Home
About Us
Services
Sick English
Publications
The term "patient"
Enigmatic Semicolon
Infinitive
FAQs
Did you know?
Views from the top
Links
Permissions
Contact
 
Views from the Top
 
 

Regardless of the field we’re in, our understanding in it is deepened if we pay attention to the work of others who face problems similar to our own. In particular, what terminologic problems challenge practitioners outside of medicine? What mysteries, frustrations, do they encounter? And how do they deal with them?

Views from the Top highlights language perspectives of stellar authorities who, like us, grapple with significant issues in the nomenclature and terminology of their professions.

In the past this page has featured excerpts from the writings of the renowned mineralogists Ernest H. Nickel and Joel D. Grice, and from the equally renowned ethologist Jane Goodall.

The delights of this page resume with 2 more renowned scientists: Lisa Randall PhD (Physicist, Harvard University) and Wulf Mueller (Geologist and Volcanologist, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi).

   
 
   
 

 

Dangling Particles
Why writing accurately about science is so hard

by Lisa Randall, PhD
Physicist, Harvard University

Science plays an increasingly significant role in people’s lives, making the faithful communication of scientific developments more important than ever. Yet such communication is fraught with challenges that can easily distort discussions, leading to unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings.

______________________________

Abstraction and complexity are not signs
   that a given scientific direction is wrong ….
______________________________

Some problems stem from the esoteric nature of current research and the associated difficulty of finding sufficiently faithful terminology. Abstraction and complexity are not signs that a given scientific direction is wrong, as some commentators have suggested, but are instead a tribute to the success of human ingenuity in meeting the increasingly complex challenges that nature presents. They can, however, make communication more difficult. But many of the biggest challenges for science reporting arise because in areas of evolving research, scientists themselves often only partly understand the full implications of any particular advance or development. Since that dynamic applies to most of the scientific developments that directly affect people’s lives—global warming, cancer research, diet studies—learning how to overcome it is critical to spurring a more informed scientific debate among the broader public.

Ambiguous word choices are the source of some misunderstandings. Scientists often employ colloquial terminology, which they then assign a specific meaning that is impossible to fathom without proper training. The term “relativity,” for example, is intrinsically misleading.

______________________________

Scientists often employ colloquial terminology,
which they then assign a specific meaning
that is impossible to fathom without proper training.
______________________________

Many interpret the theory to mean that everything is relative and there are no absolutes. Yet although the measurements any observer makes depend on his coordinates and reference frame, the physical phenomena he measures have an invariant description that transcends that observer’s particular coordinates. Einstein’s theory of relativity is really about finding an invariant description of physical phenomena. Indeed, Einstein agreed with the suggestion that his theory would have been better named “Invariantentheorie.” But the term “relativity” was already too entrenched at the time for him to change.

The “uncertainty principle” is another frequently abused term. It is sometimes interpreted as a limitation on observers and their ability to make measurements. But it is not about intrinsic limitations on any one particular measurement; it is about the inability to precisely measure particular pairs of quantities simultaneously. The first interpretation is perhaps more engaging from a philosophical or political perspective. It’s just not what the science is about.
. . . .

Even the word “theory” can be a problem. Unlike most people, who use the word to describe a passing conjecture that they often regard as suspect, physicists have very specific ideas in mind when they talk about theories. For physicists, theories entail a definite physical framework embodied in a set of fundamental assumptions about the world that lead to a specific set of equations and predictions—ones that are borne out by successful predictions.

______________________________

Theories aren’t necessarily shown to be
correct or complete immediately.
______________________________

Theories aren’t necessarily shown to be correct or complete immediately. Even Einstein took the better part of a decade to develop the correct version of his theory of general relativity. But eventually both the ideas and the measurements settle down and theories are either proven correct, abandoned or absorbed into other, more encompassing theories.

The very different uses of the word “theory” provide a field day for advocates of “intelligent design.” By conflating a scientific theory with the colloquial use of the word, creationists instantly diminish the significance of science in general and evolution’s supporting scientific evidence in particular. Admittedly, the debate is complicated by the less precise nature of evolutionary theory and our inability to perform experiments to test the progression of a particular species. Moreover, evolution is by no means a complete theory. We have yet to learn how the initial conditions for evolution came about—why we have 23 pairs of chromosomes and at which level evolution operates are only two of the things we don’t understand. But such gaps should serve as incentives for questions and further scientific advances, not for abandoning the scientific enterprise.

