Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Words to beware of

Some words have good meanings in normal conversation, and different meanings in science. 'Theory' is one such. But one that is seriously hazardous to try to interpret until you know the full context is 'rapid'. For folks studying chemical reactions, that can be a femtosecond. For geologists studying tectonic processes, it can be millions of years ('rapid uplift of the Himalayan plateau').
Even within a field, say glaciology, you can be looking at a few hours (rapid breakup of an ice shelf) to a few thousand years (rapid onset of an ice age).

Other contributions of words that vary widely between fields and even within fields? We'll take 'sudden' and the like as covered by 'rapid'.

4 comments:

Colin said...

Well, this one is a word to be aware of for a different kind of reason, but: "clearly". As in, "Clearly, climate change is/is not already happening."

Any statement that begins with "Clearly," actually means that the thing is not clear at all. If it *was* clear, they wouldn't have to assert it like that.

Penguindreams said...

Good one. My wife and I use 'obviously' as a code for 'I think this is the case but couldn't defend the point at all.' Much the same idea.

Adrian Cockcroft said...

Quantum leap - in science the smallest possible indivisible change in energy state for a particle, in daily use to mean any large change.

ourchangingclimate said...

Perhaps not so much a word as a concept, but the meaning of "uncertainty" is very different in and outside of science.

"Sure", "certain", "absolutely", etc are used much more losely outside of science. If half the message that the public gets is about uncertainties, the public thinks that basically nothing is known.

It's a very central concept in science, and failure to communicate its meaning clearly (and, perhaps more importantly, relate it to the concept of risk) can blur the message that the public gets. I think this is also what climate science suffers from.