Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

Continue reading “Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)”

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Workshop: Turning your dissertation into a book

The Graduate School-New Brunswick is organizing a workshop, led by Rutgers faculty, on issues to consider in turning your dissertation into a book or article.

Monday, April 6
12:00 – 1:30 PM
College Ave Student Center, Rm. 411

Please RSVP to: cfarber@rci.rutgers.edu

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Workshop Podcasts Now Available

In response to requests, selected Project AGER workshops will now be recorded, when feasible, and posted on the new “Podcasts” page on this blog.

Two podcasts are now available:  Turning your dissertation into a book or article, presented by Chie Ikeya, Assistant Professor, History Department, 2/12/2014, and Careers in Academe: Issues to Consider, presented by Dean Barbara Bender, GSNB.  They are here.

Workshop: How to turn your Dissertation into a Book or Article

This interactive workshop is organized and sponsored by the Graduate School-New Brunswick and Project AGER (Advancing Graduate Education at Rutgers) and will be presented by Rutgers faculty members from the social science and humanities disciplines.  RSVP not required, but preferred.  The workshop will be held:

Wednesday, February 12
3:00 – 4:30 PM
Rutgers (College Ave) Student Center, Room 411

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Jargon: Demarcating Disciplinary Territory

As suggested in earlier posts, the term jargon often indicates the terminology that individuals and institutions within a given area of research use to communicate.  Mastery of a field’s jargon is critical for achieving (and maintaining) standing within a discipline, effectively creating a barrier between disciplines, scholars and the general public.  For example, working within the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), my success in the field depends upon my assimilation and mastery of a whole range of terms and their particular technical specifications.

A few common terms that have special meaning within the LIS field include: Document, documentation, record, bibliography, information, information seeking, information behavior, information need, information retrieval, authority control, thesaurus, ontology, taxonomy, relevance, precision, recall, etc.

In scientific pursuits, terminology could be seen as constituting the linguistic tissue that links observational percepts (measurements) to theoretical concepts (relationships between measurements and phenomena, and higher level understandings of systems of phenomena).  In LIS, a wide variety of phenomena are studied, many variables are operationalized, many methods are employed, and many theories have been developed.  To further complicate matters, LIS has historically maintained an important professional component, which operates under a variety of lexicons of specialized terminology.  For instance, library catalogers utilize a plethora of terms that are not always clear to researchers in other LIS areas.

The boundaries of a discipline, which delimit the region of disciplinary jurisdiction/control (imagine the areas controlled by pieces on a Go board), seem to rely, to some extent, on a specialized language to differentiate between insiders and outsiders.  Which begs the question:  Is jargon truly an instrument for effectively communicating ideas within a discipline, or is its primary purpose that of “bouncer” or “gatekeeper,” preserving the security of the academy from invasion from outsiders and staving off internal assaults from other disciplines?  Like language, more generally speaking, it seems as though jargon functions both as an intellectual instrument and as a mechanism of social cohesion/control.

Mathematical Jargon

Mathematics is a subject in which the jargon is required to be especially rigorous and unified. Like other bloggers this month, I will discuss how jargon, terminology, and other wordly matters play out in mathematics.

A group
of kids [cc]
A group in
mathematics [pd]

One of the first important distinctions in mathematics is that certain words are used as in normal English, while others are used with specific technical meaning. For example, the term group is used in common parlance to denote some specific set of objects, people, etc. that have some common characteristic or purpose. In mathematics, a group is a particular type of mathematical structure. Mathematicians use different words (like set, family, or collection) to refer to groups (in the common English sense) of things that are not endowed with this structure. It is even important to split hairs when using such words. The term set is defined in a specific way in mathematics, but it means precisely what it might mean in English. However, there are restrictions on what a set could be. Russell’s Paradox is one example of how something that could be called a set in English is not a set in mathematics. And so a new word is created to describe this kind of thing – it is not a set, it is a class. Fellow GSNB blogger Michael notes here the confusion that may arise if common English terms collide with technical terms.

