What Are Words For?

19 May

They’re not a reliable means of communication, that’s for sure.

(warning: do not watch video if you can’t handle extreme ’80s bizarreness)

I realize I’m hardly the first person to talk about this, but the past few days have been filled with examples of the untimely demise of the English language, and I need to complain. And terrify you with whatever the heck Dale Bozzio is wearing. Did anyone else have a serious Gaga moment watching that?

Anyway. Recent linguistic travesties include:

1) The host of Entertainment Tonight referring to the show as ‘the most-watched magazine.’
2) A reporter responding that she was ‘good’ when her co-host asked how she was.
3) Apple juice labeled as ‘100% Apple Juice (from concentrate with other flavors added.)’

1) If you’re watching a magazine, your life must be so pathetically boring I’m not sure it’s worth trying to teach you proper grammar. Has the stack of glossy papers done anything interesting in the last hour? No? There’s a shock.

2) This guy has presumably known you a while–I don’t think he was asking whether you listen to the angel on your left shoulder more than the devil on your right. Or are you only selectively a good person, say, only on Thursdays, or only on days which are primes?

3) If it’s 100% Apple Juice, where did the added flavors go? Into the mythical 110% of every obnoxious athletic coach on the planet? If you add something to 100, you get more than 100. Unless you’re adding a negative number, but we all know your math skills are too poor to handle that (don’t even get me started on that topic; we’ll be here all night).

Grumble grumble grumble grouch growl grrrrrrrr.

Perhaps I’m picking at nits. But here’s the thing: If we can’t even manage basic sentences, how can we possibly hope to understand each other when it comes to more complex ideas and issues?

Take, for instance, the following words: Sustainable, green, ecological, environmental, eco-friendly, clean. Can anybody actually give a satisfactory working definition of these words, both their similarities and differences to one another, without rushing to Wikipedia as I did? We throw these words around like they mean something, but the plain truth is they don’t. ‘Sustainability’ is the worst one–my aunt was describing a discussion at a conference in which everyone in the room was passionately arguing that we need to do this or that for sustainability–until she raised her hand and asked them to define sustainability.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for saving the planet. But people throw around ‘green’ and ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ as buzzwords when in fact they don’t really mean anything–or are used to mislead. There is no such thing as ‘clean coal’. ‘Marginally less damaging coal,’ perhaps, but not ‘clean’. But by tacking the word ‘clean’ in front of it, the coal industry manages to convince a distressingly large number of people that coal is a low-impact, renewable resource. Which is a steaming pile of BS.

We can’t handle basic sentence structure. We don’t bother to define our words. How can we hope to ever communicate ideas well, or understand the ideas communicated to us? How can we identify a logical conclusion drawn from a well-formed argument when we don’t actually understand half the words used?

As a bit of a leap, take this article from the Times today discussing a recent astronomy article in Nature*. Here, yes, I am picking at nits. But I think the way this article is written explains a lot about Americans’ understanding (or rather, lack thereof) of science. You’ll probably want to read the whole article (and the more useful synopsis of the Nature paper on Bad Astronomy) before reading my rant. Anywho, to break it down:

Astronomers said Wednesday that space was littered with hundreds of billions of planets…

A bad beginning. Starting a sentence with “Astronomers said…” is like starting a sentence with “Plumbers said…”: It’s vague, and actually misleading. A specific group of astronomers presented research from which they drew certain conclusions. But the article leads you to believe that The Astronomical Community (i.e. some fictional consensus of every astronomer on the planet) has definitively determined that “space is littered with…” Not that I’m debating the validity of the group’s results, but as a member of the putative Astronomical Community, I would like to point out that I was never consulted before ‘we’ made this proclamation.

Planetary astronomers say the results will allow them to tap into a whole new unsuspected realm of exoplanets…

Um, no. We’ve suspected they might be there for, oh, forever. True, our earliest detection methods were biased towards planets close to their stars. But we were aware of that bias, and worked to come up with ways to detect planets whose orbital distances from their stars are comparable to the distances of Jupiter, Saturn, etc. from the Sun. We hadn’t found many of them prior to this research, but that was the whole point of the research–to look for them.

