Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Nerdliness of Language

I spent my college years (undergraduate and graduate) steeped in science and math. Practically every waking moment which was not spent studying science and technology was spent reading about science and technology. (Well, ok... there were illicit substances, poker, certain ladies of my acquaintance, and God knows what else ....but...after all that then there was science! ...well...bratwurst....then science...er, bratwurst and sandwiches. Crap. Ok: Illicit substances, poker, women, bratwurst, and sandwiches...and THEN science.)

Those hours were spent both in the pursuit of science (experiments, study, history of science) and in the camaraderie of people who - while not necessarily like minded - believed in the same constructs and principles. It framed our conversations, and moved us to a common point of conversation where we could agree, argue, discuss, and laugh. Thought of another way, it gave us a reason to drink together.

All of those hours, days, weeks, years of being in that community - the commonalities of prose became apparent. There is an elegance to this distortion of language that is very similar to any collection of people searching to find a common ground: sports fans, religious adherents, vegetarians, punk rockers, opera buffs, comic book fans...every subculture under the sun. It's a slang, of sorts, applied to descriptions of terms, ideas and concepts. A way of communicating complex ideas with a minimum of words. It's almost a subconscious attempt of the mind to contract the language. The slang is picked up from contractions of scientific, engineering or mathematics terms, of course, but more interestingly, some is picked up from the street, from pop culture, and from the daily banter of everyday life.

Limiting the conversation to computers for a moment, much of the slang is famously known - the world knows what a virus is when applied to computers, or morphing when it comes to computer graphics. Curiously, the language of the digerati sometimes migrates in the opposite direction, back out to the street: Crashing almost needed no explanation when it was introduced to a population newly enamoured with personal computers. People were more than happy to apply the term to themselves when they stayed up to late, or couldn't work any more for the day. Busy executives are quick to tell people that they are multitasking, even though few of them understand what that term actually means.

Perhaps it is because computers have a symbiotic relationship with the public that the language barrier between the geek and the street is two-way permeable, but other, more esoteric, fields of study that isn't quite the case. To the outsider, hearing common, everyday terms used in technical or scientific descriptions may sound odd, harsh, or lend themselves to misinterpretation. The field of mathematics is chalk o' block full of an odd juxtaposition of language, phraseology and street slang. The use of the word trivial doesn't necessary mean that something is easy, but rather that something is "well understood by everyone in the room, so shut the eff up so we can get on with the real conversation." ("There's no need to go into the proof of the prime-number theorem here, Bob, it's trivial.")

Because of this re-purposing of common words, whenever the outside world hears mathematicians, computer scientists, or comic book fanboys talk - the result is often confusion or misinterpretation. While this is understandable - and should be predictable by most of "inside language" participants - real trouble begins when the press gets involved. Having worked at government science labs for the first half of my career, I was often interviewed by the press and media - and the resulting, published "interviews" were most illuminating. I very quickly learned to change the use of my language whenever I wished to convey information to anyone outside the group.

This misinterpretation of common words and terms can lead to amusing confusion in the public discourse, often revolving around computers and the internet - a "computer virus" although likened to biological viruses, are not biological viruses. Other times, this language makes its way out into the public discourse and is disastrously misinterpreted. The Large Hadron Collider has captured the public imagination, largely due to these language misinterpretations. (Thank you, Dan Brown, for adding to the mess....and I'm sure the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and the Vatican also thank you for adding to the popularization of misinterpretation.)

Scientists, because of the nature of their work and the natural honesty that comes with scientific inquiry, cannot say anything is certain - even if all evidence brought to bear on a topic confirms a theory or model, a (good) scientist will always feel compelled to say "I am 99% certain that this is true." So, when LHC researchers were asked if the LHC could generate a singularity that could destroy the earth, the physicists responded that they were 99.999% sure that it would not. This, of course, was picked up by the news media and translated as THERE IS A SLIGHT POSSIBILITY THAT THE LHC COULD GENERATE A BLACK HOLE THAT WOULD DESTROY THE EARTH. Don't even get me started on the press and H1N1.

Occasionally, however, there are people who fully understand the disparity between language inside a specific group and laypeople, and deliberately exploit those differences to further their own agendas. This isn't comical misinterpretation or unfortunate misreadings, it is a deliberate manipulation of the media and, by extemtion, public opinion by using what looks like corroboratory evidence. Most recently, we've had the e-mail that was stolen (I won't use the word "hacked") from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit - apparently by...well, no one knows who, or at least no one is saying anything.

The American and British press were all over this, with the usual screaming headlines, like this doosy from, of all places, the New York Times:

In the NY Times article, Andrew Revkin discusses how the email appears to underscore a belief in a conspiracy of climatologists who seek to convince the world that our climate is crumbling before our eyes. The language device that Revkin uses to passive-aggressively enforce the possibility of a conspiracy is of the worst kind of direct manipulation: The infamous double-ditto! (Or, rather, "double ditto,")

In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical “trick” in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend. In another, a scientist refers to climate skeptics as “idiots.”