Mathematics often borrows or redefines terms from common parlance, from other fields of study, or even from different areas of mathematics. The important consideration is whether a reader would understand – generally erring on the side of caution, defining words and phrases as needed. Mathematical exposition is peppered with definitions in a way others may find only in dictionaries. But if an astronomer were to read about a syzygy in a physics paper that requires some mathematics of that sort, he or she would be confused without having a mathematical definition handy to differentiate this from the astronomical definition of syzygy. It’s hard to fight the urge not to define terms throughout this blog post!

An important quality of mathematical exposition is not just mathematical fluency, but clarity. Terminology should be used judiciously. This is important because the terminology does not just describe or expound the content, it is itself content. Carolyn, another GSNB blogger, discusses here the construction of meaningless strings that may sound very impressive if not read very carefully. This is true in mathematics too, where a randomly-generated paper was recently accepted for publication, albeit to a for-profit journal that seems to lack appropriate peer-review. And, importantly, anyone with mathematical training could have spotted this paper as fraudulent without any particular specialty or knowledge. It’s virtually impossible to “bluff” in this way in mathematics.

This graph has many potatoes[c]

Abbreviations, wordplay, and figurative terminology are all useful in mathematics, but provide further barriers to understanding. The term “subadditive” describes a function where f(x+y)≤f(x)+f(y). The “sub” gives you ≤ and the “additive” gives you the + sign. It’s a definition one can parse from the word itself, given experience with mathematical terminology. But if this were abbreviated, it would lose that meaning. For example, a directed acyclic graph becomes a DAG; a partially ordered set, a poset; a universal Turing machine, a UTM. A separable completely metrizable topological space is called a Polish space (because they were first studied by Poles). Similarly, a ring without an identity element is called a rng (the i is removed, since there is no identity). And if acronyms and wordplay were not enough, terms like “potatoes” and “squiggles” can be used to describe something with a more precise meaning in an informal context. Mathematicians describe structures as “well behaved” or “badly behaved,” and even the term “almost always” has a precise, technical meaning. There is no snake involved in the snake lemma.

In the end, mathematical terminology is important because these terms, ideas, structures, etc. make up the building blocks of the theory. But they should be explained clearly, concisely, and precisely, and so with the audience in mind. Technical language should be an accessory to normal language, allowing us to make more refined and meaningful statements. Mathematical jargon allows us to use technical (and even non-technical) language to make progress, not to obfuscate it.

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Educational Jargon

As I have moved through my career as an educator and student of education, I have encountered numerous terms that, though unfamiliar at first, are now a part of my everyday vocabulary. Unlike terms associated with specific scientific disciplines, or even with other areas in the social sciences, educational jargon is present, at some point, in all of our lives. However, it is rarely explained and educators often forget that these are terms that they once did not know either.

When I teach Introduction to Education, I am constantly reminded that many educational terms are specific to the discipline rather than universal. One of the most commonly used terms is “pedagogy”, which I often explain as fancy way of saying “teaching style”, although it also involves a person’s philosophical beliefs about education and how children learn. In recent years, many terms related to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) have entered into everyday educational talk. For example, educators regularly refer to the ability of a school to make AYP, or adequate yearly progress. This refers to whether or not the required percentage of students in a given school have passed the state exams. It also refers to whether the correct number of students in each subgroup have passed the exams. This term “subgroup” is another piece of the jargon and refers varius groups present in schools, including racial/ethnic groups, English Language Learners, students with IEPs (individualized educational plans), and economically disadvantaged students. Whether or not a school meets AYP has an immense impact on how schools are run and the funding they receive, and it is often used without explanation. Other commonly used terms, like “tracking” and “inclusion”, refer to specific practices that are often debated in education. In order to make sense of what is written and said about education in the United States today, it is important to understand these terms.

In writing this post, I found two useful websites that give an overview of some common educational jargon. The Dictionary of Educational Jargon (http://www.teachervision.fen.com/pro-dev/new-teacher/48466.html) provides two pages of commonly-used terms defined for those entering the educational profession. The Glossary of Educational Terms (http://www.schoolwisepress.com/smart/dict/dict.html) provides a more extensive list of educational terms defined to assist parents in navigating the educational world. Both sites are useful if you would like to learn more about educational jargon, or, like many of us, simply understand what everyone is talking about!

