According to the blurb, Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science “lifts the lid on quack doctors, flaky statistics, scaremongering journalists and evil pharmaceutical corporations”. So when I started to read it on holiday last month, I wasn’t expecting to get an interesting copywriting revelation.
But that’s exactly what did happen.
Along with most other copywriters I know, we wage war on jargon and unnecessarily complicated phrasing that attempts to bamboozle. Keep things simple, we say. Use plain English.
We take the words of George Orwell to heart:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So imagine my consternation when I came across this piece of research reported in Bad Science:
Subjects were given descriptions of various phenomena from the world of psychology, and then randomly offered one of four explanations for them. The explanations either contained neuroscience or didn’t, and were either ‘good’ explanations or ‘bad’ ones (bad ones being, for example, simply circular restatements of the phenomenon itself, or empty words).
The subjects in the experiment were from three groups: everyday people, neuroscience students, and neuroscience academics, and they performed very differently. All three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones, but the subjects in the two non-expert groups judged that the explanations with the logically irrelevant neurosciencey information were more satisfying than the explanations without the spurious neuroscience.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, 2009
Ben Goldacre goes on to speculate about why this might be the case:
… the very presence of neuroscience explanation might be seen as a surrogate marker of a ‘good’ explanation, regardless of what is actually said. As the researchers say, ‘Something about seeing neuroscience explanations may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not.’
But more clues can be found in the extensive literature on irrationality. People tend, for example, to rate longer explanations as being more similar to ‘experts’ explanations.’
I find this utterly fascinating because what it says is that there are some situations in which, far from being off-putting or alienating, using jargon might actually be helpful in putting your case across, making your argument and positioning yourself as an expert.
But before we chuck out all our beliefs about writing simply and clearly and instead proudly live in a world of jargon, there are caveats. Dr Goldacre gives us some excellent guidance about to when to use jargon and when to not.
Quacks … have been adding science-sounding explanations to their products as long as quackery has existed, as a means to bolster their authority over the patient (in an era, interestingly, when doctors have struggled to inform patients more, and to engage them in decisions about their own treatment).
In other words, if you’re using jargon to confuse or fudge or even simply because you don’t really understand what you’re talking about, then steer well clear. But if you’re discussing a complicated subject that requires complicated language, then don’t be afraid to use it.
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