Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Being a fanatical birder, I belong to several birding listservs.  One of them is the Cayuga Basin bird listserv, which posts regional sightings for the benefit of other birders in the area.  A couple of days ago, the following message appeared:

"Heard/saw EAPH today -- my FOY -- is this FIB?"

Most people, upon reading this, might be excused if they responded, "Heard/saw what you WROTE today -- my WORD -- is this ENGLISH?"

In fact, of course, it is English.  The individual who posted this was using abbreviations.  Translated, it says, "Heard/saw an Eastern Phoebe today -- it was my first of the year -- is this the first in the (Cayuga) Basin?"

Although I understood what the person wrote, it did cross my mind to wonder why he felt the need to write it that way.  Did he think he was being charged by the letter, or something?  The four-letter bird codes, such as EAPH for Eastern Phoebe, were designed primarily to give a standard shorthand for cataloguing things such as bird song recordings.  As such, they act a little like SKU codes for produce -- they are handy for keeping track of inventory, but they were never meant for common conversation.  If you said over breakfast, "Wow, this 4011 is a little overripe," your family might look at you a little oddly.

Which brings up the topic of jargon.  I define jargon as meaning "specialist vocabulary that is meant to deliberately conceal meaning from outsiders."  To me, the four-letter bird codes that people throw around in posts on listservs are clearly jargon.  They add nothing to the clarity of the post; they make it harder for beginners to understand and participate in discussions; and they give an air of being in the know without actually providing anything additional in the way of information.

It's often hard, however, to see when scientific language crosses the line into jargon.  Scientists do use specialized vocabulary, and when it is used well, it clarifies the situation rather than muddying the waters further.  To give a fairly simple example, when I tell my biology classes that botanists use the word "fruit" differently than cooks do, to mean "whatever develops from the ovary of the flower, and contains the seed(s)," it points up something fundamental and (hopefully) interesting about nature.  The word "fruit," then, becomes a word whose scientific meaning is more clear and precise than its common meaning.  (Although it can be counterintuitive; a zucchini and a cucumber are both fruits, although they're not sweet, and rhubarb is not a fruit, although it's delicious in pies.)

On the other hand, consider the following example, which I found by randomly pulling a copy of the magazine Nature from my bookshelf.  It's the conclusion sentence in an article on neurology.

"Whether applied in basic science or clinical application, the spectral separation between the NpHR and ChR2 activation maxima permits both sufficiency and necessity testing in elucidation of the roles of specific cell types in high-speed intact circuit function; indeed, integration of GFP-based probes and fura-2 with the NpHR/ChR2 neural control system delivers a powerful and complementary triad of technologies to identify, observe, and control intact living neural circuitry with light."

Now, to point out a couple of things here:  first, I'm a biology teacher, and teach (amongst other things) an introductory neurology course, and I haven't the vaguest idea what that sentence means.  Second, I didn't select this sentence for its lack of clarity.  I scanned the article, and if anything, the rest of it is worse -- as the conclusion of the article, the authors seemed to be trying to sum up the punch line of their research as concisely and cogently as possible.

The fault, of course, is not entirely with the authors.  I'm a generalist, not a specialist, both by nature and by training.  Reading stuff like this makes me even more convinced that I'd never have had the brains, or the focus, to survive in the rarified air of academic research.

But you do have to wonder how much of it is a deliberate attempt to conceal, to keep scientific knowledge in the realm of the initiates.  During my brief stint as a graduate student in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Washington, I was horrified by the disdain that the professors and most of the graduate students had for popularizers -- for people like Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, who bring science to the masses.  One of the professors, I recall, made the statement, "I have made a practice of never accepting a graduate student who mentions Jacques Cousteau in his interview."  Well, whoop-de-doo, doesn't that make you a cut above?  I wonder how many people have been inspired to study the oceans because of reading your scientific journal articles?

Myself, I think you never lose by making an understanding of the natural world as accessible as possible, and you lose little of its wonder and complexity in so doing.  I could make my students memorize all of the steps of the Krebs Cycle, but I firmly maintain that they understand it far more deeply when I compare it to a merry-go-round where at every turn, two kids get on and two kids get off.  Le Chatelier's Principle is like the chemistry version of a teeter-totter.  Photorespiration in plants in dry climates is like living in a state with high property taxes; you can solve the resulting cash flow problem two ways, CAM (getting a better job) or C4 (moving to a state with lower taxes).  And so on.

Of course, to any scientists amongst my readership, I've now probably painted myself as hopelessly shallow-minded.  To which I respond:  oh, well.  Guilty as charged.  But at least I don't look through my binoculars, and say, "Wow!  Look at that EAPH!  It's my FOY!"

1 comment:

  1. While we're on the topic of "readability"... how about changing your blog background/font combination to something that doesnt leave retina burn? This white on black... HURTS.