Thursday, June 6, 2013

Speaking the language: is jargon always bad?

You hear mostly about the evils of jargon in science. Undeniably jargon is a huge barrier between scientific ideas and discoveries and non-scientists. Translating a complex, nuanced result into a sound bite or recommendation suitable for consumption by policymakers or the public can be the most difficult aspect of a project (something Alan Alda, as part of his Center for Communicating Science, is attempting to assist scientists with). But sometimes the implication in general seems to be that scientific jargon is always undesirable. Is jargon really always a bad thing?

Even between scientists, you hear criticism about the amount of jargon in talks and papers. I have heard several times that community ecology is a frequent offender when it comes to over-reliance on jargon (defn: “words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand”). It is fun to come up with a list of jargon frequently seen in  community ecology, because examples are endless: microcosm, mesocosm, niche, extinction debt, stochastic, trophic cascades, paradigm shift, priority effects, alternate stable states, or any phrase ending in ‘dynamics’ (i.e. eco-evolutionary, neutral, deterministic). Special annoyance from me at the usage of multidisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and inter-disciplinary to all express the exact same thing. I don’t think, despite this list, that jargon is necessarily problematic.

If the meaning implied by the word or phrase is more than the sum of its parts it is probably jargon. Ideally, jargon is a shared, accurate shorthand for communicating with colleagues. A paper published without any jargon at all would be much longer and not necessarily clearer. Instead of saying, “we used protist microcosms”, it would have to say, “we used a community of protist species meant to encapsulate in miniature the characteristic features of a larger community”. (And arguably ecology is still relatively understandable for a newcomer, compared to disciplines like cell and systems biology, where an abstract might seem impenetrable: “Here, we report that, during mouse somatic cell reprogramming, pluripotency can be induced with lineage specifiers that are pluripotency rivals to suppress ESC identity, most of which are not enriched in ESCs.”)

Jargon is useful as a unifying tool: if everyone is using the same nicely defined label for a phenomenon, it is easier to generalize, contrast and compare across research. Jargon is many pieces of information captured in a single phrase: for example, using the term 'ecophylogenetics' may imply not only the application of phylogenetic methods and evolutionary biology to community ecology, but also the accompanying subtext about methodology, criticism, and research history. At its best, jargon can actually stimulate and unify research activities – you could argue that introducing a new term (‘neutral dynamics’) for an old idea stimulated research into the effects of stochasticity and dispersal limitation on community structure.

That’s the best case scenario for jargon. There are also consequences to developing a meaning-laden dialect unique to a subdiscipline. It is very difficult to enter a subdiscipline or move between subdisciplines if you don’t speak the language. New students often find papers difficult to penetrate because of the heavy reliance on jargon-y descriptions: obtaining new knowledge requires you already have a foundation of knowledge. Moving between subdisciplines is hard too – a word in one area may have completely different meaning in another. In a paper on conservation and reserve selection, complementarity might refer to the selection of regions with dissimilar species or habitats. In a biodiversity and ecosystem functioning paper, a not-very distant discipline, complementarity might refer to functional or niche differences among co-occurring species. Giving a talk to anyone but the most specialist audience is hampered by concerns about how much jargon is acceptable or understandable.

Jargon also leads to confusion. When using jargon, you can rely on understood meaning to delimit the boundaries of your meaning, but you may never specify anything beyond those boundaries. Everyone has heard a 30-second spiel so entirely made of jargon that you never develop a clear idea of what the person does. The other issue is that jargon can quickly become inaccurate, so laden with various meanings as to be not useful. The phrase ‘priority effect’, for example, has had so many particular mechanisms associated with it that it can be uninformative on its own. And I think most ecologists are well aware that jargon can be inaccurate, but it’s a difficult trap to get out of. The word “community”, essential to studying community ecology, is so broadly and inconsistently defined as to be meaningless. Multiple people have pointed this out (1, 2, 3) and even suggested solutions or precise definitions, but without lasting impact. One of the questions in my PhD defense was “how did I define an ecological community and why?”, because there is still no universal answer. How do we rescue words from becoming meaningless?

