The Naming of Things (Part II)

June 29th, 2010 | Meera

In Part I of this essay, I told you how a short story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson presented me with what seemed like a useful analog for talking about how I experience scientific nomenclature. This second part of the essay probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first.

As a reminder, here is the sentence I stole from Gustafsson’s marvelous short story “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases,” and edited to suit my purposes. Apologies to him.

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

In case you’re one of the few people reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’ll clarify that I’m a working, early-career science writer with a graduate degree—in the humanities. In other words, I’m an educated nonscientist with a deep interest in science and some hard-earned, on-the-job training in understanding scientific concepts (especially within the field of health and medicine, about which I have begun to write regularly in the past year). But my formal academic background doesn’t help me much when it comes to grappling with the nomenclature of science.

In Gustafsson-terms, I don’t have a right to the “funny names” scientists have for “their things.” And that can make science a difficult world to travel in.

At the simplest level, unfamiliarity with the naming of things in science can act as a barrier to understanding. As a writer, even one who has a defined “beat,” my livelihood depends on flexibility. I need to be able to sensibly cover a broad range of topics, each of which has its own names for its own things. The more specific the scientific field, the less likely I am to know all of those names and the higher the barrier I have to scale.

Droplets Entering Eye

I’ll give you an example. At the moment, I’m researching a story about multiple sclerosis. Even before I began working on the piece, I grasped the basic facts of the disease. I knew it was a neurological disorder marked by lesions in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Specifically, multiple sclerosis causes patchy plaques in the insulating myelin sheath—composed of proteins and phospholipids—around the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. In doing so, it disrupts the smooth transmission of action potentials traveling along the axons between nerve cells. This leads to numbness, weakness, poorly controlled muscle movements, and changes in vision.

I would argue that the text above is reflective of some of the reasons names in science are problematic for a nonscientist. For one thing, it, like many clinical texts, uses two different names—lesion and plaque—for the same thing. For another, both those words have everyday connotations that contradict their scientific meanings. In ordinary English, a plaque is a flat object, while the plaques of multiple sclerosis are typically raised, or even wedge-shaped. In ordinary English, a lesion is often thought of as an open wound or fresh cut, but in the disease context it’s an area of scar tissue: sclerosis comes from a Greek root that means “hardening”. (I think of Gustaffson’s boy, bewildered by saws called tails, even though they have nothing to do with tails.)

In addition, though it is careful to avoid more specialized terms like CD4 T-cells or MS-susceptibility SNPs, the description also includes a number of words that are limited to the scientific domain. Of course, my job demands that I know, comprehend, and accurately use names like myelin sheath and phospholipids (and CD4 T-cells and MS-susceptibility SNPs). In learning them, I have added the concepts they represent (and the concepts required for understanding what they represent, which are themselves numerous) to the objects of my world. By extension, I have reached for the right to know that they exist. I consider them, and many other names like them, as tools in my shed.

Yet even when it comes to a single disease, that’s not saying very much.

This Dictionary of Multiple Sclerosis, for instance, spans 254 pages and contains over 600 entries, some of which define words familiar to me but most of which do not (I hadn’t encountered Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis before last week, and while it may or may not appear in my article, I’ve found it necessary for understanding several of the research papers I’m reading).

Before I finish work on this story, there will be several dozen more scientific terms that will have entered my vocabulary. Some of them will become permanent fixtures in my toolshed: old friends that I may use to pound in future fence posts. Others, though, will inevitably retreat once again into the world of things whose names I do not know. And the same will be true of the next piece I write, and the next. Though my comfort with and command of the naming of things in science grows daily, I will probably always operate, in a deep sense, within a world where what exists and what does not is at least a little “vague and uncertain.”

I say these things not to bemoan my fate, which is self-chosen and quite beloved (and not in order to defend writers from criticism when we get things wrong), but because I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s worth examining the ways in which, when it comes to scientific terminology, many of us—even those of us who work with scientists—are akin to Gustafsson’s boy. We may feel unsure of what things the world contains, and we may lack a sense of true ownership over those things and their names.

Ode to Pay

I attended the wedding of an old friend two weekends ago. My roommate from college, a third-year medical resident and one of the smartest, most driven people I know, had brought some work with her for the weekend. Looking at the first sentence of a scientific paper on her iPhone—a paper she needed to understand in order to properly diagnose a difficult case—she chuckled to herself. “Can I read something to you?” she asked. When I nodded, she read:

Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is also known as the autosomal recessive familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL), and viral-associated hemophagocytic syndrome (VAHS).

