Scientists trying to communicate with “lay people” often dig their heels in to courageously fight “science misconceptions” and Freudian slips that are so commonplace they are likely to become entrenched in vernacular English. This gets them mocked and booed every time, but they don’t care.
Where vernacular English comes from (by Carl Rose, 1928)
Scientists tend not to know much about the humanities, including this basic fact about English usage – once a misuse of a word or made-up word becomes more popular than the “more correct” phrasing, it becomes officially acceptable as vernacular English, and is only off-limits to the degree that your audience is too elitist to accept the ways in which ordinary people use and understand words. This results in the following social fissures between the informed and uninformed, among others:
She says: The ozone hole has nothing to do with global warming!
He says: But we could see the ozone hole, and that’s why we believed you about global warming! Stop yelling at us every time we mix up our metaphors!
He says: “The word theory in the theory of evolution does not imply mainstream scientific doubt regarding its validity.” – Wikipedia
She says: If I don’t understand why you believe it, or how a hypothesis becomes theory, and someone with a PhD in environmental science disputes it, and the field of environmental science can’t agree on a consensus-forming protocol the way health scientists content themselves with Cochrane reviews, and I can finish college without learning to recognize the cherry-picking and distortions involved in footnoting the Michael Crichton novel disputing the ‘theory’ of global warming, then it’s your fault for not giving me the tools to find the ‘theory’ of anything especially credible. Everybody knows that authorities like the FDA can be owned by the regulated industries and non-profit organizations can be shell organizations run by shady partisan political groups, so why would I believe any of the scientific authorities, government or otherwise?
(S)he says: The “scientific method” you were tested on is essentially worthless,* except as a formatting convention for writing up the results of science research for academic periodicals. This is why your science degree is abbreviated “B.S.” or why you don’t even have a science degree.
Ze says: Ahem, how many scientific journal articles can you evaluate outside your own discipline, beyond noticing how well they conform to those formatting conventions?
But things get really ugly when scientists try to co-opt vernacular English for their own nefarious purposes….
He says: What don’t you understand about the syllogism “vaccine scare-monger is to quack as horse-doctor is to veterinarian”?
She says: Real research on vaccine side effects is scary, and until you teach me probability, statistics and risk/benefit assessment techniques that will make this decision feasible without the use of emotional reasoning to weight various possible outcomes, you have failed me as a source of health advice by using an ad hominem when the facts were on your side but you didn’t know them well enough to rattle them off on short notice. Worse, you didn’t examine the particular evidence I had in mind before dismissing it out of hand, when you might have been able to place it in a larger context had you taken the time to give me the benefit of the doubt as someone capable of sifting through the internet and finding at least a relatively plausible cause for concern to ask you about.
* If you don’t have a graduate degree in science this might actually be news to you, even if you graduated with honors from a distinguished university or four-year college. The low-down on scientific methods: not all research methods used in the “methods” section of “the scientific method” are created equal, and no, you can’t just wing it. Problems with validity plague every possible study design (even the sacred cow of health research relied on by pharmaceutical regulators, the randomized controlled trial), and only by triangulating (using various methods with differing strengths and weaknesses to cover each other’s blind spots) can you hope to overcome these limitations. There will be many pragmatic compromises between research budgets and optimal ways of addressing validity issues along the way. This is why experienced researchers tend to be maddeningly non-committal** about the answers to simple questions within their field of expertise – they are keenly aware of the limitations on what can be said for certain based on the available evidence. Come back tomorrow for a follow-up entry with further details on “the scientific method” as professional researchers use and understand it.
**Not all are this honest – some are preening fame-whores who will over-interpret a research finding that is not at all useful in real life decision making (a phenomenon often dubbed “statistical significance with lack of clinical significance” in the health field) because they’re impatient to have their joyless lives of grueling work recognized for having produced something, and pessimistic about ever doing better. Also, in academia, they have to meet productivity quotas by publishing as often as humanly possible and chasing recognition like a flaming narcissist if they want to get tenure.
Lastly, for self-styled grammarians blindsided by the above approach to scolding scientists for talking over people’s heads with smug satisfaction:
This willingness to accept new, mangled uses of words that once had other meanings hasn’t always been the official line of linguists who specialize in the study of the English language, but there have been even more extreme eras of open-mindedness in which spelling was essentially whimsical, like Shakespeare’s day. Why does “incorrect” usage now win by default when the correct alternative has become obscure? Largely because there is no academy of the English language dictating proper usage, so the only distinction that matters is whether your audience will consider your word choice vulgar or irritating because for some reason they happen to know how it used to be said (back when life was good). This goes a long ways toward explaining how famously successful people can make spoonerisms, mondegreens, eggcorns and malapropisms habitual. For writers looking for a linguistics professor’s perspective on just how much flux is acceptable in English usage, try this overview. And for the overly optimistic, don’t try getting away with texting abbreviations in your term papers. That is the one area of linguistic push where the old guard resistance is predictable, firm and brutal.