On USC Dornsife Week: Jargon can make things difficult to understand and talk about.
Wandi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science, explores this.
Wändi Bruine de Bruin is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC), and director of the USC Behavioral Science and Well-Being Policy initiative., and USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. Her research aims to understand and inform how people make decisions about their personal health, their carbon footprint, and their household finances. She has published more than 150 peer-reviewed publications on these topics. She is an editorial board member for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Perspectives on Psychological Science, the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Decision, Medical Decision Making, the Journal of Risk Research, and Psychology and Aging.
It’s Time to Ditch Climate Change Jargon
The science of climate change is well understood. But how to best communicate it is not.
Climate change communications can be really hard to follow. They use complex terms like “mitigation” and “adaptation.” Even if you have heard of those terms, you might find them confusing. Usually, long words of three syllables or more, like “mitigation” and “adaptation” are less well-known and more likely to be jargon.
For a recent study, we asked climate scientists to share key terms they use to describe climate change. We then asked Americans what they think those terms mean. The terms included “mitigation” and “adaptation”
People complained that climate scientists are talking over their heads. Even people who were concerned about climate change found a lot of the terms confusing. They thought “mitigation” was a difficult term. When asked to define it, many confused it with “mediation” or trying to resolve a conflict.
People thought “adaptation” was easier to understand. But they thought that “adaptation” meant “turning a book into a movie.” That is of course what adaptation means, in everyday language. But that is not what it means in the context of climate change.
Some of the people we talked to did give us useful simple definitions. For example, they said why not describe “mitigation” as actions we can take to fight climate change. And why not describe “adaptation” as actions we can take to protect against the climate change that is already happening?
Good communications use everyday language. Writing and speaking at the 7th grade reading level makes you easier to understand. Everything I just said was at the 7th grade reading level.
Climate change is a complex topic. Using complex terms only makes it harder to understand. And it alienates people when we need them to pay attention.