Tergiversation

Posted on 2013 June 20

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If you go online to Wikipedia, you’ll find that its editors sometimes place comments smack-dab in the middle of posted articles, like “citation needed” (i.e., “Prove it!”), or “This article is a Stub” (“Somebody please add some content!”), or “Who?” (“‘It is said’ sounds like a rumor, dude!”) or “weasel words” (“You’re fudging!”).

Science is the closest thing to a universal religion in modern times. It’s not intended as such, but most people seem to understand it that way — as an alternative creed, with a belief system (reality as a thing), a god (the laws of physics), and a litany (scientific papers). Its practitioners are researchers, theorists, and engineers. Often they hold important chairs at major universities.

They’re nerds with social power.

Most nerds– er, scientists — are too smart to regard science as a religion, but they’re also too smart not to take advantage of the high, almost priestly, status conferred on them by their PhDs. And the easiest way to remind the rest of us that they dwell in this rarified realm is to use words we can’t understand. More importantly, it’s a useful fallback position when researchers find they don’t really have complete solutions to the questions they’ve set out to answer with their research.

Having snuck through the back door at a few churches of science– er, universities — I have escaped and can now rat them out. Below are some terms often used as scientific jargon, all of which mean “I’m smarter than you”, and all of which can also mean, “We don’t really know what’s going on, but we don’t want you to realize it.” They’re examples of weasel words, as in: “We’re caught at an awkward spot in our research, so we’re gonna weasel our way out by using fancy words that obscure the problem.”

Don’t get me wrong! I love science. Besides, many scientists — especially those who report to the general public — speak and write in excellent, straightforward English. It’s those who try to muddy the waters that I shall now lampoon.

Utilize — To make useful, or make best use of. If you repurpose your old toothbrush as a grout cleaner, you’ve utilized it. But the word is often chosen in place of “use”, especially when the writer wants to cow the reader. After all, “We used a tabletop for our experiment” sounds too informal, as if they didn’t quite know what they were doing or didn’t have the proper equipment. Much better would be “We utilized a tabletop” — or, better still, “We utilized a planar surface” — which sounds important and competent, whereas in fact they were just winging it.

Null hypothesis — “False”. As in: “This medicine works? False!” But that’s too easy, and the Average Joe might understand it, God forbid. Besides, if your experiment fails, you can always intone that you instead proved “the null hypothesis.”

Heuristic — A rule of thumb. A heuristic helps you get a rough answer to a complex question. A good example is Occam’s Razor (“The simpler explanation is more likely to be right”); another is “If it’s warm blooded, it’s probably a mammal or a bird”; yet another is, “If the soil has a reddish hue, it’s probably full of iron.” Heuristics aren’t precise; they’re good for making quick estimates. On the other hand, “It was discovered, through an iterated heuristic process, that an elucidation to three significant digits could be determined” means “We guesstimated until our math gave us a three-figure number that’s probably nowhere near that accurate” or “until we ran out of coffee”. No scientist who wishes to receive grant money would soil himself with the word “guess”, so instead … heuristic.

Stochastic — “Random”, as in: “Weather prediction is a stochastic process” — which is to say, “We’re placing our bets on next week’s temperatures.” Change “weather” to the stock market or politics or epidemics or wars and you’re also caught in stochastic realms. Yes, there’s math involved, but predictions quickly become chaotic and random as you project them farther into the future. Meanwhile, “betting” sounds a bit shady, as if the scientists were in Vegas doing their work at a craps table. Why fund that? We want exact predictions! (Even if we know life doesn’t really work that way.) So the experimenters say, “Our method involves a stochastic process” instead of “We’re really just making an educated guess.”

There, I’ve had my fun. Of course, these words do come with shades of meaning that make them useful in science. It’s the weaselly shades of meaning I’m poking at.

By the way, this blog’s title word, “Tergiversation”, can be defined as “utilization of prevaricative euphemisms” — in short, using weasel words. I thought it would sound fancy and impressive. Maybe it’s a weasel word, too.

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UPDATE: Fixing Wikipedia: You have to know the jargon well enough to be able to replace it with a more simple, concise explanation.

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