Scientific language obscures more than it clarifies

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This column by Ruud Abma is written in English. Why? Because it reflects on the typical English hermetic jargon that social scientists use all too often.

To those of you who have read my earlier columns in DUB, it might seem odd that this one is in English. Didn’t I oppose the ‘anglification’ of teaching in our university? Yes I did (and I still do). An international orientation doesn’t necessarily imply adopting English as a general, compulsory vehicle of instruction. It is a policy choice that should not be taken lightly.

This column by Ruud Abma is written in English. Why? Because it reflects on the typical English hermetic jargon that social scientists use all too often.

To those of you who have read my earlier columns in DUB, it might seem odd that this one is in English. Didn’t I oppose the ‘anglification’ of teaching in our university? Yes I did (and I still do). An international orientation doesn’t necessarily imply adopting English as a general, compulsory vehicle of instruction. It is a policy choice that should not be taken lightly.

By now you might think I have something against the English language. I don’t. As a child of the era of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, I've learned to love the English language. I prefer to read English and American novels in their original versions rather than in Dutch translation.

The quality of this literary fiction stands in sharp contrast to many of the scientific publications in my field, the social sciences. Here, the beauty of the English language is exchanged for a hermetic jargon that has a ‘don’t read this’ sign in front of it. It creates the impression of a closed circle of specialists who are determined to communicate in their own secret code, keeping foreigners out.

But isn’t jargon the inevitable consequence of specialization? Doesn’t high quality thinking in the academic world require the development of a type of language that marks the distance between scientific and everyday language? That embodies more precision? That fends off ideological thinking? This might be true for the natural sciences, but mainstream social-scientific language obscures more than it clarifies.

This is abundantly illustrated in Learn to Write Badly. How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, a book written by the eminent social psychologist Michael Billig. Using a wealth of examples from both sociology and experimental social psychology, he shows how the actions and thoughts of human beings disappear behind a smoke screen of passive sentences, abstract nouns and idiosyncratic acronyms. Social scientists tend to create fictional worlds in which big concepts such as ‘social categorization’, ‘group stereotype’ and ‘automaticity’ convey less and not more information about human actions and their consequences.

According to Billig, this habit has a double function. It helps to create a safe circle for the scientists themselves, who recognize each other as allies fighting for the same cause. It also creates a comfortable distance (or even superiority) to the fellow human beings who stand outside the esoteric circle. To prevent this distance to the public from getting too big, social scientists frequently use words that have both a statistical and a common sense meaning, such as ‘significance’ and ‘prediction’. It is common practice to teach students to use words that imply more than they actually state, such as ‘associated with’ (rather than ‘caused by’), ‘indicate’ (rather than ‘show’) and ‘suggest’ (rather than ‘prove’).

Why do social scientists do this? Billig argues that it is a question of hedging your bets (‘I did not say it was caused, just that it was associated with…’), but, more importantly, using social scientific ‘Academese’ is a method of self-promotion in an increasingly competitive academic culture (‘an early preference for different types of noisy, rebellious, non-mainstream music genres is a strong predictor of concurrent and later minor delinquency’).

From the study of rhetorics, we know that the use of multi-interpretable but impressive words and clauses usually has an ideological function. With one fuzzy concept–say ‘modernization’, 'brain functions’ or ‘multicultural experience’–you can connect in an imaginary way processes or worlds that are in fact totally different. But in scientific work our ambition is to provide precision and clarity as much as possible. Billig’s book contains some unpleasant truths for academics who feel safe in their jargon-filled cocoons. But it also offers good advice–and it is awfully well written. Read it!

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