Something interesting, that you rarely see expressed about jargon is that linguists tells us that language is knowledge: how we understand something is not independent of the language we use to describe it. The particular language we think in shapes and limits what we think about: perhaps if you have many ways of finely delineating a concept you will think about it as a complex and subtle idea (the 100-words-for-snow idea). On the other hand, what if you have to rely on vague catch-alls to describe an idea? For example, a phrase like ‘temporal heterogeneity’ incorporates many types of differences that occur through time: is that why most researchers continue to think about differences through time in a vague, imprecise manner? Hard to say. It is hard to imagine where community ecology would be without jargon, and even harder to figure out how to fix all the issues jargon creates. 


  1. My personal favorite example of unnecessary jargon is "cephalocaudal polarization."

    In context, it means, effectively, the head is in front of the tail.

  2. Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are not in fact the same thing. Some writers use these terms with precision; others, on the other hand, others use them interchangeably because they are unable to differentiate between the differences.

  3. Thanks for clarifying - I've never seen them used but as interchangeable phrases to describe work involving aspects of several disciplines. I'm trying to imagine how much inter- versus multi-disciplinary differ in practice, for example? I'd love an example.

  4. I didn't read your post (but no I don't think jargon is necessarily a bad thing)...I got side tracked with this X-disciplinary thing in the comments.

    Here's a cheesy result from a little googling:

    I know nothing about this, but can't help but think out loud. I guess multidisciplinary is (unfortunately) like my field statistical ecology whereas interdisciplinary is like mathematical physics. In statistical ecology we ask ecological questions and then use statistical principles to help answer them -- we do some ecology, then some statistics, then back to more ecology. Very rarely does the field of statistics learn much from ecology (apart from identifying different areas of application), nor does the field of ecology learn much from statistics (apart from how to do statistics better). But mathematics certainly is advanced by physics and physics is certainly advanced by mathematics. Disciplinary boundaries between math and physics seem to be crossed more often then between stats and ecology. In fact, I wish it was harder to see the distinction between ecology and statistics when ecological data is being analyzed. Psychometrics is actually much more interesting that Andrew Gelman says, psychological phenomena (e.g. personality, intelligence) only exist statistically -- we can't directly measure personality (its a latent variable) and instead must measure things related to personality (e.g. number of conversations per day, length of conversations). Therefore, psychology and statistics are intertwined -- psychology taught statistics about latent variables and statistics taught psychology about experimental design and probability models.

    Maybe transdisciplinary is when you can't even recognize the original disciplines that came together (e.g. woman's studies???). So maybe there's a continuum from lesser to greater distinction among disciplines that goes: multidisciplinary -> interdisciplinary -> transdisciplinary. Is that it Anonymous? Sort of at least?

  5. You would like something (latent variables) that can only be described statistically, Steve. :)
    Re: definitions. That's sort of the impression I get too, Steve - that the difference between these terms is mostly a matter of degree. But no doubt when the term 'multidisciplinary' was first introduced, it would have covered all forms of disciplinary interactions - from total integration to just sharing of concepts. So maybe common usage hasn't quite kept up with changes in the precise meaning.

  6. "The word “community”, essential to studying community ecology, is so broadly and inconsistently defined as to be meaningless."

    I don't think its you know. I've actually thought a bit about this, and I think that the problem is that the word 'community' has meaning, but is maybe more general than many people acknowledge. To me 'community' just means all the species of a specified group in a specified (spatially bounded) place. You just define what species and where, and you get a well-defined community. For other ecologists, species in a community need to be interacting (directly??). In my view, in this case you can talk about 'a community of interacting species' or maybe 'a community in which all species pairs interact'. And I think the word 'interact' is general too, so you might want to say 'a community of species that competitively interfere with each other'. So 'community' is just a word that usually requires a few adjectives or descriptive phrases to make it more precise...usually people want to be more specific than they should be with the word alone -- I would argue.

