“Buzzword concepts” and their pitfalls

By Joern Fischer

We’ve recently written something about yield gaps in this blog, and we have criticised the notion of land sparing, and we pondered the pros and cons of assisted colonisation to help species cope with climate change. All of these topics have something in common: they are currently hot topics in the literature, and they have become something of a buzzword.

My hypothesis is that whenever something reaches buzzword status, it probably has flaws which ought to be debated in the literature but are receiving insufficient attention. In other words, once something has buzzword status, it’s hugely popular — and especially the leading journals are interested in promoting new buzzwords rather than publishing more balanced assessments. This may not be a new idea, and I don’t mean to complain (yet again) about leading journals being overly political in what they publish. Instead, my idea is much more pragmatic. Just like the people promoting buzzword concepts make an academic living of promoting them, how about making a living of balancing these concepts?

Perhaps that’s what Dan Simberloff thought in the past — he’s critiqued a whole bunch of ecological theories and concepts, including nested subset theory, corridors, or indicator species (and indeed, also assisted colonisation). Personally, I think perhaps Dan went a bit too far in making a career out of scrutinising other people’s ideas. Perhaps he’s a bit too negative at times… But anyway…

The story goes a bit like this: when a new idea comes up, people get excited and the idea is soon in a rapid growth phase. This is good and natural because without new ideas we’d get nowhere at all. But sometimes, what’s lacking is a critical assessment of those ideas. I don’t mean a black versus white assessment, but rather an approach that works out, critically, what the benefits of a new idea are, and what its limitations are. Most new ideas that become ‘buzzword concepts’ have some good sides to them, or they wouldn’t become buzzword concepts. But also, most have MORE limitations than are typically recognised by those promoting them. And that is where I think we find fertile academic grounds.

So my suggestion is, when you come across buzzword concepts, don’t blindly accept them, nor shoot them down without further thought (that is usually possible with all new ideas, especially with bold ones). Rather ask yourself under which circumstances a certain idea is useful, and what its conceptual and practical limits are. Teasing that apart, in turn, may ultimately lead to a more refined toolkit for conservation and sustainability.

And just for fun, here are some examples of buzzword concepts, from both past and present, each of which are valuable, but each of which have limitations: island biogeography, resilience, connectivity, assisted colonisation, ecosystem services, yield gaps, land sparing, land sharing, deep ecology, traditional ecological knowledge … and so on!

9 thoughts on ““Buzzword concepts” and their pitfalls

  1. Hi Joern, this is a great post! I think, buzzword concepts are somehow inherintly part of our mental structure and way to perceive the world in its largest sense, and our (as individuals, groups) place in it. Sacred books like Bible and others are full with such buzzwords, related to morality, ethical principles – some of them are not actual today…they are replaced. So, we can even say that each era with its own buzzwords. Money is (or may be) such a buzzword. For those who never contest it, our civilization may be a buzzword (ok, I am now a bit exagerating but maybe not that much…). As times (in widest sense) are changing, buzzwords come and go. This very fact (i.e. that buzzwords come and go) also suggest – at least to me – that people need words, symbols, flags or whatever we call them…some ‘fix points’ around which they build their models about the world (whatever world means). So – what I suggest: dont give up with buzzwords, because people (in widest sense, not only a certain segment) need them. People maybe can cope better with a buzzword world than without. But, choose carefully the buzzwords and influence them. E.g. in a way to contain as much ‘sustainability’ and ‘morality’ and nevertheless ‘reality’ (i.e. link it to our present realities) as they can. I think wars were created with buzzwords…buzzwords are inevitable in my view. They need to be ‘domesticated’ and made friendly:))))

  2. I was thinking what is that social / knowledge / moral or whatever state that favor the creation (and later replacement or deletion) of buzzwords. It should be a vacuum (existential, knowledge or other) which is increasing and then a word appear and suddenly fill it. Then everybody is happy, and the word grow up to a buzzword. But ‘life go ahead’, new vakuums appear, people may become again ‘unconfortable’ and this make the grounds for new words to become buzzword candidates:) If this is true – it is good or bad. Good if the vacuum is filled with words calling for peace. Bad, if the contrary happen…

