Brush Up on Your Science-Speak for the Holidays

by Bill Chameides | December 16th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Engaged in conversation, reaching for the bon mot.

Nerds can dominate a New Year’s Eve party; don’t be left out of the conversation.

It’s that time of year for eggnogging and partying. And let’s face it, lots of parties consist of moseying around a room, drink in hand, stopping in on various clutches of fellow revelers engrossed in colloquies on one subject or another. The challenge: to find a series of conversations to join where you can make a few strikingly original and/or clever au fait statements and then quickly move on to the next chat before you stick your foot in it.

But how do you know, as you float, if a given conversation is one whose subject matter can give you an opportunity to shine or will leave you standing there with nothing to say? Here’s my strategy: I try to pick out a word or two from the conversation as it comes within earshot and if on that basis the conversation seems promising, I pounce; if not, as the song goes, I “walk on by.”

Of course this strategy only works if you know your words. And that can be a problem. You could hear a familiar word and decide to pounce only to find out that the word carried a completely different meaning.

Say you hear someone mention “dupe.” You might think you’re eavesdropping on a discussion among grifters. But the speaker may be a restaurateur using restaurant lingo to refer to the order info given to the cook so that the food can be prepared.

Or maybe you’re passing by a conversation and hear “apron.” If you’ve just come from the conversation with the restaurateur, you may very naturally assume you’re privy to another culinary discussion. But you could be wrong; it could be a group of party-crashing construction workers talking shop about the trim board under a window sill.

In the spirit of making your holiday partying a success, here’s a guide to a few bon mots commonly bantered about in science circles.

Scientifically Speaking … Or What’s Heard by a Nerd

1. Manipulate

Suppose you hear the words “manipulate data.” Aha, you may think — another story of science fraud. And you could be right, in so far as the news reports go. After all, plug those two words into a Google News search and you’re bound to find copious stories related to fraud, doctoring, and cheating.

But those media stories are using just one definition of the word manipulate — either definition #2b or #3 in Merriam-Webster.

Another definition of manipulate, which is common among scientists, hews closely to Merriam-Webster’s definition #2a: “to manage or utilize skillfully.”

Even more specifically, manipulate in a scientific context refers to the application of an analytical technique — or how data is analyzed. Here’s just one example of this usage from a science paper entitled “Seasons in the British Isles from 1878” published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1905:

“[I]t becomes an important part of the general meteorological problem to manipulate the data from individual stations so as to exhibit the underlying general sequence freed from the obscurities of purely local eccentricities.”

Many, many more examples of such usage throughout the decades can be found in a Google Scholar search.

Could well be that this word as used by scientists has a different root than its general usage.According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) [$ub req’ed], “to manipulate” derives from the French word manipulation, referring to “a method for digging silver ore,” and later from the Spanish manipulación for “the action of handling apparatus, reagents, etc., in experiments.”

The common use of manipulate stems from the same Latin root as “manage”: “The earliest sense of manage in English was ‘to handle or train a horse’, or put it through the exercises of the manège [M17th]. This French word, used in English to mean ‘an area in which horses and riders are trained’ and ‘horsemanship’, is at root the same word as manage — both go back through Italian to Latin manus ‘hand’, the source also of … manipulate [E19th] to handle something.” [Source: “manage” Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. by Julia Cresswell. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Duke University. 15 December 2011]

2. Bias

Then there’s bias. Anathema to journalists and jurisprudence in conveying unfair subjectivity, distortion, prejudice or political motive, bias in a scientific context refers to “offset from an observation.”

From the French for “oblique, obliquity.” A difficult word to trace the precise origins to its various definitions, bias came to be a technical term “at the game of bowls,” according to the OED, “whence come all the later uses of the word.”Shakespeare uses the word bias at least twice in Troilus and Cressida, extending its usage in Act IV, Scene 5, by some accounts, to mean “arrogant.”

3. Theory

In everyday usage, theory can mean an unproved assumption, conjecture — a hunch. This is especially common in the oft-used prepositional phrase in theory — as in this from a New York Times article: “In theory, gifted directors who are mostly new to opera should bring fresh, bracing perspectives to bear” — and with the personal pronoun my preceding it — as in my theory on the brontosaurus” [vid] (emphasis added).

The scientific use of theory is strikingly different. Much more based on solid evidence gleaned from a variety of approaches, theory in a scientific context refers to solidly established thought. Synonyms for theory as used by scientists include Law and fact.

Again, there appear to be different lines of derivation for the word’s scientific and lay uses.According to the OED, where the common usage of theory comes from the Latin theōria (meaning “contemplation, deepe studie, a sight or beholding”), the science term derives from the Greek θεωρία for “a looking at, viewing, contemplation, speculation, theory, also a sight.” And there’s this from the OED: “a. A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.”

4. Scientist

And here’s a frequent mistake I make. I may be drifting along when I hear someone say: “Here comes the scientist.” Invariably, I puff out my chest and head in that direction, thinking I am being called to the conversation. In truth, it turns out they were saying something along the lines of: “Oh no, here comes the nerd. He’s probably going to lecture us on the real meaning of the word theory.” Instead of pouncing, I should have fled.

Now, that’s bad enough, but the thing that really gets me about that? It’s not the scientists-are-weird attitude. You see, I am perfectly happy to be called a geek. But nerd? Me? No way. Now you’re probably wondering what’s the difference between geek and nerd? If I run into you at the party this New Year’s, I’ll explain.

And if I miss you at that party, I’ll see you in January right here in the blogosphere. In the meantime,

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  1. Jake Bell
    Dec 20, 2011

    This really is something that needs to be talked about more! It’s a shame how misunderstood science lingo is to the general public. This reminds me of a great chart posted on the AGU (….it should be required to include it with any science related article haha.

  2. Tawnee Milko
    Dec 19, 2011

    Really enjoyed this post, Dean Chameides! Excellent topic for the holidays, and well-delivered. Thanks for a fun read.

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