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Orwellian Semantics

September 30, 2012 — Leave a comment

I have numerous issues with the bad habits of modern writing, including an overuse of the passive voice, laziness through use of metaphor, and an abundance of technical jargon or pretentious vocabulary. My writing often falls victim to this, especially with my personal poor habit of the use of the passive voice. It becomes problematic in medical or technical communication when jargon and abbreviations render listeners incapable of understanding. In political speech, we hear perversions of metaphorical language, with a bit of Latin thrown in where a Saxon word would suffice. This lack of precision becomes problematic, and such issues were discussed by George Orwell in his fierce essay, ‘Politics and the English Language.’

I’ve often heard, in casual conversation or, worse, in public arenas, the phrase ‘it’s only semantics’ or a phrase of that nature. This implies that the person is either lazy in speech or uninformed. I like to think that our downfall is sloth rather than lack of knowledge, so I will assume that these people know the premises behind semantics, what they imply, and why they are so very important. If that is true, then the speaker is simply tired of the disconnect in language that is being proposed.

Let’s assume one hasn’t read the precision of Ernest Hemingway, the frugality of EB White, or the aforementioned essay by Orwell. I’ll relate semantics to the study of information, information theory. Let’s trace a message from you to me,if we were speaking or writing to one another. A message begins at its source, such as a thought or argument in your brain. You must codify this message into language, either written, spoken, signed by hand, or some variation. That message is transmitted, by air, telecommunications, visually, or the like, to me. I must then, as the receiver, decode the message. Thus, information passes from you to me. A problem at any level leads to a breakdown in our conversation and, according to the optimist Orwell, decline of civilization.

Semantics is the study or philosophy of how we communicate with and understand one another. In terms of the information theory example above, this refers to the coding and decoding of speech. The words we use attempt to convey information. If the words are not precise, the information will be lost or misunderstood. If you heard me state that ‘John is a wild card, but Jane is solid,’ would you say this is precise? Sure, in context, you might understand the message, but that is no excuse and is thus laziness of speech. If you heard ‘John’s exam performance varies based upon his mood, but Jane always performs well,’ you can already see an improvement in the message’s precision. Again, we should remain as precise as possible, no matter the context.

In communicating between those in medicine, those in science, those in economics, and those in countless other fields, I can see this lack of focus on semantics. We become lazy and begin to use metaphors, jargon, or lack of descriptive terms. We then become annoyed when a person begins to focus on the meaning behind individual words or phrases, stating that it is only semantics. Thus, I believe this phrase stems from a laziness founded in sloth.

I am a horrid writer. Specifically, I mean that I tend to use the passive voice too often, use unnecessary words to balance the flow of a sentence, and often lack precision. However, I believe very strongly in proper communication. Many say this has to do with listening, but the act of listening is limited by the quality of the message transmitted.

This post stems both from issues in my research proposal revisions and with my status lying at the meeting point between medical and graduate students. They don’t understand each other quite often, and my split personality feels a sense of cognitive dissonance. I urge those in any field to practice in precision and recoding of speech for those outside your field. I’m working on it, too, and it is difficult to break bad habits.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for a public health group based upon a project based in medical school. An excerpt follows:

“In June 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (HR 1256). This legislation would require all tobacco products and advertising to have a graphic warning covering 50 percent of the front and back iof the package. The FDA has proposed a number of graphic designs […] The proposed designs include grotesque imagery in an attempt to dissuade smoking in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, smoking accounts for approximately 443,000 deaths per year in the US, including deaths from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, COPD, and numerous other morbidities. It is thus apparent that smoking is a public health concern, and these new warning labels hope to address the concern by deterring such behavior. However, though the proposed graphic labels may be more effective than the previous Surgeon General’s Warning (a text-only message on the side of the package), these labels can be greatly improved through what will be defined as a gains-based message as opposed to the proposed loss-based message. In doing so, the labels would not only educate the public on the dangers of smoking, but it will be argued that they will encourage smoking prevention and cessation behavior. In fact, it is argued that the currently proposed labels may do more harm than good. To make this argument, three assumptions must be made. First, as hinted above, smoking is a public health concern. Second, tobacco warning labels are designed to result in human behaviors of smoking cessation and prevention. Finally, human behavior is, in some circumstances, predictable.

This is not to say that the proposed labels by the FDA or those currently being used around the world are completely ineffective. In fact, the graphic labels may be more effective than the small text-only Surgeon General’s Warning. However, there is a wide margin for improvement. The proposed labels appear to be far too grotesque. Though admittedly fear-inducing, this negative emotion will most likely lead to reactance behavior. Expect sales of slip covers to increase, along with the possibility of some smokers increasing their smoking behavior. Smoking rates may continue to decline, but the rate of this decline may not yet be optimal. Data from other countries, along with numerous experimental studies, have demonstrated that confounding factors can contribute to the decline in these countries, and grotesque imagery can result in maladaptive behavior. A truly effective label would be designed with a positive, gain-framed message. It would be designed to motivate behavioral change and encourage self-efficacy. Data from others who were able to quit can enhance subjective norms. Imagery depicting the benefits of quitting or those who were able to quit can further eliminate reactance. All of this would then be coupled with resources on quitting, such as phone numbers, web sites, and support groups. This is a war that cannot be fought with fire. As demonstrated every time a cigarette is lit, fire is only good for lighting up.”

First, I believe that this claim still holds, and my predictions, while still probably true, mean little when compared to the growing need to reform healthcare. Howevera greater concern lies in how we approach public health research. Within basic science, and especially physics, we like to break down larger systems into their components, analyze them, and search for unifying hypotheses. That is one method, but the concept is simple: Focus on the rules of a system in order to predict behavior.

Often, this concept is lost in public health research. Perusal of the literature will reveal that such concepts are hypotheses in the discussions of papers, but one sees very few examples where they are applied. In the case of tobacco warning labels, concepts in behavioral psychology may be applied to predict behavior resulting from labeling campaigns. The validity of these models remains to be seen, due to a low sample size. Nonetheless, studies were performed. Phone surveys revealed results similar to what was predicted by the theory of reactance.

Briefly, the theory of reactance predicts a cycle in human behavior. One begins with some level of (1) freedom, which is then (2) threatened. The human will (3) react, and undergo a (4) restoration of this freedom. Types of reactance include those exhibited by certain groups (trait reactance) and various threats to freedom (state reactance). These can be measured through fear, anxiety, disgust, and the like, all of which are predicted to increase with the level of reactance. The restoration of freedom is key. This is done through avoidance, acting out, or the like. In the case of smoking, this would be manifested in increased rates of smoking, a reduced desire to quit, downplay of harmful effects, and avoidance through the purchase of slip covers. A study by Dillard et al. in 2005 pointed out such concepts, and phone surveys on tobacco noted such reactions.

Another concept is message framing. There are two types of messages in this theory, gain-framed and loss-framed. A gain-framed message focuses on the benefit of performing a task, while a loss-framed message focuses on the risks associated with not performing the task. Loss-framed messages include pointing out the risks associated with not performing regular mammographies or other early detection methods of disease. Gain-framed messages include those associated with the benefits of exercise and sunscreen use. The current tobacco warning labels would be improved by avoiding reactance through the use of gain-framed messages, as was pointed out by Tamera Schneider in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2001.

This highlights an important issue in public health and other epidemiological studies. The studies often do not cite and properly utilize the foundational psychological or basic science research. This shapes policy in a less-informed manner, sometimes leading to unforeseen negative outcomes. By increasing effective communication between the sciences and epidemiology, policy changes may become more effective