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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: science


(1980’s | computerese? | “innate,” “(pre-)programmed,” “fixed,” “unalterable”)

The hard-wired smoke detector was already around in 1980; in that sense the term has not changed meaning since. “Hard-wired” meant connected directly to the building’s electrical system, meaning it was not powered by batteries, meaning that it would not infallibly begin making horrible chirping noises one morning at 3:00 and resist every sleep-fogged effort to silence it. A hard-wired telephone was similar in that it was harder to disconnect than the standard model you plug into a wall jack (already common in my youth, though far from universal). The cord connected to the system inside the wall rather than on the outside. Cable television might be hard-wired in that the cables connected to the source physically entered your house and attached themselves to a television set. Computer scientists had been using the term before that, generally to mean something like “automatic” or “built-in” — the only way to change it is to make a physical alteration to part of the equipment — and it remained firmly ensconced in the technical realm until the eighties. That’s when “hard-wired” became more visible, as computer jargon was becoming very hip. (PCMAG offers a current set of computer-related definitions.) In computer lingo, “hard-wired” came to mean “part of the hardware,” so “soft-wired” had to follow to describe a capability or process provided by software.

My father, erstwhile electrical engineer, pointed out that in his world, “hard-wired” was the opposite of “programmable.” In other words, the hard-wired feature did what it did no matter what; it couldn’t be changed simply by revising the code. Yet you don’t have to be too careless to equate “hard-wired” with “programmed” (see above) in the sense of predetermined. It’s not contradictory if you substitute “re-programmable” for “programmable,” but that requires an unusual level of precision, even for a techie. Every now and then you find odd little synonym-antonym confusions like that.

Still in wide technical use, this expression has reached its zenith in the soft sciences, in which it is commonly used to mean “part of one’s make-up,” with regard to instincts, reflexes, and basic capacities (bipedal walking, language, etc.), and more dubiously to describe less elemental manifestations such as behavior, attitude, or world-view. “Hard-wired” is not a technical term in hard sciences such as genetics or neurology. The usefulness of the expression is open to question: one team of psychologists noted, “The term ‘hard-wired’ has become enormously popular in press accounts and academic writings in reference to human psychological capacities that are presumed by some scholars to be partially innate, such as religion, cognitive biases, prejudice, or aggression . . . remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression” (citation). Scientists may sniff at the term as used in pop psychology, but it does make for easy shorthand and probably won’t go away any time soon.

The reason we take so easily to applying the term “hard-wired” to the brain is that the computer, as developed over the last fifty years, forms the most comprehensive map yet for the workings of our minds. A contributing reason is the very common, casual linking of brain activity with electricity, as in referring to one’s “wiring” — even though one may also refer to one’s “chemistry” to explain mental quirks, probably a superior explanation. Watching a computer “think” helps us understand how our brains work, or maybe it just misleads us, causing us to disregard our own observations in order to define our own mentation with reference to the computer’s processing. There are obvious connections and obvious divergences; surely any device we concoct must reflect the workings of our own minds. But computers aren’t just for playing solitaire, calculating your tax refund, running a supercollider. They serve a humanistic function by giving us new ways to think about the old ways we think.

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false positive

(1980’s | doctorese | “bad diagnosis”)

An example of an older expression that has grown common and become less specialized (other examples: “blowback,” “grounded,” “politically correct,” “template“). In medicine, “false positive” goes back at least to the forties, probably earlier; for some reason, the only results in Google Books from those days have to do with the Wassermann test for syphilis. In the seventies, the phrase got a boost from the popularity of home pregnancy tests. In the eighties, it was employee drug testing. Both developments got plenty of press, so use of the phrase grew sharply, and as it spread it began to turn up outside of strictly medical contexts. Now it can apply to virus or spam detection, security systems, internet search results, or even economic forecasting or earthquake warnings. The last two are notable because they involve not results but predictions, which adds a new twist. You said there will be a recession and it doesn’t materialize — instead of you said there was cancer and there was no cancer there. Another example from the scientific community: “A false positive is a claim that an effect exists when in actuality it doesn’t,” that is, detecting a correlation that exists only because of your misinterpretation of the data. All these meanings rely on presumably preventable misreadings of an empirical result, incorrectly assigning too broad a significance to a single symptom, or maybe just running the test wrong.