Here’s an analogy for those of you a tad lost in exoplanetary science: Imagine that the universe is a sandy beach, and we have been looking for planets by sifting through the sand with a sieve. Our sieve has fairly big holes, so we can only pick out large rocks (exoplanets very close to their stars). That doesn’t mean we don’t think there might be smaller rocks (exoplanets farther from their stars); we think they might be there, but we can’t find them with our current sieve (detection method). Eventually we get a sieve with smaller holes (different detection method), and lo and behold, we discover smaller rocks (exoplanets farther from their stars)! This is not a shock to anyone. It is a confirmation of one hypothesis–that there are lots of small rocks (exoplanets far from their stars)–and evidence against another–that there are few small rocks (exoplanets far from their stars).

The article alludes to the different detection methods later, but still insists that the results are a shock. They’re not. They’re exciting. We’re learning more about our galaxy and how common or uncommon planets are, which is really, really cool. I think it’s great that we’ve finally detected a number of planets orbiting far from their stars. But note that I said ‘finally’–I was expecting we eventually would. What would have been a shock would be for not only this survey, but succeeding surveys even more likely to detect far-out planets, to not see any. We have evidence for distant orbiters–our own Jupiter, Saturn, etc–and so not finding any others would be a strong indication that the Solar System is in fact highly unusual (which may be the case, but I don’t think we have enough data to say that with any degree of certainty), which would in turn have profound implications for our current planet formation models, which are based on the Solar System.

Moving on:

Why call these things planets rather than small failed stars, like the slightly more massive brown dwarfs? Dr. Bennett said there are simply too many of them…

…and the fact that there are too many of them rules out their being failed stars how? This is like saying that dresses can’t have long sleeves because there are too many of them. The argument doesn’t even make sense. Later in the paragraph they make some attempt at linking the two statements a little more logically (dresses can’t have long sleeves because there isn’t enough fabric to put long sleeves on all the dresses we see), but it’s a weak link at best.

“More likely,” Dr. Boss wrote in an e-mail, “these are distant gas giants, much like our own Jupiter and Saturn. That makes our solar system’s outer reaches look a little more commonplace.”

I cheered when I read this. Finally, a sensible paragraph! Naturally, the last paragraph of the article, but at least it’s in there.

Looking at the article as a whole, there are a lot of things going on here to make it so misleading. Part of it is the style of journalism–draw people in with a catchy first sentence (not a bad idea, actually; I always read the first sentence of a book before deciding to buy it), then worry about facts later. Part of it is the scientific illiteracy of the public. The author of the article has a degree (I assume a bachelor’s but it doesn’t say) in physics from MIT, so clearly he is capable of understanding an article in Nature. But it as just as clear that he doesn’t expect the public to a) be able to follow the arguments made in the paper or b) care enough to notice that the arguments are poorly presented in his article.

I admit that I am very sensitive to how astronomy–and science in general–are presented to the public. But that’s a large part of why I want to be a science teacher. I want to get the public to THINK. I want them to be able to not only understand the results of research, but also at least an overview of the research and the arguments that led to those results and conclusions. I want them to be able to tell if the (outline of) the argument presented actually makes sense or not. I’m not expecting everyone to become an expert in everything–I’m as lost as anyone when it comes to reading scientific papers outside of astronomy, or often even within astronomy–but I’m expecting them to be able to look at an argument and make a judgement as to whether or not they buy it, rather than assuming that it’s right. If they don’t buy it, then hopefully they’ll do a little more research into the terminology of the field and either decide that, with a little more information, they do follow the arguments and accept conclusions, or that they still don’t agree, in which case they’ll just have to repeat the experiment and present their own findings 🙂

I’ve come back to terminology at the end here, and to words in general. I realize that this post has been exceedingly rambling and confused, but the point is this: People need to think about what they say. They need to communicate well, which means presenting their ideas well and being able to understand and evaluate others’ ideas. To do this, they need a common lexicon. We need to agree on the meaning of the words that we use and the sentences we construct if we ever hope to understand each other. And the Gods know we’re short enough on understanding as it is.

If we’re so careless about language that we allow our beverages to lie to us about being 100% Apple Juice, how easily are we mislead about rather more serious things?


*I do want to say that I am in no way criticizing the authors of the original paper or their work. I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of the paper yet, so I can’t possibly hope to judge either the writing or the research, other than to say that from what I’ve read (or distilled…) from secondary sources, their results are pretty cool!


Also, I’ve tried to make sure my grammar and spelling are as correct as possible in here, but it’s rather late at night so I may have made mistakes. If you see anything, let me know and I will fix it! I could write a whole post on how the slapdash nature of internet communications is contributing to the deterioration of the English language, but I think I’ll spare you…

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Posted by on 19.5.2011 in Life, Sciences, Writing


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