A new language to learn

It is often difficult to recognize jargon in the everyday life of a graduate student. In lab all day, the terms polymerase chain reaction (PCR), nanodrop, and reverse transcription (RT) seem like mundane words used in a classroom. However, it is most difficult when you try to explain what you do to friends and family members outside the sciences. I first encountered this when attempting to explain what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation to a friend. What could be explained in one simple sentence to a science student took me twenty minutes to explain. Most of this explanation came not from not understanding the topics, but rather in explaining the terms.

It gets harder when you have to explain this in a different language. I am a Taiwanese-American. I speak Mandarin Chinese to my parents, but I don’t know how to read and write the language. When they ask me about the concepts I am interested in, it becomes a day long expedition. I say a word such as nanodrop and I just get blank stares. Then begins my explanation—and when you learn all these scientific terms in English, you realize how difficult it is to translate them (or even to attempt to explain them) in Chinese. It is difficult. It is like learning a new Chinese language.

And so it hit home. Jargon can be something great, but it can also be a huge hazard, for people outside your field, in understanding concepts. It is like learning a new language—it is not something that can be done in a day. Rather, it requires practice, reading, and even more reading.

The Nonsense of Birds and Whispers of Thieves: Reclaiming Jargon

Wading through the nonsense of jargon
Wading through the nonsense of jargon

The Online Etymology Dictionary’s definition of jargon is a far cry from its usage in common academic parlance: “[U]nintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” the definition begins, derived both from either a cacophony of animal sounds (the gibberish of birds), or the guilded secret language of thieves. To accuse an academic of speaking in a jargoned tongue then is to level upon them the slander of either origin. As academics we are either like animals in a pen honking “nonsense” at one another, or, perhaps even worse, like rogues cloistered in our reclusive sanctuaries, using a shadow language to communicate when pressed to appear in public. If these beginnings can be taken as part of jargon’s connotation, how come neither seems to adequately reflect what I do at my job?

Fortunately, the word seems to have lapsed from its clearly derogatory beginnings. Jargon amongst academics is read as more of an inversion of its historical qualities than a literal recasting. Is the gibberish of the birds nonsense because they are animals, or because we refuse to soar to their heights? Did brigands adopt a shadow language to vex the common-folk, or was it instead a way to identify others within their community (who embodied a shared set of values)? The accusation of jargon smacks of anti-intellectualism. In other words, regardless of our accomplishments, we academics still trade in secrets; jargon suggests that we publish esoteric and oblique papers in obscure journals. Which we do, don’t we?

I think the reality of the situation is closer to cackling of birds, and buzz of thieves than we might realize. When I use jargon, at least, it is because no other word will do. Be it one of Foucault’s dispositifs of surviellance, Deleuze’s rhizomatic formations, or one of Bourdieu’s four-thousand (I joke, I joke…) categories of capital, jargon is the dirt that this little piggy likes to sleep in. Jargon points to a gap in my sense-making intuitions and the all too familiar failing of language to capture and categorize an increasingly complex world. The crutch of jargon reminds me, partly, of how little I know, and it protects me, almost totally, from critics who would attempt to reduce the nuance of my thought.

To be sure, I believe that jargon is neither a blessing nor a curse – instead it is something in-between. And although I do not like the simplistic equating of jargon with haughty ivory tower values, I also appreciate the ways it is, in fact, used as an insider language providing us academics a sense of intellectual freedom. Because there is a barrier to entry, and jargon laden language is frequently hyper-specific, jargon disrupts the posturing of crude argumentative critique by assuming some degree of prior knowledge is essential for healthy discourse. And, unlike the shadow tongues of yesterday, it takes little more than a dictionary to participate in most academic discussion and discourse. Maybe the trick is just to explain things a little better – to make the point that this pig’s dirt is also soil, fertile with ideas.

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.