As soon as she finished, we both broke out into laughter. It was impossible not to laugh. The sentence, as written, was impenetrable.

This was the case despite the fact that we both recognized its capacity to hold and convey meaning. If you had complete access to the terms it used—if you knew all the funny names for all the things in it—you would have a fairly precise understanding of what the paper happened to be about (as it happens, a rare genetic autoimmune disorder affecting the cells of the blood and which apparently is known by at least four names).

You might argue that those words weren’t written with me in mind. This is partly true. My friend was much better equipped than I for the task of overcoming the barrier of all the terms in that first sentence. She continued reading the paper as I sat by her in the sun, bringing the full weight of eight years of medical training to bear on the density of terminology it contained, and (presumably) managing to hop quite neatly over the problem.

There are excellent reasons for science to keep its nomenclature separate from the vocabulary of ordinary speech. Scientific discourse values specific denotation, not ill-defined connotation. It values the compression of ideas. It abhors ambiguity. This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.

I appreciate these qualities of scientific speech, even though they serve to build a world in which I sometimes founder. Assuming the names for things really are precise and unambiguous, I can believe that in spite of any confusion I may personally feel, the language of science actually does serve to draw clear demarcations around objects and ideas. I can trust that no one will be sending me to fetch tools by the wrong name; or, worse, to look for tools that do not exist. And I—unlike Gustafsson’s boy—can quite happily accept the limits of my knowledge and work to expand it.

But there was still something true in the laughter I shared with my friend. The sheer bulk of scientific nomenclature, and (more problematic) the fact that it sometimes fails to live up to its ideal of clarity, isn’t lost on scientists themselves.

Physics PhD-holder Philip Ball called for his peers to be clearer and more transparent in their application of existing terms and the invention of new ones, not just for their own sakes but for the rest of us poor saps as well. Fertility, he points out, is now routinely used by demographers to mean both “birth rate” and “the ability to reproduce,” thus “allowing the existence of fertile people who have zero fertility.” And for an example that’s closer to home, take this. My husband is a graduate student in computer science. An early page in one of his textbooks lists several translations between computer science and statistics, which often use different language for the same thing. Estimation in statistics equals learning in computer science (and neither, as Ross can tell you based on many extraordinarily frustrating conversations with me, quite equals what these two common English words mean outside those fields).

We are sent for a tool, but by the wrong name.

Simon Young, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, ranted about the bloating of research vocabulary with jargon and neologisms in 2006, reserving his sharpest vitriol for words ending in what he considers to be the preternaturally ugly suffix -omics. Young’s aesthetic judgments aside, what he really objects to is a troubling disconnect between word and meaning that has arisen as a result of fashion. “I find it interesting,” he comments, “that all journals with it (the word neuropsychopharmacology) in the title publish papers not involving drugs and, therefore, outside the scope of the journal title. Why use such a cumbersome word if you ignore its precise meaning?”

We are sent for a tool, but it does not exist.

Don't Tweeze Me

True; research is not a woodshed. It is fluid, ongoing, additive. Uncertain names that mean uncertain things multiply daily in the world of science, thanks to the constant formation of neologisms and the lack of a standardized, universally accepted process for coining names for new discoveries or inventions.

To their credit, scientists recognize the problem of vague or inconsistent terminology, and frequently make recommendations to improve the situation. Should I go on? Because I can. What troubles me most is that even when clear and logical rules for how to name things are proposed by well-meaning scientists, as often as not they fail to be adopted by the community at large.

Why? Inertia, probably. Genuine disagreement with the standards, possibly. A simple attachment to what one knows and is habituated to, certainly. And, of course, there is the issue of control. Simply knowing the name of a thing means you have the right to know it exists in the world. But owning a name means you own the thing itself. It means you decide how it exists in the world.

This is not mystical talk. This is, very simply, about power. You only have to look at the heated historical disputes over the naming rights of atomic elements to know the truth of it. The late 1990s christening-pangs of element 104—a highly radioactive substance, most of whose isotopes decay in a matter of minutes or seconds—reflected a struggle for dominance, not just between individual scientists, scientific labs, or associations, but between nations. (The U.S. overpowered Russia. Surprised?)

Here is a sentence from “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I did not have to edit:

In actual fact, the strong decide what words should be used for.

