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Jargon is a complicated beast (Editorial)

by | May 15, 2020

Passion and interest in the industry can take many agriculturalists ”into the weeds” of their craft.
Farmers can sound like they’re speaking a different language at times, discussing tractor repairs, chemical use and other areas of growing crops.
That’s not a problem when it’s just farmers together, but when talking to the public, groups and educators long ago learned to simplify their messages to reach better understanding.
That’s backed up by a recently-published study from Ohio State University where people exposed to jargon when reading about certain subjects later said they were less interested in the topic than others who read about the same topic, but without the use of specialized terms.
The problem is that the mere presence of jargon sends a discouraging message to readers, said Hillary Shulman, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication.
“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” Shulman said. “You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter.
They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”
Study participants were also less likely to think they were good at science, felt less informed about science and felt less qualified to discuss science topics.
Even when the terms were explained in the text used in the study, readers still felt just as disengaged as readers who read jargon that wasn’t explained.
“What we found is that giving people definitions didn’t matter at all — it had no effect on how difficult they thought the reading was,” Shulman said.
Shulman and colleagues have now studied language and public engagement involving about 20 different political and science topics, all with the same results.
“We can get citizens to engage with complex political and scientific issues if we communicate to them in language that they understand,” she said.
Being exposed to jargon had a variety of negative effects on readers, the study showed.
“Exposure to jargon led people to report things like ‘I’m not really good at science,’ ‘I’m not interested in learning about science,’ and ‘I’m not well qualified to participate in science discussions,’” Shulman said.
But people who read no-jargon versions felt more empowered.
“They were more likely to say they understood what they read because they were a science kind of person, that they liked science and considered themselves knowledgeable.”
There’s an even darker side, though, to how people react when they are exposed to jargon-filled explanations of science.
In an earlier study with these same participants, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, the researchers found that reading jargon led people to not believe the science.
“When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue. You don’t like what you’re reading. But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies,” she said.
Topics in the study included self-driving cars and surgical robots, but many agriculture topics could easily substitute in.
Terms like “pre-emergent herbicide” “mortality composting” and “variable rate section control” are blatantly obvious to farmers who deal with them daily, but would be enough to glaze over the eyes of most of the non-ag public, not to mention those who struggle with the difference between heifer and bull or — even worse — a cow and a horse.
Several food and agriculture-related issues have been thrust to the forefront of society as the coronavirus outbreak has shaken up the food system beyond any previous test.
It shows not only how serious this pandemic is for farmers and the public, but also how intricate the food system is to make food an afterthought for so many people and service the many outlets to reach those who are food insecure.
While the strain on the industry is immense, there is also an opportunity to connect with people and drive home how much time and effort is put into raising crops and how swift changes can upset so much.
That connection, as ag groups have practiced for decades, meets the public on its level to engage and empower them to know more about farming and farmers.
Now that the public better sees what’s at stake, perhaps they’ll be even more willing to listen.

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