Bad communication can slow or hinder efforts to protect wild species and spaces. We can fix that.

A mess of typesetting letters

As a conservation journalist, I read a lot of scientific papers, reports and press releases looking for story ideas. And even after doing this for nearly 20 years, many of those documents leave me scratching my head.

It’s not the conservation aspects that confuse me. It’s the jargon — the overly specific language members of a profession use to communicate among themselves that often makes little or no sense to the public (or even well-versed reporters).

Jargon has value, sure. There’s nothing like shorthand for efficiency when you’re talking to your peers. But use that same terminology outside the hallowed halls of your field and you’ll likely be greeted with blank stares — and potentially, resistance to your work.

As I told a group of young ecologists recently, jargon is the kiss of death for effective communication.

So let’s flip the script and kill some jargon. Here are several examples of words and phrases I’ve encountered in recent science communication efforts that do more harm than good.

All Acronyms — The scientific community has an annoying habit of condensing every phrase it can into an ALL-CAPS abbreviation. I call it TMA Syndrome — “too many acronyms” — and I’m not the only critic. A recent study identified thousands of little-used acronyms that, the authors found, only serve to minimize the public understanding of science. It would be fine if these acronyms entered common usage, like USA or TL;DR, but they’re all far from normal parlance. The researchers showed, in fact, that about 79% of acronyms they found across 24 million papers were used fewer than 10 times each. Oh, FFS.

Data Deficient — Is a species endangered? If scientists don’t have the answer to that question, they slap it into this vague category, and that can lead to dangerous false assumptions that a species is doing just fine. Scientist Chris Parsons has suggested we declare “data deficient” species assumed endangered until better information becomes available (and as a way to encourage collecting that information). If that dilutes the power and importance of the word “endangered,” maybe we go with a simple action phrase: research needed.

Developing Nations — This is one of a string of phrases used not just in conservation but in virtually all levels of discourse that value (or devalue) a country based on its wealth and on normative notions of linear progress toward a Western, industrialized ideal, ignoring colonialism, exploitation, white supremacy and saviorism. The journal BMJ Global Health recently catalogued these troubling terms and the damage they cause, while offering some more acceptable alternatives.

Ecosystem Services or Natural Capital — These terms sound like they were invented by someone with a degree from Harvard Business or Trump University. Try this: Nature keeps us alive. There. Fixed it.

Ex Situ and In Situ — Why are we throwing Latin around? These words describe conservation efforts that are either off-site or on-site. Just say so!

Exotic Species — Again, this is colonialist language for plants and animals that humans have moved to new habitats. Calling them “invasive,” “alien” or “non-native” isn’t any better. Indigenous scientist and author Jessica Hernandez uses the word displaced, which has a powerful resonance that instills some respect on these wild species no matter where they live, even if they are harmful to other wildlife.

Extirpated — As serious as this word is, no one understands what it means. Replace it by saying that a species has gone locally extinct or been wiped out of a region.

Fisheries — Technically, this term refers to oceanic or freshwater sites where the fishing industry operates, or where people depend on fish for their food, but that definition has spread like an oil spill to pollute other meanings. Every week I seen biologists use “fisheries” to describe any place where fish live, which unintentionally redefines those locations as worthy of exploitation rather than, you know, the home of those living creatures. Fish habitats will do just fine.

Game — This word, which I see in journals all the time, really means “animals we like to hunt.” That’s not conservation, and “game” animals aren’t the same as a rousing round of Parcheesi. This misnomer needs to be exorcised from scientific papers. More broadly, it should also be removed from the names of state wildlife agencies, where it positions them to serve hunters and fishermen — the very small subset of people who hunt, shoot, trap, or otherwise catch wild animals — rather than the animals themselves.

Habitat Loss — Did the habitat misplace its car keys? “Loss” is too passive a word — species don’t lose something; people take it from them. It also potentially implies that habitat can be found once again, when in many cases it’s gone or changed forever. Let’s get more descriptive: We’re talking about habitat degradation and habitat destruction.

Natural Gas — Technically, so-called natural gas contains about 90% methane, which most people recognize as harmful.  That’s why some climate activists have recently rebranded this fossil fuel methane gas, so it doesn’t appear quite so (ahem) natural. (Climate and conservation jargon frequently intersect, and climate jargon also slows public acceptance and action, which is all the more reason to use decisive, clear language across the board.)

New World and Old World — Biologists typically use these words to describe groups of similar species from different halves of the planet — for example, “Old World monkeys” from Asia and Africa, and “New World monkeys” from the Americas. That demarcation is fine, as it represents different evolutionary tracks, but the terminology derives from a colonialist, Western-oriented mindset. What’s wrong with using geographic descriptors for these species, such as “South American” or “African”?

Pest — This pejorative term is like “weed” — it’s in the eye of the beholder, and it doesn’t belong in scientific analysis. Animals didn’t ask to have your precious crops placed in front of them or to become vectors of disease. Even a mosquito has value (just ask a frog). When we describe species as annoyances, it becomes too easy to eliminate them instead of seeking to restore the ecological balance that kept them “in control” in the first place. I don’t have a replacement for this word, but we need to stop using it as though it’s value-neutral.

Poacher and Poaching — I’ve gotten into the racist, colonialist roots of these words before. Don’t make me repeat myself.

These examples barely scratch the jargonistic surface. I could spend another few paragraphs on overly scientific phrases like “interspecific differences,” “phenotypic plasticity,” “thermal breadth” and “zones of recombination,” all of which I recently encountered.

But they’re a good starting point — an invitation for refining the ways we speak, write and think so we have a better chance of communicating with broader audiences. After all, the more people who understand your message, the further your meanings will travel into hearts and minds. And that can mean all the difference to the species you’re trying to protect.

Do you have jargon you’d add to the list?  Drop us a line about your language pet peeves — or your solutions for better communication.

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Previously in The Revelator:

Let’s Rename the Day After Thanksgiving ‘Extinction Friday’

John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.