Sometimes, we are fools for complexity. When we hear complex language we can't help but be impressed, even when we don't understand what's being said.
In Ben Goldacre's excellent book, Bad Science, he often gives his opinion on the human condition, best summarized by: it looks complex, it sounds complex, it must be right, and it must be good.
According to Goldacre, a March 2008 edition of the Journal of Cognitive Science covered a study "which elegantly demonstrated that people will buy into bogus explanations much more readily when they are dressed up with a few technical words."
In a test of a variety of descriptions from the world of psychology, ordinary people "judged that the explanations with the logically irrelevant neurosciency information were more satisfying than the explanations without the spurious neuroscience."
Reading Goldacre's book reminded me of a referendum held in Ireland in 2007 about a European Union treaty. I'm a big fan of the European Union, but it can be a notoriously complex and convoluted organization.
One wonders sometimes whether European Union bureaucrats are incapable of communicating in ordinary language, or whether they deliberately set out to create complex mumbo jumbo because they think they can baffle us into submission.
Various opinion polls before the treaty vote showed that Irish people did not understand what they were being asked to vote on. "EU leaders cannot produce an incomprehensible document and then complain when voters say they cannot comprehend it," The Financial Times stated.
"No normal person could ever read it," Germany's Spiegel wrote. The Irish Times quoted a business figure who described it as "unintelligible drivel". According to The Economist it was "Sludge, pure and simple."
"It took years to negotiate, weighs in at 260 pages, is virtually unreadable," Germany's Welt stated. "The treaty proved impenetrable even to legal experts," said The Washington Post.
Ireland voted no, despite the fact that, as TIME Magazine noted, support for the treaty came from "virtually the entire Irish political establishment, all leading business and industrial organizations, the trade union movement, farming associations and the mainstream media."
Why make something so very important so utterly incomprehensible? Perhaps there was method in the madness. The UK Times quoted Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a key European Union architect, as saying that "public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly".
There is a view among the intellectual elite that the general public are just not educated enough to make important decisions. This elite are often quite reasonable and progressive people, and they fear mob rule, populism and xenophobic nationalism.
The European Union is one of the great achievements in human history. But so too is the Web. And the Web reflects a world that is becoming more and more immune to sciency-sounding words and legal gibberish.
Deliberately complex content still has the power to impress some of us some of the time. But societies are becoming less susceptible to the language of deception, and the Web is at the forefront of that changing reality.