False positives are a big problem; they can creep into the work of the most careful scientists. Medical tests that show a disease that isn’t really present can result in unnecessary or dangerous treatment, and all the expense that goes with it. The effect is subtler in empirical science, but pressure to obtain statistically significant results can skew the perspectives even of conscientious experimenters. (This article explains how it happens.) Such errors are dangerous because it’s worse to be sure of something that isn’t true than to fail to know something that is. As a great American philosopher, possibly Josh Billings or maybe Will Rogers, said, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s the problem; it’s what they know that ain’t so.”

The expression was well settled by 1980, but only in medical contexts. (“False negative” is just as old.) When it turned up in general-interest articles, it often came packaged in quotation marks. It had not become a regulation noun; in those days it was still normally a compound adjective, applied to readings, results, reactions, responses, rates. Now it is more common as a noun than as an adjective.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first or last kid to stumble over the counterintuitive meaning of “positive” in medicine. I thought “the test came back positive” was good news, whereupon my hard-working parents (I kept ’em hopping) had to explain that the word you wanted to hear was “negative.” Doctors test for the presence of a disease or condition, and a positive result means they’ve found it, and you’re stuck with an undesirable disorder. It’s the only zone in everyday language in which “positive” means “negative,” I do believe. (It reminds me of middle-aged parents in the seventies cheerily reminding each other that “bad” meant “good.”) We must ever observe the instructions in the song and accentuate the positive, but not in the lab, please!

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junk science

(1980’s | legalese | “quackery”)

This is an expression with an agenda. We began to hear it regularly a little after 1990; a Washington Post editorial referred to “what some are beginning to call ‘junk science'” in March 1996. Google Books and LexisNexis cough up several instances from the eighties, and even this diamond in the rough from 1903: “But that conceited laugh of junk science, how laughable it is after all” (Peter Burrowes, “What is truth?” in Revolutionary Essays in Socialist Faith and Fancy, Comrade Publishing Co.). Whatever Burrowes may have meant, both the meaning and connotation of this expression were pretty clear when it came into its own at the other end of the century. The term was most often used by lawyers to complain about so-called expert witnesses purveying unsubstantiated theories about harms to plaintiffs and driving up the cost of judgments against well-meaning, God-fearing corporations. The phrase generally reared its head in discussions of tort law, that is, lawsuits filed to obtain compensation for wrongs not covered by criminal law. And it was generally used to assail dubious medical or technical testimony that swayed gullible juries (or judges).

It isn’t always so clear what “good” science is, even in our everyday Newtonian world; practicing scientists with good credentials may disagree vigorously on the interpretation of a piece of evidence even in simple cases. Attacks on junk science often rely on the unstated assumption that proper science is easily defined and recognized, not subject to controversy among scientists. That is true most of the time, but not all the time, and it does foreclose the possibility of finding value in the new or unconventional. The Supreme Court has ruled that scientific evidence should be peer-reviewed but stopped short of setting absolute limits on what can or can’t be presented in the courtroom.

No doubt many verdicts have been influenced by doubtful expert testimony. Peter Huber cited and documented several with relish in “Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom” (Basic Books, 1991); the subtitle probably played a role in popularizing the phrase. His plaintiff-bashing set the tone; it took several years before “junk science” came to be applied regularly to any doubtful theories propounded by big business. In its early days, junk science always had a bleeding heart, causing courts to fall for sob stories bolstered by expert witnesses who were far too sure of themselves. Crazed environmentalists, quack psychiatrists, doctors on the take — they were the ones who relied on junk science to con the scientifically illiterate. Nowadays, the phrase is comfortably used in a much wider variety of contexts, but it still seems to be favored by the right wing, though it is no longer solely their property. (I shudder when I ponder future semantic possibilities given the recent rise of “junk” as a slang term for “genitals.”)

