Technical Language as Evidence of Expertise
- the use is intentionally nonaccommodative (the speaker/writer uses technical jargon that they know the audience does not understand);
- technical language is used with the intention to persuade the audience that the speaker/writer possesses expert knowledge of the target domain.
Meibauer (2016, p. 73) characterises this fragment as an “authentic piece of bullshitting”. I will not commit here to this claim but want to point out a different (albeit not totally unrelated) feature of the text: the way in which technical language is used with the purpose of impressing the audience. Condition C1, concerning the nonaccommodative character of the use of the language, is fulfilled. There is no reason to suppose that the average reader of a style and design magazine is capable of understanding the data provided and their relevance to the quality of the product. Is “bi-blinked dipeptide from Switzerland” better than bi-blinked dipeptide from other places? Is it good for your skin to “increase prolyl hydroxylase activity by 381%”? Do other skin care creams contain the same components or other? The average audience is not likely to have any clue how to answer these questions. Most probably, the readers have never heard of tripeptide-10 citrulline, Laminin V and tetrapeptide-11 “from France”. The authors of the advertisement know this very well, so they are not using this language in order to convey information. The only plausible explanation is that their purpose is not to inform, but to impress. Given that the ultimate aim of a commercial advertisement is to persuade the audience to buy the product, the text seems designed to show the company uses complex scientific research and sophisticated procedures in creating its products and that the company (referred to as “we” later on in the text of the advertisement) has expertise in that topic and, therefore, is to be trusted when it comes to skin care products. Hence, condition C2 is fulfilled. Moreover, it is fulfilled in a manifest way, in the sense that the authors of the advertisement openly invite the audience to draw the conclusion that the company is an expert in the science behind products such as the one advertised. We will see in what follows that C2 is not always so manifestly fulfilled.“Y-42 FRACTIONAL NECK LIFT CONCENTRATE More than fractional treatments. For less than fractional treatments. In simple terms: neck therapy as its avant-garde finest. Protein fractions maximize fibrillin synthesis and minimize the inevitable, irreversible degradation of elastic tissue. Discovered-on-Mars iron rose crystal comes from effusive magma rock to increase prolyl hydroxylase activity by 381% and boost collagen production. Our new tetrapeptide-9 from France, as well as a next-generation tripeptide-10 citrulline and a bi-blinked dipeptide from Switzerland, to stimulate Laminin V, Collagen IV, Collagen VII, Collagen XVII and Integrin. A new tetrapeptide-11 from France also comes to the rescue to stimulate Syndecan-1 synthesis and reinforce epidermal cohesion.”
According to the authors, Lacan uses words from the mathematical theory of compactness, but he combines them “arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His “definition” of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish” (Sokal and Bricmont 1999, p. 23). This and other fragments are given as examples of a display of “superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader” (Sokal and Bricmont 1999, p. 31). What is relevant to our purpose is not so much whether the text is gibberish from a mathematical point of view, but the latter comment the authors make: that the technical terminology is used to impress a particular audience which is not sufficiently familiarised with the concepts from geometry used, and thus to enhance the speaker’s epistemic status as a sophisticated and knowledgeable author. Hence, conditions C1 (nonaccommodation) and C2 (intention to impress) are fulfilled.2“A geometry implies the heterogeneity of locus, namely that there is a locus of the Other. Regarding this locus of the Other, of one sex as Other, as absolute Other, what does the most recent development in topology allow us to posit? I will posit here the term “compactness.” Nothing is more compact than a fault [faille], assuming that the intersection of everything that is enclosed therein is accepted as existing over an infinite number of sets, the result being that the intersection implies this infinite number. That is the very definition of compactness.”
The metalogical concepts are not used metaphorically here, but, according to Sokal and Bricmont, with their literal meaning. The authors argue that Kristeva’s comments about the axiom of choice and Godel’s theorem are not only incorrect, but way off the mark, and that they show a poor understanding of the metalogical theorems invoked (Sokal and Bricmont 1999, p. 46). More significantly, Kristeva uses these concepts “without bothering to explain to the reader the content of these theorems” and that she tries to “impress the reader with technical jargon” (Sokal and Bricmont 1999, pp. 44–45). If this is correct, the fragment quoted is a good candidate for an instance of the nonaccommodative use of technical jargon intended to enhance the writer’s epistemic status.“Having assumed that poetic language is a formal system whose theorization can be based on set theory, we may observe, at the same time, that the functioning of poetic meaning obeys the principles designated by the axiom of choice… The notion of constructibility implied by the axiom of choice associated to what we have just set forth for poetic language, explains the impossibility of establishing a contradiction in the space of poetic language. This observation is close to Gödel’s observation concerning the impossibility of proving the inconsistency [contradiction] of a system by means formalized within the system.”
