Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Just after I published my last critical comments on the dangers of plain language I got a newsletter from a plain language advocate who proudly announced the makeover of an ‘informed consent form’ You can see the supporting article and the before and after makeovers (by following links embedded in the article) here.

This is typical of the well-meaning attempts by plain Language advocates to demonstrate how plain Language ‘makes a difference’. Full marks for effort!

But what does it really demonstrate? Not a great deal. The authors candidly admit:

The forms have not been tested for effectiveness, so the changes may or may not accomplish the above objectives.

Now let’s put this in context. This is a form used to get people to participate in clinical trials. Why do scientists do clinical trials? They do them in order to find out whether or not a drug does what they want it to do, without any adverse reactions. They test people before, during and after the trials, and they are not allowed to market the drug unless they provide EVIDENCE that the drug works appropriately.

But here we have a document untested before or after, with no account of any potential adverse reactions such as misunderstandings or inappropriate behaviour.

Yet the rhetoric, full of confidence, tells us the document has been improved:

Not only is the text easier to read, but the contents are more useful.

And again:

Color elements help the reader’s eye move through the form. The colors are bright but somewhat subdued to avoid invoking inappropriate emotional reactions.

Interesting, even plausible opinions. But evidence? Hardly!
So, on the one hand we have scientific procedures and stringent requirements for evidence, and on the other hand rhetoric.
I do not doubt that this has been an interesting exercise. But, like so much of the work of Plain Language advocates, it relies on a confident rhetoric and a claim to self-evident truths rather than external evidence.

As with potentially dangerous treatments, we need more than the skills of a snake oil merchant to persuade us that a cure is at hand by using plain language.

So chaps, good effort, but next time do the job properly. And, by the way, have a look at some of the research already done on improving informed consent forms. Some of it comes with EVIDENCE.

Critical Commentary