There is more, of course. The article is laced with names, double-dittos, nefarious snippets from the stolen correspondence, and "I told you so's!" from fringe climatologists, like Patrick J. Michaels. Michaels may or may not have been a climatologist for the state of Virginia - no one really can tell - but he is most definitely a climatologist at The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank cum lobby group in Washington DC that strives "to achieve greater involvement of the intelligent, lay public in questions of (public) policy and the proper role of government." Conveniently located in DC, Cato Institute members are frequent guests on chatty panel and talk shows aimed at public policy. Michael's himself has a number of books on the market on how climate change isn't gonna be so bad, and potentially beneficial, so between the books and the Face-The-Nation circuit, he's doin' just fine, thank you very much.

Swinging the spotlight back on Mr. Revkin and his word-play article in the NY Times - perhaps I can help him out a bit. The email that was stolen (again, not hacked) from the CRU contained hand-wringing (choice bits like “the fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t..." are sprinkled throughout the article), insults lobbed at the anti-global warming camp, and - most importantly - the use of the word "trick" in conjunction with showing trending.

To his credit, Revkin does include a not-quite-a-quote from Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State, where Mann explains the use of the word "trick:"

He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word “trick” to refer to a good way to solve a problem, “and not something secret.”

Even thought Revkin didn't properly include a quote from Mann, that explanation is something any mathematician would understand. Having spent years in a math department at my university, "trick" was a word that was used over and over again. It is not used to imply that something is being covered up or misled, but rather that something clever is being done to remove some steps from a process. Essentially, it means that a sort of mathematical shorthand is about to be employed - a way to get from point A to point C by skipping B.

With the hand wringing, that's just good science. Predictions made in the 80's about warmer climates appearing in the 00's have not happened. The implication is not that climate change is wrong necessarily, but rather that the model used to show the climate shift in the 80's was most likely faulty. (Actually, if climatologists had not mentioned the temperature not fitting the model, then there would be grounds for a conspiracy.) In my travels through science, business and public relations, I have found that the hardest concept for laypersons to understand about science is it's most basic precept: science is, by its nature, self-correcting. It holds no public office, it has no allegiances, it is not loyal to the men and women who study it. No matter how beloved a theory is, no matter how many careers depends on a specific conjecture, no matter how old and established an idea is: if data surfaces to contradict the established model, the scientific method demands you throw the model out or find a way that a legitimate modification adjusts for the new data.

To the layperson, this mode of being is 0ften interpreted as waffling, knowing all along that a theory or model was wrong, or a simply as a reason why science doesn't work. Rather than a principle of great objectiveness, it's often used as an excuse to doubt the validity of the scientific method in public discourse. Is it better to steadfastly believe in something that has long been proven to be inaccurate, or is it better to course correct as you move forward, adjusting to new information as it comes in?

Finally, the insults. Yup - I don't doubt it. I think that anti-climate change folks have been insulted by climatologists who believe in climate change. I think that climate change believers have been insulted by anti-climate changers... both, probably pretty frequently. In public and in private. It's human nature. If you're honest with yourself, you do it all the time - I sure as hell do. (Allow me to prove a point by throwing myself on the alter of demonstration: vegans are dinks. There. Was that so bad, really?)

The point here is not whether climate change is happening, or if there is a Giant Global Conspiracy (tm) of climatologists to scaremonger, as some believe - the point is that, taken out of context, words are tools. If used as intended and left in the context in which they are placed, they are sharp, efficient, surgical. If, however, they are separated from their owner's intent through careless or malicious use, they are blunt, crude instruments causing more harm than good.

If you read something that sounds outrageous - in science or politics - chances are pretty good you should listen to your inner editor. Do yourself (and the originator of the words) a favor and google a few things: look up the author, look up the sources, look up the facts.

*Cartoon by Chris Madden http://www.chrismadden.co.uk/


BMoreKarl said...

Great arguments. It's rare to find someone writing about writing with a love of writing.

However, there is a taint of Cool-aid drinking here. Yes "science has no allegiances," but scientists do. Ask any creationist who wants to work in paleontology or biology.

There is a purpose and reason for this. Science by committee, allowing equal voice to all viewpoints, would rarely discover anything new.

The same rules affect science that affect any public endeavor - human politics can't help but creep in.

Scientists also work from preconceived notions. While science may be pure, the people who serve it certainly are not.

The real damage of the leaked emails isn't the individual words taken out of context or mis-construed. It's the overall impression of a closed society at odds with opposing points of view. Even good scientists can only go so far in that medium - even if the culprit is, as you suggest, the press, the politicization, the industries and jobs depending on the answers.

RocketMan said...

Thank you for the kind comments, Karl.

Great points here and well stated. Yes, in stating "science having no allegiances" I was referring specifically to science itself, not its practitioners as you pointed out. I apologize if I gave another impression.

Scientists are human beings, prone to squabbling and having agendas like anyone else. After grad school, I worked in planetary science for several years - at the time, there were only about 2000 planetary scientists in the world, and a very small amount of funding and grant money to go around. It created quite the crucible for type of drama only reserved for bad shows about the OC on Fox Television.

Nonetheless, the basic tenants of science remain: if the model fails, you swap out or modify the model. It may take years and years for much-loved ideas to be thrown out, but eventually that's exactly what happens.

The last paragraph of your comment couldn't be more spot on.

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