This debate might be tamed if scientists clearly acknowledged both the successes and limitations of the current theory, so that the indisputable elements are clearly isolated. But skeptics have to acknowledge that the way to progress is by scientifically addressing the missing elements, not by ignoring evidence….

“Global warming” is another example of problematic terminology. Climatologists predict more drastic fluctuations in temperature and rainfall—not necessarily that every place will be warmer.

______________________________

Clearly “global climate change” would
have been a better name.
______________________________

The name sometimes subverts the debate, since it lets people argue that their winter was worse, so how could there be global warming? Clearly “global climate change” would have been a better name.

But not all problems stem solely from poor word choices. Some stem from the intrinsically complex nature of much of modern science. Science sometimes transcends this limitation: remarkably, chemists were able to detail the precise chemical processes involved in the destruction of the ozone layer, making the evidence that chlorofluorocarbon gases (Freon, for example) were destroying the ozone layer indisputable.

How to report scientific developments on vital issues of the day that are less well understood or in which the connection is less direct is a more complicated question. Global weather patterns are a case in point. Even if we understand some effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is difficult to predict the precise chain of events that a marked increase in carbon dioxide will cause.

The distillation of results presented to the public in such cases should reflect at least some of the subtleties of the most current developments. More balanced reporting would of course help. Journalists will seek to offer balance by providing an opposing or competing perspective from another scientist on a given development.

______________________________

More balanced reporting would of course help.
______________________________

But almost all newly discovered results will have some supporters and some naysayers, and only time and more evidence will sort out the true story. This was a real problem in the global warming debate for a while: the story was reported in a way that suggested some scientists believed it was an issue and some didn’t, even long after the bulk of the scientific community had recognized the seriousness of the problem.

Sometimes, as with global warming, the claims have been underplayed. But often it’s the opposite: a cancer development presented as a definite advance can seem far more exciting and might raise the status of the researcher far more than a result presented solely as a partial understanding of a microscopic mechanism whose connection to the disease is uncertain. Scientists and the public are both at fault. No matter how many times these “breakthroughs” prove misleading, they will be reported this way as long as that’s what people want to hear.

A better understanding of the mathematical significance of results and less insistence on a simple story would help to clarify many scientific discussions. For several months, Harvard was tortured by empty debates over the relative intrinsic scientific abilities of men and women.

_____________________________

A better understanding of the mathematical
significance of results and less insistence on
a simple story would help to clarify many
scientific discussions.
______________________________

One of the more amusing aspects of the discussion was that those who believed in the differences and those who didn’t used the same evidence about gender-specific special ability. How could that be? The answer is that the data shows no substantial effects. Social factors might account for these tiny differences, which in any case have an unclear connection to scientific ability. Not much of a headline when phrased that way, is it?

Each type of science has its own source of complexity and potential for miscommunication. Yet there are steps we can take to improve public understanding in all cases.

The first would be to inculcate greater understanding and acceptance of indirect scientific evidence. The information from an unmanned space mission is no less legitimate than the information from one in which people are on board.

This doesn’t mean never questioning an interpretation, but it also doesn’t mean equating indirect evidence with blind belief, as people sometimes suggest. Second, we might need different standards for evaluating science with urgent policy implications than research with purely theoretical value.

______________________________

It would be better if scientists were more
open about the mathematical significance of
their results and if the public didn’t treat
 math as quite so scary ….
______________________________

When scientists say they are not certain about their predictions, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve found nothing substantial. It would be better if scientists were more open about the mathematical significance of their results and if the public didn’t treat math as quite so scary; statistics and errors, which tell us the uncertainty in a measurement, give us the tools to evaluate new developments fairly.

But most important, people have to recognize that science can be complex. If we accept only simple stories, the description will necessarily be distorted. When advances are subtle or complicated, scientists should be willing to go the extra distance to give proper explanations and the public should be more patient about the truth. Even so, some difficulties are unavoidable. Most developments reflect work in progress, so the story is complex because no one yet knows the big picture.

But speculation and the exploration of ideas beyond what we know with certainty are what lead to progress. They are what makes science exciting. Although the more involved story might not have the same immediate appeal, the truth in the end will always be far more interesting.

Quoted with permission of Lisa Randall PhD, © Lisa Randall,
Department of Physics, Harvard University, http://www.physics.harvard.edu
This article was originally published in The New York Times,
http://www.nyt.com, 18 September 2005.