The funny thing is that you would expect the forward-looking lefties to brandish science against the backward righties, but they got in first on this term, which fit neatly into their strategy of attacking people seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by corporate negligence. The web site Junk Science, opened in 1996, is unabashedly right-wing and contemptuous of the scientific establishment, debunking climate change, solar power, and other usual suspects, particularly government participation in scientific research. (Ironic, because the original definition of “junk science” as propounded by lawyers depends on conformity with scientific consensus.) The phrase allows right-wingers to dismiss a favorite left-wingers’ trump card and beat them at their own game. References to science make you sound serious and learned, and who’s going to make you explain why the object of your scorn violates this or that scientific principle? It has become one more way to say, “Shut up. You’re wrong.” But then, it never really was anything else.

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(1990’s | counterculturese? journalese? | “hippie” (adj.), “tree-hugging”)

“Crunchy granola” (adjective or noun) is a common variant. I remember hearing “nutty-crunchy” first around 1990, and I had to have it explained to me. (Even then, your humble maniac was hard at work.) It’s not clear to me when this expression arose, but surely not before 1980. One is expected to suppress mental cross-references to the old sense of “nutty” (crazy), but detractors of the environmental movement cheerfully let them creep in. In fairness, some exponents also emphasize the “nutty” in “nutty-crunchy,” taking pride in their purity. But “crunchy” is the word you have to watch, for its overtones have changed. At first, it referred to environmentalists, with the implication that they lived off the land or at least made their own stuff. Now the implication is a little more rarefied, especially in the term, “crunchy (granola) mom”: someone who gives birth with the aid of a midwife, breastfeeds, uses cloth diapers, makes her own organic baby food (but need not grow the vegetables herself), won’t eat meat, and maybe co-sleeps or refuses vaccinations. Not being a big player in the parenting game, I wasn’t familiar with this phrase until I started looking around, but we may measure its ubiquity by the number of on-line quizzes telling new mothers how crunchy they are.

A digression on “crunchy granola” used as an adjective: It continues to sound strange to me, but you do hear it; it may obliterate “nutty-crunchy,” which I sense has become less common. The short form, “crunchy,” at least sounds like an adjective. The full-length form reflects a certain exuberance — the “I’m weird and proud of it” attitude characteristic of the counterculture, the weirdness extending to the eccentric use of “granola” as an adjective. It is not clear to me whether this expression arose from the believers or the mockers, but in practice it may not matter, since the former steal from the latter all the time. The other odd thing about the yoking is the fact that the connection between granola and the counterculture does not hinge on crunchiness. “Organic granola” would make more sense, or even “nutty granola.” “Crunchy” is more evocative than either of these, and “chewy” would be worse, but I haven’t quite figured out why it became the preferred shorthand for one who is environmentally conscious, or fanatical about one’s health or childrearing practices.

Crunchy beliefs and behavior do not belong exclusively to the left or right; they are where both extremes converge. A 2006 book by Rod Dreher, “Crunchy Cons,” points out that many right-wingers do crunchy things, too. The specific manifestations may differ — right-wingers seem to do more home-schooling, for example — but both modalities boil down to rejection of the way most people obtain the necessities of life and raise their children, powered by the middle-of-the-road scientific consensus that tells us how to live our lives in a thousand minute, complicated ways. It’s an old idea in this country, though in some instances it has relied on science rather than keeping it at bay. In the nineteenth century (the word “granola,” originally a trade name, goes back to 1875) we had Graham and Kellogg; before them countercultural ideas about nutrition or lifestyle often stemmed from outlying sects like the Shakers. I’m old enough to remember Euell Gibbons, who shilled for Grape Nuts (there’s that nut again). The sixties gave natural living another boost, and the tradition goes on.

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