In what follows, Vianna Stibal goes on to introduce the meditation technique for “Activation of the Youth and Vitality Chromosomes”, which involves making the command, “Creator of All That Is, it is commanded that the activation of the youth and vitality chromosomes (state client’s name) take place on this day.”, etc.“You don’t have to be a scientist to do this technique, but you should know that the Pineal Gland is located exactly in the center of the brain; directly down from the crown and directly back of the third eye… Within the Pineal Gland is what is called the Master Cell, and it is this cell that is the operation center for all the other cells in the body. The Master Cell is the beginning point of healing for many of the functions that the body performs. Within this Master Cell is the chromosome of DNA that is the heart of the DNA Activation. Inside the Master Cell is a tiny universe all its own that is a master-key to our function. It runs everything in the body, from the color of our hair to the way we wiggle our feet. All parts of the body are controlled by the Program in the chromosomes and the DNA. Inside the Master Cell is the Youth and Vitality Chromosomes […]”
3. An Argumentative Approach
3.1. The Ontological Dimension
- You seem to have caught a cold.
- You have symptoms of a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract.
3.2. The Epistemic Dimension
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An insight into this phenomenon might be gained by taking a rhetorical perspective, like the one developed by Lyne and Howe (1990). The authors discuss some of the rhetorical strategies that experts use in persuading a lay audience, including metaphors, analogies and other rhetorical figures that function as “instructions” for the public on how to read a scientific text. The authors focus mostly on uses of technical language that are meant to be comprehensible to a lay audience, cases in which the expert is sensitive to the audience’s level of understanding of the topic considered. For this reason, their analysis is not directly relevant to the present discussion, which focuses precisely on cases in which this does not occur. See also Tindale (2011) for a rhetorical approach that considers the role the expert’s ethos plays in persuading a lay audience.
A different yet related topic is that of obscurity. Lacan’s fragment that I quoted might be characterised as obscure. However, this is not because the vocabulary is too technical for the audience. The fact that an author is nonaccommodating and the intended readers fail to grasp the meaning of the words used does not make the text obscure. The text might be perfectly comprehensible and clear to someone familiar with that vocabulary. Instead, Lacan’s text is obscure because the author chose to use the vocabulary in ways that are nonstandard and confusing even to the specialists in the field (topology, in this case). For a discussion of how obscurity might be used by pseudoexperts and gurus to impress audiences and create the impression that the speaker has something profound and important to convey, even when no one can really say what it is, see Sperber (2010).
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.
The address of the website is as follows: https://www.thetahealing.com/thetahealing-dna-activation.html (accessed on 2 December 2021).
Pinto (2006, p. 309) famously characterised arguments as invitations to draw an inference. However, this characterisation, and the modified version that Pinto subsequently proposed, is insufficient to distinguish arguing from other kinds of speech acts (Moldovan 2012, pp. 303–4). The strategy we discuss here is an example of an invitation to draw an inference which, nevertheless, is not an argument.
Consider, in this sense, the critical questions that Walton et al. (2008) developed as a tool that arguers can use to evaluate arguments that appeal to expert opinion. Among these questions we find: “How credible is E as an expert source?” and “Is E an expert in the field that A [the target claim] is in?” (Walton et al. 2008, p. 310) The arguers who need to appeal to expert opinion are novices in the field to which A belongs.
In any case, in this framework, fluency with the vocabulary of the theory could only amount to evidence in favour of interactional expertise, but not contributory expertise. The former is not a guarantee of possessing knowledge of the field, the capacity to solve problems or put theoretical knowledge into practice.
An anonymous reviewer made the interesting comment that a novice who is persuaded by this strategy might be said to provide an example of a derivative Dunning–Kruger cognitive bias. The classic Dunning–Kruger effect concerns the fact that people usually do not recognise that they are not in a position to make object-level judgements in a particular field of technical inquiry. The derivative version might refer to the case of someone who, while aware that they lack competence in a particular field, does not realise that they are thereby not in a position to make the meta-level judgements about a speaker’s competency in using technical jargon.
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Moldovan, A. Technical Language as Evidence of Expertise. Languages 2022, 7, 41. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010041
Moldovan A. Technical Language as Evidence of Expertise. Languages. 2022; 7(1):41. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010041Chicago/Turabian Style
Moldovan, Andrei. 2022. "Technical Language as Evidence of Expertise" Languages 7, no. 1: 41. https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010041