While attending a recent virtual seminar on economics of climate change, I was struck by the poor communication skills of these impressive economists with PhDs from impressive universities, not to mention multiple books and countless articles under their belt. Yet their sentences were replete not only with useless fillers (such as “like,” “I mean,” “right?”, “you know”) but also a lot of economics jargon. Having taken a lot of economics classes and being familiar with much of the jargon, I might not have noticed it if I had not been so distracted and annoyed by the overuse of fillers. After a dozen “you know”s in a span of two sentences, it becomes difficult to focus on the content of the presentation. This is generally a problem but especially important when the topic is climate change for which we need the full interest, understanding and support of ordinary citizens. Not people confused and alienated by poor communication.
It is often the case that many experts blame the ordinary person for not understanding climate change and therefore not supporting the policies to address it. But is their lack of understanding their fault only?
All of us, as citizens of this planet, have a moral and intellectual obligation to be curious and seek information on how climate change affects our planetary home. Perhaps we can all be a little more curious about climate change given its existential threat. But the so-called climate change ignorance of ordinary people is partly because of the poor communication skills of the experts whose job is to engage and enlighten the ordinary people. Most experts are poor story tellers, awkward communicators, and, worse, extreme jargon users.
One of the most jargon prone expert communities is the economists. A simple example is about how they assume their specialized terms mean the same thing to them and to the general public. But even some basic economics terms have a different meaning within the field and out in real life. For example ordinary people understand “rent” or “marginal” differently. For them, rent is what they have to pay every month to a landlord, not unearned revenue. In the same vein, they hear “marginal” to mean not central while the economist means it as incremental.
Another community of experts guilty of extreme jargon use is scientists. A few years ago, I found a study on the impact of higher atmospheric carbon on staple foods. Its title was “Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition.” I am an educated person yet I had to look up “ionome” to learn that it means the mineral part of a plant cell structure. Someone else with less curiosity and time might have skipped both the dictionary and the article itself even though it contains an important message: the staple foods are have less minerals and proteins thanks to every increasing atmospheric CO2 (I wrote about this here).
Another example is this article: “Anthropocene climate warming enhances autochthonous carbon cycling in an upland Arctic lake, Disko Island, West Greenland” which roughly means human made climate warming is increasing local/indigenous plant growth in lake Disko. Obviously the words “anthropocene” and “autochthonous” give more precise information in one go instead of many words to get to the same meaning such as “time period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment” or “of local or indigenous origin.” But if a scientific article is losing the reader’s interest for flaunting inaccessible vocabulary, the research it writes about is in vain. Scientists have an obligation to communicate their findings in ways that ordinary people not only can understand but also use in making decisions.
Climate change policy needs citizens’ informed choices to work. But to make informed choices, people need informed first which is difficult when the information arrives in a thicket of jargon. Some scientific organizations have noted this problem and have developed guidance for their members on how to communicate research to ordinary citizens. An example is the American Geological Union (AGU) that has practical suggestions on making scientific work accessible to non-scientists.
So before blame is placed on the “ignorance” or “stupidity” of the audience, it is good to take a look at whether the information is communicated well, without alienating jargon and without the annoying fillers. This is especially important for climate change information because it is a complex problem involving knowledge of many fields including economics, ecology, energy, food systems, agriculture, transportation, city design, chemistry, biology and others. It is not fair to expect the general public to know all these fields enough to be able to wade through the jargon. Communicating climate change science must be simplified, without dumbing it down. Using normal language to communicate science is a start.
Experts, when you are talking with fellow experts feel free to drown each other in your field’s jargon. But when you want to talk to the rest of us, explain your work in normal language!