  7. I think its meaningless (perhaps that's a bit hyperbolic) in that there is no common understanding of the word. Precisely the discussion we had about whether this definition implied interaction of species co-occurring through space and time (my general belief) or just co-occurrence through space and time, shows that we work in a discipline whose very basis has no set agreement. Where I do agree with you is that if we precisely define what we mean when we use the word "community" a lot of misunderstanding would be avoided. But is a jargon-y phrase doing its job any more if we need to carefully define it?

  8. Language evolves and so does jargon. Words mean different things to different people. Meanings get altered for different purposes/agendas. There are two ways you can pin down what a word means. Top-down: you can wait/advocate for a consensus (e.g. dictionary definition/overwhelmingly influential textbook); bottom-up: you can look to see what is common in all of the definitions (i.e. look for the intersection of the definitions). The general meaning of a word -- I would argue -- is precisely those pieces of the definition about which everyone (or practically everyone) agrees. Anyone wishing to be precise with a word is well-advised to just take what everyone agrees with (i.e. what appears in all of the definitions), and then add adjectives or descriptive phrases to make it more precise for a particular use. With the term 'community', no one seems to be succeeding in being authoritative or top-down about the definition. So we need to be more bottom-up. In particular, we consistently see definitions including multiple species in a particular place (and sometimes time). If we want 'community' to mean more than that, then just describe how you are making it more precise (e.g. 'community of interacting species').

  9. I think you make a number of good points here, Steve. I don't think a top-down approach is going to help (it's been tried before) either, and I do have some hope for a bottom-up approach. I take issue with the idea that if your definition agrees with the commonplace definition that you don't need to clarify, because I think that different people and subdisciplines may have different "accepted" definitions of community. If you take it for granted that your definition is the "right" one, then nothing is being accomplished. It needs to become expected that community will be explicitly defined in papers and courses, I guess. Do you plan to start defining 'community' in your writing? I feel like I may...

  10. You're right about the issue with my argument. In my defense, people will only get confused if they are unfamiliar with community ecology other than their specific sub-field. But this is already a problem -- naive readers will often misread.

  11. On the other hand, you're doesn't take many lines to give your definition of community. But I think it would be making the problem worse if people started giving elaborate definitions of communities. In my opinion, restrict it to the generally accepted features of the definition: (1) multiple species and (2) bounded space.

  12. Steve, you realize we are just reenacting the "what is an ecological community" argument? I'm with you until you suggest your definition is the most "correct" one. I think time is a necessary component, because otherwise your ecological community could include dinosaurs and humans (maybe that's how those creationist museums justify it!) The reason some people include "interacting species" in their definition is because otherwise, how do you justify which species to include and which do you leave out? It is almost never impossible to include every species in that bounded space and time, so how to justify your decision?

    What I think I'm trying to say is that there is a reason we don't have much consensus on this, and part of it is because even choosing an acceptable general definition to start from is controversial...

  13. I'm not proposing a general definition, I'm just stating what is common to all the definitions. And I think that multiple species and bounded space are the essence of the thing. Yes this isn't a very specific thing, but it does clearly describe a large family of things. The fact that no one disagrees (I think) that communities are composed of multiple species in bounded space, suggests that the term has meaning.

  14. From the Research Fundermentals blog:

    Interdisciplinarity: when the techniques from one discipline are used in another;
    Multidisciplinarity: when many disciplines are working together on the same question;
    Crossdisciplinarity: is a generic term which shouldn't be used any more. You have been warned;
    Supradisciplinarity: when new approaches are used to inform a number of disciplines;
    Transdsciplinarity: when the work moves beyond traditionally defined boundaries.

    1. Thanks Anonymous. The source + fuller discussion here: