many problems, from the term being too loosely in the first place, to a misunderstanding of the term by whoever’s using it, to a justification for moralizing people’s choices. And then there are consumers that don’t recognize that certain terms are virtually meaningless. So many layers, which makes it so fascinating!

  2. I saw something on a crime tv program a few months ago, where a guy in Nevada was performing unsterile surgeries with no medical degree. He had quite a few people who he would perform these procedures on. In a trailer on a compound with no licenses, period. He was eventually taken down by the FBI.

  3. It’s an interesting field. Reading your post reminded me of quite an amusing conversation I heard recently between my Mum and my brother. She was telling him about some TV show about cooking that she’s been hooked on, and said how she has only realised it over the years that cooking is so much all about chemistry. She meant that it involves so many chemical and physical processes that it’s good to be aware of when you cook if you want to do it better, but he thought she was talking about chemicals – as in the BAD, artificial, unnatural chemicals ya know πŸ˜€ – and was surprised how she, a lifestyle geek as she is, who is almost obsessed about eating healthy, thinks it’s okay to use the chemicals in the food.
    The system thing is a bit funny. I remember it struck me when I first heard about their “system” being affected by something, in English. In Polish we use the word organism to refer to the whole body especially including the insides, (well it’s organizm strictly speaking but it means the same in English), like you can say that you have too much caffeine in your organism. It sounds kind of awkward in English, though maybe just to me because I’ve never seen it in such use and when I think organism in English I think more about stuff like bacteria or similar primitive, small beings rather than humans, but it makes more sense to me than just system, because, hang on, which system? πŸ˜€ Nevertheless, I pick up phrases that people use in other languages quite quickly which is both a good and a bad thing plus system sounds more natural to me in English now after a lot of exposure and I remember using it just about a week ago myself, haha.

  4. Heaven help us all if I ever have to perform a tracheotomy!! Yikes, just run to safety.

    You sure are a science geek! πŸ˜€ I use all those New Agey terms like chakras and energy as my language by default, because I don’t speak the language of science–never have. I struggled with it in school, as you know. Not my subject. It’s amazing that I know that the three states of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. (And plasma? [Shrugs.]) But yeah, I’d imagine that a conversation with people who are speaking the jargon of different topics with the same words would be… interesting, to say the least. It’s like saying, “My karma ran over your dogma,” or something. πŸ˜€

    But in my case, watching those TV shows has never made me feel like an expert. To me, being able to excel in the ER requires a certain personality type as well as a body of knowledge. I’d be so shit out of luck if I had to save anyone in the ER. There aren’t even words for it. And even though I watched all those CSI shows (except the original–I hated that one), I never absorbed the info they kept sharing of a scientific nature. I just have no mind for it at all! πŸ˜€

    I like to create my own jargon! Sonya and I use the word “brillz”, like, what a brillz idea! And then I created “crazy toy”, like, I’m my mother’s crazy toy. But, you know, the stuff doesn’t catch on, sadly. What a fun blog post!!

  5. Information technology and personal computers have lots of jargon. It’s adorable when Spouse tries to use any of it. We are being condescending and sarcastic at the same time here

  6. Well yes, all the time we run across people who loosely toss buzz words about without giving off the sense that they fully understanding their meanings and real applications.

    I really should share this article, since it offers such a wide range of needed disclosures; viz., that certain words and terms are routinely misused by people outside of the fields where these terms have precise meaning; “energy” being one such word, and “quantum physics” or “quantum mechanics” being terminology that ought to be attached to a specific, commonly used meaning in academia — not to a more broad-based arena that only belies the ignorance of the one who drops the term.

    Another very informative and thought-provoking article. I feel as though you have opened up a whole new and drastically needed subject.

      1. Well, whatever level you “toned it down” to seems pleasantly academic. I’m sure if you wanted to, you could support some of your insights even further, and expand upon them. They definitely need to be heard.

  7. I learned the other day what “homeopathy” literally means. I’ll admit, since I generically assumed I wouldn’t believe in it, I never really looked beyond the very most surface interpretation of the root word. And, based on that, assumed it was some kind of energy healing or spiritual thing. And…then I actually learned. And it is *so* much weirder. And, now I kind of want to know what linguistic gymnastics turns “similar or like as to the disease” into “let’s dilute stuff in water so much that we think water cures cancer.” Like…what?!

  8. I always kind of cringe when people talk about something have too many chemicals in it. They seem to confuse chemicals with toxins. Also, not everything that’s natural is healthy. That’s another one that bothers me.

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