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April 27, 2010

The Language of Science: Part II

In my last post, I talked about how scientists can sometimes use overly technical jargon that confuses non-scientists. This time I wanted to talk about something about scientific speech that doesn't so much confuse people, as it is overlooked: the use of qualifiers. To pull some examples of how scientists use qualifiers, I went over to for quotes of scientists talking about their work. I found lots of statements including these three. (italics and bold added by me)

"To our knowledge, this is the first solid evidence that microRNAs can move from one cell to another," said Philip Benfey, director of the Duke IGSP Center for Systems Biology
"Our study adds to a growing body of literature indicating that even anthropogenic habitat modifications that does not destroy a large amount of habitat can create significant barriers to gene flow," said researchers.
Dr Andy Turner, lead author of the research, says "Our work shows how, in the absence of a strong influence from the tropical Pacific, snow conditions over the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau could be used to help forecast seasonal monsoon rainfall for India, particularly over northern India during the onset month of June."
Notice in all three cases the scientists are careful not to claim to be the final word on the issue. It is actually quite rare to read a science article, and not see words like 'indicates,' 'suggests,' or 'supports.' This is just part of science. Every researcher knows that there is a entire community who will rip apart their work if they can. Using absolutes in your language will open you up to criticism for exaggerating your results, and overplaying your work (and rightfully so). This is one thing I find so refreshing when talking with scientists. They are up-front about the strengths and weaknesses of their claims.

The other thing to notice is the specificity the scientists use. The third quote is the best example of this. Dr. Turner clearly states the conditions necessary for their observations to hold true. The reason for this is twofold. The first is that any result in science should be replicable. By stating the exact conditions under which you made your observations, it makes it much easier for other researchers to confirm. The second reason comes back to what I was saying before about qualifying your statements. Imagine if Dr. Turner had said something like, 'We found that Himalayan snowfall can be used to predict Indian weather patterns.' That is so open to interpretation that it would be heavily criticized by other researchers and gives us almost no useful knowledge.

The way scientists talk is different from most people's everyday language, but for good reason. In our everyday language, we usually don't care if we leave statements a little vague or overreaching. In science, however, this is considered sloppy work. Finding examples of this is really easy because this type of language is almost taken for granted in science. Science is in some sense an enterprise of making claims. Wouldn't it be nice if claims were as clear as those made by scientists?