Vol. 239 September 1, 2020 The Changing Language of Science

September 1, 2020

“. . . ‘antiscience’ stances are rooted in similar forces, including a rise in institutional distrust, pervasive disinformation, the legacy of scientific racism, and a stubborn belief that we can beat back chaos if we just published more ‘well-arranged’ facts.”
— The Editors of Scientific American, September 2020

One of my friends recently shared a Wall Street Journal article with me that compiled a number of contemporary incidents in which researchers had been punished for producing a “politically incorrect study” or giving “politically incorrect lectures”. Mounting pressure was directed at recanting. Professors resigned. Deans fired professors. The premise of the article was that science is influenced, sometimes oppressed, by culture and society. My friend’s extrapolation was that “maybe we can’t trust science” today. My initial response was, “Don’t you remember Galileo?” In 1615 Galileo was convicted by the Roman Inquisition of heresy because his theory that the sun was the center of our solar system (heliocentrism) “contradicted the sense of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible.” He was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Science has been influenced by society for centuries, and the round earth still revolves around the sun.

My blogs are filled with stories about how medical science keeps changing its mind as new data is gathered and as society’s interests change; recommended foods, the best exercises, diagnostic tests to get or to avoid, treatments, illness prevention and wellness advice, and even medications go in and out of favor as the science (data) and society’s interests change.

An interesting clue about how science changes its mind is how it changes its language, its use of words. In honor of its 175th anniversary Scientific American just published how the words that science used in its magazine has evolved since 1850. (September 2020, vol.323, number 3) The frequency of the most-used, 4,500 principle words in the magazine’s articles were ranked, and the top word used each year of publication was graphed.

For instance, here are examples of the most used word, the “top word”, of the year:
1856-“patent”, 1859-“belt”, 1860-“invention”, 1869-“manufacture”.

In 1948 the editors began to solicit more articles from scientists and broadened the magazine’s content beyond manufacturing and engineering. Medical science articles were added.
The top words were: 1948-“eye”, 1949-“plant”, 1953-“instrument”, 1955-“problem”, 1958-“insect”, 1959-“system”, 1962-“space” (Sputnik, of course).

The more popular terms in 2020-to-date include “climate change”, “cancer’, “genetics”, and, of course, “coronavirus”.

More revealing changes of language is seen by comparing use of selected paired word by year over the 175 year period:
“Weather” was tops in 1929 and “climate” was in 2010; a predictable change.
“Solution” of 1951 is replaced by “mystery” in 2010; perhaps as the editors realized that many of our problems and processes appeared unsolvable.
Likewise, “certainty” was strong in 1859, but “uncertainty” was the word in 2019.
“Show” and “tell” were both big in 1927-33 preceded by “practice” in 1918, and all three were eclipsed by “theory” in 2004.

In this same Scientific American issue the current editors “own up to some of the mistakes in the past”. In 1861 the magazine “advocated strongly for the patent system and its route to wealth—but only for white people”. In 1868 General William Tecumseh Sherman’s article related how “Indian affairs” were hampering railroad construction. The editors not only agreed, but wrote that he was not being aggressive enough: “The Indians must be summarily and thoroughly squelched. . . They are the most treacherous, as well as the most inhuman, of all barbarous races.” In 1908 when the magazine was still mostly about manufacturing, an article, including a “scientific survey” of engineering firms and technical societies, stated that women could never be good engineers because their “notable performances have hitherto been confined to the reproductive arts”.

During 1932-1935 the magazine extensively covered eugenics (“improve the human species through selective breeding”) with pseudo-scientific articles on both sides of the debate. Those articles FOR eugenics contained thinly veiled racist political agendas while those AGAINST eugenics were labeled as “the opposition”. Today the magazine publishes articles on the human genome, the ethical implications of gene testing for “disease-risk” genes, the performance of bilateral mastectomy in asymptomatic women who have the BRAC1 or BRAC2  gene, and the choices couples have for genetic testing of their unborn children, and the possible consequences.

“Science is done by fallible humans, and the job of editors is to evaluate it with skepticism while respecting expertise.” If science was really “the truth” rather than a “shared reality established by study and observation”, the editors of Scientific American would not have felt the need to publish in 2019 a whole issue “about the warping of truth, the breakdown of trust, and the chaos of misinformation.”

And so, science marches on as it seeks “to convey a shared reality”. That reality changes as often as further data is obtained and is digested. The language of science will also continue to change because words are important. If you don’t think so, just ask a friend or colleague, “What does ‘black lives matter’ mean?”


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