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jimmydasaint

Language Use by Specialists - Is it normally complicated?

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As a former PhD and postdoc, I was so used to the language of scientific papers, which is often convoluted and aimed at specialists that I found it difficult to adjust my level to normal conversation and bored my wife and other family members with the results of my, no doubt highly important, cogitations. When I started teaching, I thought I could aim high and let the children rise up to the level I expected linguistically.

 

It failed completely!

 

As a consequence, after a month I had to re-adjust to "student speak" and, 18 years later, it seems to work, most of the time.

 

However, in this august and most- esteemed science forum, I notice that specialists quite frequently refer to specialist sites to explain what they are elucidating, as if it is obvious to a layman.

 

Is this a sort of blindness to audience level from specialists or is it habit, or both?

Edited by jimmydasaint

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Precise language minimizes confusion among those who speak it, but often magnifies confusion among those new to the topic.

 

It's a bit like math. Symbols mean very specific things. If you don't understand the symbols, it feels impenetrable and foggy, but when you do understand the symbols then their use allows the content to be clear, crisp, and quickly comprehended.

 

It paradoxically takes more words to explain things to people with more limited vocabularies.

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As a former PhD and postdoc, I was so used to the language of scientific papers, which is often convoluted and aimed at specialists that I found it difficult to adjust my level to normal conversation and bored my wife and other family members with the results of my, no doubt highly important, cogitations. When I started teaching, I thought I could aim high and let the children rise up to the level I expected linguistically.

 

It failed completely!

 

As a consequence, after a month I had to re-adjust to "student speak" and, 18 years later, it seems to work, most of the time.

 

However, in this august and most- esteemed science forum, I notice that specialists quite frequently refer to specialist sites to explain what they are elucidating, as if it is obvious to a layman.

 

Is this a sort of blindness to audience level from specialists or is it habit, or both?

It is a skill to recognise which mode to use and when. My ethos is to speak in the language of the listener, otherwise you might as well stay slilent. If a subject can't be expressed in layman's language I think it's better to just say that it can't be expressed in such terms without losing something important.

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Precise language minimizes confusion among those who speak it, but often magnifies confusion among those new to the topic.

 

It's a bit like math. Symbols mean very specific things. If you don't understand the symbols, it feels impenetrable and foggy, but when you do understand the symbols then their use allows the content to be clear, crisp, and quickly comprehended.

 

It paradoxically takes more words to explain things to people with more limited vocabularies.

 

 

Are there concepts which are too difficult to explain to a layman (except for mathematical concepts)? I don't know the answer. However, I would say that there are situations where there are two levels of explanations. For example, most people on this forum could probably write a manual for a car, a fridge-freezer or a computer without the understanding of how any of them works in detail. IMO,

I would posit that most phenomena are explicable, although some need words and others need a diagram. Think of explaining an electromagnetic wave to someone as opposed to drawing a representation of an EM wave on a piece of paper.

It is a skill to recognise which mode to use and when. My ethos is to speak in the language of the listener, otherwise you might as well stay slilent. If a subject can't be expressed in layman's language I think it's better to just say that it can't be expressed in such terms without losing something important.

 

I can go along with these comments. It does get difficult when we speak to children though, especially when their heads are so full of questions.

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I'm tempted to think at least some of it is intellectual snobbery. I ask you what clarity does 'contra-lateral' add to just saying 'the other side'?

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I'm tempted to think at least some of it is intellectual snobbery. I ask you what clarity does 'contra-lateral' add to just saying 'the other side'?

 

Clarity because one is an adjective and the other is a noun. (But I don't have the context.)

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I agree that it is likely to make the text flow better. It may not appear like much in isolation, but it adds up and it gets more convoluted if you need to add additional information into the sentence.

For example:

contralateral prophylactic masectomy would be translated to:

"preventative removal of the opposite breast"

or something similar. The former is also more likely to get an abbreviation (CPM) whereas the latter, more loose lingo could lead to any number of abbreviations that are less likely to become formalized.

 

 

That being said, I am not saying that science lingo is perfect. More often than not there are ways to describe things more easily, but it actually takes a lot of effort to make a manuscript to be easily readable. Often, (but not always) you will find the most convulated lingo among beginners (such as grad students or people entering a new field) and over time they tend to write clearer and simpler as concepts crystallize in their thoughts and become easier to describe.

Edited by CharonY

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(But I don't have the context.)

 

Yes, i forgot the context. This was many times speaking to doctors (radiologists are the worst for it), not written. I can see it reads much better in CharonY's example, but when chatting to colleagues, some of whom may not know the term, it just sounds pretentious - especially when they say 'the contra-lateral side'. These may well be isolated incidents though.

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Speaking to the level of your audience is a skill that has to be developed and practiced. Scientists use jargon because that makes conversations with others easier. It also involves more precise definitions that you tend to lose when speaking in a more general sense, and using analogies — it's not uncommon to take analogies too literally and subsequently get the wrong idea. Unless you're used to speaking to a lay audience, it's understandable if you aren't particularly good at it.

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As a former PhD and postdoc, I was so used to the language of scientific papers, which is often convoluted and aimed at specialists that I found it difficult to adjust my level to normal conversation and bored my wife and other family members with the results of my, no doubt highly important, cogitations. When I started teaching, I thought I could aim high and let the children rise up to the level I expected linguistically.

