How many times in my academic career at Duke have I heard an acronym or phrase, had no idea what it meant, but pretended to know exactly what it was for the sake of not appearing to be “stupid”? Countless. When I arrived in Washington D.C. this summer for my DukeEngage program, I quickly discovered that pretending to know would not cut it anymore. In other words, if I planned on making the most out of my short two months here, I knew I could no longer be afraid to speak up when I did not understand something.
If scientists and politicians could both cut down on fancy buzz terms, acronyms, and jargon, and if both were willing to seek more clarification on the things they do not understand, could discussion about climate change become less heated (no pun intended)?
Within my first day at my partner organization, a think tank focused on climate policy, about 10 acronyms and phrases were thrown around in a conservation on carbon taxes I was having with my supervisor. Of those I knew about 3 and the other 7 I asked for clarification as they were brought up, and thankfully my supervisor was more than happy to explain them. However over the past two weeks, it is in my supervisor’s eagerness to help me learn that I have come to draw a parallel to the current state of climate politics in D.C.
Climate politics simply put are the political opinions that are concerned with how to address climate change. Although not everyone understands the exact science behind climate change, there have been plenty of recent studies concluding that the majority of Americans believe that climate change is real. If that is the case, then why is climate change such a heated (and at times controversial) political topic in congress? One of my many hypotheses to this question has to do with acronyms, phrases, and jargon, of which politicians and scientists are to blame. Acronyms, buzz phrases, and topic-specific jargon make people feel smart, and because it is human nature to want to appear intelligent, we constantly seek out ways to make ourselves sound like experts. For instance, how many times have I used phrases I know people might not understand just to make myself sound intelligent? Countless. If you’re reading this by the way, don’t kid yourself into thinking you haven’t fallen into this trap too.
So how does this conundrum of making yourself sound smart relate to climate change? First, sometimes climate scientists use too much scientific jargon. When they testify before Congress on what proves climate change to be real and why it needs to be acted upon, scientists might focus more on the science of the issue than what could we done to help fix the issue. As a result, those in Congress who do not possess a science background might close their ear to the testimonial as the material could be “over their head” or they could refrain from seeking clarification in fear of looking “stupid”. Second, those in Congress who do understand and can contextualize the jargon coming from the scientists may try to convince others of its validity by transposing the scientific jargon into political jargon. More jargon…yay!
This brings me to one of the many questions I want to ponder on throughout the summer as I review carbon bills, sit in on meetings, and make spreadsheets. If scientists and politicians could both cut down on fancy buzz terms, acronyms, and jargon, and if both were willing to seek more clarification on the things they do not understand, could discussion about climate change become less heated (no pun intended)? If the answer is yes, would policy solutions, like the carbon tax for example, be more effective and better received?