Thursday, May 15, 2008

Words' worth?

"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names."
- ancient Chinese proverb

I reckon I'm due for a rant. Here's a list of words that bug me:

Dolomite in place of dolostone: dolomite is a mineral. A huge pervasive second use of the word, however, is to mean a rock made mainly of the mineral dolomite, for which the proper name is dolostone. This is so, so, so common it's hardly noticed. And it's so incorrect. Rocks and minerals are not the same thing.

Orogen in place of mountain belt: the word orogen is technically correct, and quite accurate, but in spoken speech, it sounds too much like "origin," and its use can sow confusion. The only real difference I am able to hear when people say "orogen" is that they tend to pronounce all three syllables, while "origin" is generally pronounced with just two: ore-gin. But maybe that's just the Virginians I hang around with. Mountain belt has the same meaning, but I guess it has problems of its own, since mountain belts may not be topographically mountainous any more. Hmmm. ...Toughie.

Extra-syllable words: Should we say benthonic when benthic means the same thing but with one fewer syllable? What about people orientating themselves instead of orienting themselves? What advantage do these extra syllables provide? Are they vestigial structures in our language?

An educational peeve is that students regularly refer to teachers giving grades. I don't know about the other professors, teachers, and instructors out there, but this one really rankles me. My students earn their grades. What I do is keep track of what they have earned, and eventually assign the proper grade to them. I am merely a secretary, an accountant. I tally it up, but the points they accrue (or don't) depends on them. No gifts required!

A huge bummer is the continued use of theory in non-scientific circles to mean hypothesis. In general use, "theory" has a tenuous, shaky implication, while in science it means "as solid and dependable as an explanation gets." David Quammen explored this well in his discussion of evolution in National Geographic a couple years ago. For the record: a hypothesis is a possible explanation of a phenomenon, calling to be tested. A theory is a well-corroborated hypothesis (i.e. it has passed a great many tests) that coherently unites a number of disparate phenomena under one central explanatory umbrella. Big difference there; huge. Makes communication about important concepts difficult.

Lastly, my all-time least favorite word: Believe.

Everywhere I look, I see statements like "Scientists believe that the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago," and it drives me up the wall. Scientists infer that the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, based on their reliance on data and logic. We have physical evidence (lead isotope ratios from three different radiogenic systems, measured in Earth rocks and in meteorites) that all suggest the solar system's solid-state clock started counting 4.5 billion years ago. Because we've never observed anything other than the steady, statistical decline of radioactive parent isotopes to produce daughter isotopes, we assume that the past worked in the same way as today (actualism/"uniformitarianism") and that these empirical measurements have meaning. We logically deduce that the Earth is the implied age, but we don't "believe" it.

Similarly, I get apoplectic when students ask me "Do you believe in global warming?" No, I don't believe it; I'm convinced of it on the basis of (a) physical evidence (data) and (b) logical inference from that data. To spell it out:
  1. CO2 absorbs infrared radiation.
  2. Infrared radiation is reflected upwards from the surface of the Earth.
  3. CO2 is produced by the burning of coal, oil, natural gas, wood, ethanol, and biodiesel.
  4. We burn a lot of these carbon-rich fuels by oxidizing them.
  5. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are measurably increasing.
  6. Oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere are measurably decreasing.
  7. Globally, average temperatures are observed to be increasing.
  8. Therefore, based on #1-7, the increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is causing the increase in temperature.
There's nothing there to believe in. It just is. Fact, fact, fact, fact, fact, fact, fact, and a logical inference that stems from those facts.

Ditto for the theory of evolution by natural selection. It's not something I believe in; it's something I'm convinced of because it's logically coherent and supported by reams of data gathered over 150 years of hypothesis-testing.

If there is one thing that scientists believe in, it's that the universe makes sense. Our starting assumption is that the physical world operates according to unchanging laws which may be deduced if we're clever enough. On the other hand, if the universe is mercurial in its physical laws, then science doesn't have a chance of figuring things out because the laws that apply on Tuesday will be different from the laws that apply on Wednesday. It should go without saying that, as far as we can tell, this is not the case. The universe does behave in a consistent and predictable manner, insofar as we can tell. Ergo, science is an appropriate way to go about elucidating its structure and properties. No belief necessary.

Which words bug you? Chime in.

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Blogger Tuff Cookie said...

I frequently get annoyed when I hear newscasters use "benchmark" and "watershed" in non-geologic ways, but I suppose that isn't misuse (except when they're just thrown into a sentence in a totally incorrect way to make it sound pretentious).

What I truly hate, and this isn't solely limited to geology, is when people say they're going to "address" something. Are they planning to speak to a physical manifestation of climate change, for example? What would it look like? Why can't people just say "find a solution for" or "fix" or "work to alleviate" or "talk about?" I think it's the vagueness that really bothers me, but I feel like "address" is badly overused.

That one I've probably picked up from my dad - I've often told him he should put a list on his office door of "Meaningless jargon that I will not tolerate".

May 15, 2008 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

Plankton -> planktonic

Benthos -> benthic

There should be no problem with this. But both "benthonic" and (to my eyes even worse) "planktic" show up all the time in the literature.

May 15, 2008 1:33 PM  
Blogger geobabe said...

Real-i-tor, supposably, and orientate. Gaahh!


May 15, 2008 6:24 PM  
Blogger Ron Schott said...

The more I teach mineralogy and petrology, the more inclined I am to make the distinction between dolomite (the mineral) and dolostone (the rock), though I readily slip back into calling the rock dolomite when I get out of the classroom.

In a similar vein, I've made a point in class of distinguishing between greenschists (foliated rocks) and greenstones (non-foliated rocks) which can both be applied to metabasites in the greenschist facies. One must, however, be cautious to point out to students that the term greenstone can also have a tectonic association and one must be cautious to distingish the context so as not to confuse this with the more strictly descriptive use as a textural variant of greenschist.

And then there's the slippery slope of students trying to make the same textural distinction among metabasites of the blueschist facies. A non-foliated glaucophane-bearing metamorphic rock must not be confused with a sidewalk block of clastic sedimentary origin. Blueschists and bluestones are very different beasts.

May 15, 2008 7:02 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

or most granite counter tops I have seen...are not granite

May 15, 2008 8:58 PM  

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