  3. Buzzwords, as any “regular” words, exist because they have a role / function in communication. The fact we use it simply suggest that we need it for some forms of communication. Is it useful for science – science communication? Perhaps, with highest caution and stating clearly a meaning behind a concept. Science – policy communication, perhaps useful to mainstream important ideas, make them simple, understandable and perceived as important. Science – practice, again with caution, especially if specific solution or answers are more expected. Science – general public, why not (same reasons as for communicating with policy)?

  4. Hi — interesting thoughts from both of you, thanks! I think of course, buzzwords are both useful and important. But does this not mean we should also scrutinise the limits of their usefulness? I don’t think either of you necessarily disagree with me, but it’s figuring out the limits of any given concept which appears attractive that I think could be quite useful.

  5. Hola – I also think we all agree in this respect, just use different approaches. I like your post because opened the door for thinking. I mentioned that God was buzzword. But in the same time, the Dawkins type (and other) ‘atheism’ can be buzzword as well. Natura2000 also can be something like that (since it is indeed blindly applied (the whole Transylvania should be a N2000 area, including all the mountains…). So, yes, we need them but also we need to carefully adopt them. When it is about ‘carefulness’ it is inevitably about some level of critical assessment. And this is not only good but also healthy…

  6. Reading your post yesterday made me want to reply somehow, mainly because I have a long list of buzzwords in my head that is in great parts, but not entirely, congruent with the one in your post. But then I was not able to structure my thoughts and realized that this is due to the lack of a clear definition of the term ‘buzzword’. Following your suggestion to not blindly accept new concepts I asked my dear friend wikipedia what she thinks:

    “A buzzword (also fashion word and vogue word) is a term of art, salesmanship, politics, or technical jargon that is used in the media and wider society outside of its originally narrow technical context.
    Buzzwords differ from jargon in that jargon is esoteric but precisely defined terminology used for ease of communication between specialists in a given field, whereas a buzzword (which often develops from the appropriation of technical jargon) is often used in a more general way.”

    The crucial point here is the “wider society outside of its originally narrow context”. This is very origin-specific and I am going to try to give an example for that: for a plant ecologist the wider society in terms of intellectual understanding of concepts starts with all the other ecology related sciences, widens to the biological sciences and the natural sciences and so forth until it finally reaches “the public”. We may think of it as gradually declining understanding of specific concepts the further away we get from our specific discipline. Lets say the plant ecologist wants to collaborate with an atmospheric physicist because he heard the buzzword “ozone hole” and thinks it might be somehow important for his research. When the plant ecologist explains what he does he will use specific jargon like “biodiversity” or “sustainability”, words that will never be understood in their full meaning outside their originating community. The atmospheric scientists says “sustainability” to his colleagues and you have your new buzzword.

    This leaves me with the following conclusions:
    1. a buzzword is based on an idea/concept, some ideas stick around some don’t – the same goes for buzzwords
    2. buzzwords are all around us, it depends on the perspective
    3. the “buzzword state” marks a point in time when an idea/concept is communicated among different disciplines (Joannas point), therefore making it a very important tool for interdisciplinary work (and explains the affinity of nature and science et al., as they aim at a broad readership)
    4. being a buzzword does not say anything about the quality of the idea/concept it is based on, it is more an indicator effective communication (screaming a crappy idea loud enough is probably sufficient to create a buzzword)
    5. we use the term ‘buzzword’ wrongly, therefore making it a buzzword itself

    Dammit, now I have to relabel my list of buzzwords to: list-of-ideas-I-think-are-crap.

  7. Pingback: Resilience – what’s all the buzz? « clearasblog

  8. Pingback: Happy birthday to our blog: One year of “Ideas4Sustainability” | Ideas for Sustainability

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