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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: scientists

the science

(2000’s? | “the (scientific) consensus,” “(the best) scientific evidence,” “the latest studies”)

Trust the science. Follow the science. Believe in the science. Government policy will be determined by the science. (“Data” gets the same treatment; you must do what the data tell you. The article is less obtrusive in front of “data” than “science.”) The prescription has drawbacks, most notably that science can’t make up its mind right away and will issue conflicting decisions and rules as the evidence continues to roll in. This lack of certitude does create problems, which scientists themselves may exacerbate by showing certainty before it is warranted or just by talking down to the rest of us. Such problems are not permanent, however; one indication of good medical research is that it gets both more accurate and more sure of itself over time, leading to more effective diagnosis and treatment. Besides, given the complex and uncertain world we live in, the power to adapt to new information ought to inspire confidence rather than undermine it.

One trick of the definite article is that it suggests that science says only one thing, so that it can be counted on for unambiguous guidance. We have all encountered exceptions, but in the case of the coronavirus that has been largely true, I think. Dissension does arise within the scientific ranks; for the most part it is resolved as more tests are run and more results produced.

Of course it has always been possible to plop down a definite article before “science.” But it was almost always followed by something further — the science center, the science headlines, the science of . . . . But science solus has been lumbered constantly with the article during the pandemic, as doctors and public officials implore us to heed infectious-disease specialists. “The science” has become a mantra of sorts, asking us to accept medical research as a reliable source of knowledge that offers maximum protection from a weird and frightening virus. Not everyone wants to listen, of course, and COVID has confounded the experts from time to time, eroding their claim to be the most trustworthy voice.

The plea to “trust the science” is a quasi-religious gesture; we are enjoined to hope that scientists have our best interests at heart and will perform competently. That’s a watered-down version of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about God. Most of us do not understand how the scientists arrive at their results any more than we understand the Lord’s mysterious ways, so our level of helplessness is about the same, for all that scientists can adduce a much longer list of verified empirical results than priests can. Science has what I think is a built-in problem: the more advanced it gets the more it looks like magic, which resembles religion in that it wins loyalty by producing wonders that defy comprehension. Contemporary physics is almost perversely counterintuitive, producing theories that flout what we thought were fundamental principles. Western medicine, whatever its shortcomings, continues to produce cures unthinkable a few generations ago. We can look up almost anything instantly on a cheap handheld device. What comes with these advances? An abandonment of earthbound common sense, and a profession of faith in a select group of mandarins who alone understand how the universe works. That’s not what Paine and Voltaire had in mind.

Ah, the humble definite article — let us not overlook its semantic power. (And prosodic: articles make the iambic a characteristic English meter, even though most of our words are accented on the first syllable.) In English, unlike many European languages, “the” transforms nouns from general to particular. (E.g., “keys” vs. “the keys.” Note that this rule holds in the case of “the science,” if you hear it as a reference to work in epidemiology or another specific branch of medicine.) Sometimes definite articles are indispensable — “make bed,” “walk dog,” or “rock boat” all sound ridiculous — yet other languages get along happily without them. (And their misuse is a quick way to recognize a non-native speaker.) We scatter them thoughtlessly and pay them no mind. We would do better to reckon with the power of “the.”

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(1980’s | mathematese? | “anomaly,” “exception (to the rule),” “outsider”)

Our definition of this term today owes much to statisticians, but it seems to have come into play earlier in geology and topography. An outlier is part of a formation that is physically separate from the rest of it, due to a fault line or possibly erosion. The OED cites several other meanings, most of which coalesce around the idea of an entity noticeably outside the norm. (One which doesn’t is my favorite: “person who sleeps or lives in the open air, or away from his or her place of business, duty, etc.,” now considered obsolete.) Available in statistical analysis for decades, the word showed up infrequently if at all before 1980 in the press. By now it is ordinary, although I suppose it retains a slightly technical flavor.

My image of an outlier: picture a number of data points sprinkled on a graph. Most of the points cluster together, and it’s easy to visualize a straight line running through the plot. But then there are a couple of points that are nowhere near the line, wrecking your experiment. That’s what “outlier” means to scientists — and to the rest of us too, by now. In 2020, we use it much more often to designate persons, companies, cities, nations than in 1990. But that sort of usage was hardly unheard of. As early as 1994, the word had a vogue in relation to Japan; American economists liked to point out that Japan needed to be treated differently (i.e., more punitively) because it was an “outlier” that didn’t do business like the other nations. In medical insurance jargon, the outlier is a special case of the general definition: a patient who uses an unusually large amount of medical resources (as in “outlier payment,” “outlier policy”), generally due to unpredictable complications.

The way you handle outliers says a lot about your approach to statistics. One way to look at it is that they suggest a failure of observation or a part of the experiment done incorrectly. According to this line of thinking, they are warning signs telling us that further checking is needed. On the other hand, since outliers throw off the data and complicate simple conclusions, there is always a temptation to explain them away or throw them out. In statistical analysis, that may be the right response, but in public discourse it can too easily turn into suppression of dissenting voices or alternative ideas. A lot of outliers don’t, in fact, have much useful to say, but dismissing too quickly anyone who disrupts the meeting will over time cause decision-making to become too insular. Which may be the idea.

It strikes me, though it may not be true all the time, that “outlier” when used of a person conveys a negative connotation. Maybe it’s because it sounds suspiciously like “out-and-out liar.” When you want to commend someone for staying outside the herd, you call them something else — principled, honorable, and so forth. Whether due to stubbornness or incompetence, the outlier’s predicament is self-inflicted.

Every now and then I unearth an “-er” noun with no corresponding verb, and “outlier” is one — it may be that scientists say that certain data points “outlie” the normal distribution, but if so, it hasn’t penetrated mainstream vocabulary. “Whistleblower” is a classic instance. Others: caregiver, doorbuster, headhunter, rainmaker, stakeholder, warfighter. (There are a number of two-word examples, too.) Then there are the past participle adjectives that lack present indicatives, as in “handwritten.” Outliers. Hmph. What did you expect?

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