   
 
   
 

Sedimentary Processes and Terminology

By Wulf Mueller, PhD
Geologist and Volcanologist
Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

Terminology is a major issue when classifying a volcanic rock. This has become a frustrating exercise in volcanology because pyroclastic rocks, as well as fragmented volcanic rocks, originating from flows or dome collapse can be referred to in several ways. More often than not, the non-specialist reader gets confused.

______________________________

More often than not, the non-specialist
reader gets confused.
______________________________

The terms “tuff” and “sandstone” represent grain size denominations in volcanology and sedimentology, respectively, but they also have important connotations concerning origin and transport process. Now the fun begins in giving a fragmented rock and/or an unconsolidated deposit a name.

To make life easy, a philosophical approach is taken by dividing the two principal rock-naming groups into “purists” and “realists”. The attributed name for the rock depends on what criterion is considered to be relevant. The eruption mechanism, transport process, depositional setting, transport medium, type of components and abundance, grain size, and combinations thereof, are all qualifiers that influence rock classification.

______________________________

Purists favour a nomenclature based on the
eruption or fragmentation mechanism
as well as the transporting medium ….
Realists support the usage of grain size ...
irrespective of the transport process.
______________________________

Purists favour a nomenclature based on the eruption or fragmentation mechanism as well as the transporting medium, which is either steam, gas or water. Realists support the usage of grain size with principal components having a volcanic or pyroclastic origin, irrespective of the transport process. In general, the purist group maintains that volcanic terms, such as ash (tuff), lapilli, and bombs (breccia) should be restricted to rocks emanating directly from an explosive eruption, while clastic sedimentary terms are favoured for slumped reworked and remobilized pyroclastic debris (1).

In striking contrast, the realists adhere to the volcanic grain size classification of Fisher and Schmincke (2), with components being of volcanic or pyroclastic origin. Fisher and Smith (3) suggested that remobilization by wind and water cannot change the origin of the deposit, so that the original volcanic grain size scheme tuff, lapilli, etc. is applicable if delicate volcanic and pyroclastic particles and textures can be identified.

Now everything is solved! Well, not quite. Complications arise in the subaqueous realm, where distinct recognition criteria have been especially problematic. If heat retention structures are observed, then both schools agree on a volcanic grain size scheme, but non-welded pyroclastic deposits or hyaloclastites produced by quenching represent the volcanological-sedimentological grey zone…. Should one emphasize the composition, grain size, and sedimentary structures, or eruption mechanism and transport medium?

______________________________

Complications arise in the subaqueous realm,
where distinct recognition criteria have been
especially problematic.
______________________________

As a mapping geologist focusing principally on Archaean supracrustal sequences, the realist approach suits my needs. Therefore, eruption-fed density current deposits, and hyaloclastites and their reworked counterparts would be described as tuffs, lapilli tuffs or lapilli-tuff breccias with an attribute for descriptive purposes (e.g. turbiditic tuff, stratified lapilli tuff or massive lapilli tuff breccia). On the other hand, if it is possible to discern between primary and reworked pyroclastic debris in the field, then the purist scheme seems more applicable.

______________________________

Whatever scheme is employed, please
explain the preferences to the reader.
______________________________

Whatever scheme is employed, please explain the preferences to the reader. There is a system to madness!

1. E.g. Cas RAF and Wright JV. 1987. Volcanic successions: modern and ancient. London: Allen and Unwin; and McPhie J et al. 1993. Volcanic textures. Centre for ore deposit and exploration studies. Key Centre, University of Tasmania.
2. Fisher RV and Schmincke H-U. 1984. Pyroclastic rocks. New York: Springer-Verlag.
3. Fisher RV and Smith GA. 1991. Volcanism, tectonics and sedimentation. In Fisher RV and Smith GA, eds. Sedimentation in volcanic settings. Soc. Econ. Paleon. Miner., Spec. Publ. 45.

From W.U. Mueller, “Subaqueous eruption-fed density currents from
small volume mafic eruptions: the crossover from volcanology to sedimentology.”
In Commission on Volcanogenic Sediments (CVS) Newsletter #20, April 2001.
Quoted with permission of W.U. Mueller PhD, © Wulf Mueller,
Dept. of Earth Sciences, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
http://www.uqac.ca