 

It failed completely!

 

As a consequence, after a month I had to re-adjust to "student speak" and, 18 years later, it seems to work, most of the time.

 

However, in this august and most- esteemed science forum, I notice that specialists quite frequently refer to specialist sites to explain what they are elucidating, as if it is obvious to a layman.

 

Is this a sort of blindness to audience level from specialists or is it habit, or both?

It is on purpose.

Language is not a only a tool for communicating with each other. Language is also a tool for differentiating people of community A from people of community B. In this case, the high community of the scientist from the lower community of laymen.

 

If language was only a tool for communication humanity would have solved the Babel Tower a long time ago.

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It is on purpose.

Language is not a only a tool for communicating with each other. Language is also a tool for differentiating people of community A from people of community B. In this case, the high community of the scientist from the lower community of laymen.

 

But there is nothing stopping the layman learning the language of the scientist.

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But there is nothing stopping the layman learning the language of the scientist.

 

Yes there is. If she learns the language properly then she is no longer lay - she is a scientist.

 

The investment in time, effort, and brain-bandwidth to learn the language entails a conscious and subconscious change in the student; once you can converse properly within the terms of a scientific discourse you have taken on enough of the rationale, the preconceptions, and the attitudes of the scientist to be a layperson no more. Some will impute some quite dangerous and nefarious designs to this use of specialist language - others claim that it merely facilitates the concise and clear transfer of information.

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Yes there is. If she learns the language properly then she is no longer lay - she is a scientist.

 

The investment in time, effort, and brain-bandwidth to learn the language entails a conscious and subconscious change in the student; once you can converse properly within the terms of a scientific discourse you have taken on enough of the rationale, the preconceptions, and the attitudes of the scientist to be a layperson no more. Some will impute some quite dangerous and nefarious designs to this use of specialist language - others claim that it merely facilitates the concise and clear transfer of information.

I'll go with the latter; it's just jargon specific to that field like any other job that has it's own language peculiarities. I think it's just proper English executed to pack as few words and conveying the maximum amount of information as possible.

Edited by StringJunky

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I'll go with the latter; it's just jargon specific to that field like any other job that has it's own language peculiarities. I think it's just proper English executed to pack as few words and conveying the maximum amount of information as possible.

 

 

.. and at the same time avoiding any ambiguities.

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.. and at the same time avoiding any ambiguities.

Or at least accidental ambiguities. Intentional ambiguities can be both necessary and useful depending on circumstances.

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It is on purpose.

Language is not a only a tool for communicating with each other. Language is also a tool for differentiating people of community A from people of community B. In this case, the high community of the scientist from the lower community of laymen.

 

If language was only a tool for communication humanity would have solved the Babel Tower a long time ago.

 

 

This ignores that you can use it for effective communication and having the differentiation be an unintended/undesired consequence. It's the price that you pay for improving the efficiency. What evidence do you have that it's intentional?

 

Yes there is. If she learns the language properly then she is no longer lay - she is a scientist.

 

I disagree. You can learn about science without actually becoming a scientist. You might even be able to pass as a scientist, but when it comes time to do an experiment or calculation, you can't actually do it. I've met science journalists who would fall into this category. There's a corollary to "those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" involved. You could e.g. teach someone how to ride a bike while not being able to do it yourself, as long as you were well-read on the techniques.

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Yes there is. If she learns the language properly then she is no longer lay - she is a scientist.

 

The investment in time, effort, and brain-bandwidth to learn the language entails a conscious and subconscious change in the student; once you can converse properly within the terms of a scientific discourse you have taken on enough of the rationale, the preconceptions, and the attitudes of the scientist to be a layperson no more. Some will impute some quite dangerous and nefarious designs to this use of specialist language - others claim that it merely facilitates the concise and clear transfer of information.

I'd disagree; for example, I've learned a decent amount of legal jargon, but would never consider myself a lawyer. Even if I'm able to appreciate the way lawyers think, I don't think the way they do.

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I disagree. You can learn about science without actually becoming a scientist. You might even be able to pass as a scientist, but when it comes time to do an experiment or calculation, you can't actually do it. I've met science journalists who would fall into this category. There's a corollary to "those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" involved. You could e.g. teach someone how to ride a bike while not being able to do it yourself, as long as you were well-read on the techniques.

 

 

I'd disagree; for example, I've learned a decent amount of legal jargon, but would never consider myself a lawyer. Even if I'm able to appreciate the way lawyers think, I don't think the way they do.

 

It was an overly sweeping statement - granted; I should have left the point at "she is no longer lay" which, I think, is defensible. Education, even education in a meta-subject, changes the student immeasurably; it sounds a little mystical and I do not intend that - but you cannot truly understand something without becoming it to an extent.

 

To properly understand a scientific paper and recognize the thinking of the writer; to be able to read a higher court judgment and parse the ratio and obiter; or to take in a diagnosis and prognosis and see in human terms what it means for an individual when these forms of thought are presented in the language of the professional requires a subtle but profound insight into the ways, methods, and philosophy of the practitioner. Only the most ephemeral and ersatz comprehension is gained by someone who has not already invested the time to learn the subject - by someone who I would consider a layperson

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