In the story, the boy who lacks the names of things is not one of the strong. He has no way of knowing what does and does not exist. And he feels the world itself, governed by names he cannot grasp, to be a strange and unfriendly place: full of fearful things that rise up like birds out of the bushes. As a result, he rejects words entirely, retreating into an inner landscape of branching trees and mysterious mushrooms—a world he builds himself from the patterns of shadow and wallpaper.

Greatness strikes where it pleases, writes Gustaffson, and what we are meant to understand from this is that there is a kind of greatness in the boy and his shadowy world. In the context of the story this is a deeply satisfying conclusion. Exquisite, even.

In the context of reality, it’s frustrating. I have no wish to retreat into a world of my own making, and neither, I would wager, do most nonscientists. What I want is for science to meet me halfway.

I am happy to accept that I will never know all the names there are to know, and that I must learn the ones I will learn slowly, one by one. I can take on that work with pleasure. I am far less happy to accept that, having learned a name, it will not always point to the same thing. Or that, having learned about the existence of a new thing, it will not always be called by the same name. And I mourn the idea that the naming of things—in science especially—should fall to the strong, or be used as a national power-play or marketing tool for a discipline. In every scientific field, from genomics to geology to astrophysics, rational minds are calling for the simplification and standardization of language.

Don’t let the strong decide what words should be used for; decide sensibly, as a community, on how to name things. And then share those names with nonscientists as clearly as you can. It will still be difficult for us to understand you sometimes. But we all, I think, would very much like to have the right to know what does and does not exist in this extraordinary world of ours.

10 Responses to “The Naming of Things (Part II)”

  1. Erica says:

    What a great essay! I have a couple of things to share:
    1) For the words that have a scientific meaning and a regular English meaning (you used lesion and plaque as examples), my brain automatically defines them using the scientific meaning. You gave the context (MS), and I knew how to define the words. If the context had been molecular biology, a lesion would be a nucleotide that had been damaged in some way that may cause a mutation. (And “mutation” also has a specific meaning that changes with context.)
    2) #1 is probably because I have a relatively small regular English vocabulary, but I have years of scientific training that have built my scientific vocabulary. Trying to imagine what it’s like to not know those words is like trying to imagine what it’s like to not be able to read. I don’t remember it, and it’s beyond my scope.
    3) How funny that you chose that sentence (about HLH, FLH, etc) to laugh about, because it proves your next point– it’s saying that there are these four names for what is considered the same disease.
    4) Biologists certainly have naming conventions, but they usually don’t make it any easier for nonscientists to understand. Example a: I worked on the yeast protein Utp6, which stands for U-Three-associated Protein number 6. What’s U3? It’s the third uracil-rich RNA identified in cells. Example b: Worm people name proteins based on what happens to the worm when you mutate the gene/protein. Unc1 (and Unc2, Unc3, etc.) mutations make the worm “uncoordinated” (it moves abnormally). Example c: Fly people are the most descriptive. Mutations in the Cheap Date gene cause flies to be sensitive/docile when exposed to alcohol (ethanol). Male flies with the Fruitless mutation exhibit altered sexual behavior. I guess my point is that the names make sense if you know the history or background, but there’s no reason a nonscientist would know the background.
    5) I wonder how much of the vocabulary can be learned without also learning the material? So much of science is how things work, that for instance, a phospholipid is not just the molecule itself, but its role in cell membranes and in cell signaling. It only makes sense within the context.
    6) I don’t envy you and the mountain you climb each time you embark on a new project. But I admire you for doing it and enjoying it.

    • Meera says:

      I’m so glad you commented, Erica! I went in and made an edit to highlight the four names for the blood disorder. Yes; it’s overwhelming.

      I love your “Trying to imagine what it’s like to not know those words is like trying to imagine what it’s like to not be able to read. I don’t remember it, and it’s beyond my scope.” That’s one of the biggest reasons I have trouble communicating with Ross about his work (and with the scientists I interview, though at least I know more about that stuff than about computer science). He uses a lot of everyday terms in different ways than I do, and often has no idea he’s doing it. But it would really, really help things if the field didn’t have so many redundant terms or ambiguous terms.

      I agree that you have to learn the context in order for the vocabulary to make sense. That’s why every new word leads to more and more new words. At some point, I have to stop. It really depends on the amount of time I have for a story and how deep my editors want me to go.

  2. Peter says:

    Yes, really interesting thoughts here! I guess there’s a dilemma: if you adapt an existing word to communicate your new scientific (or other scholarly) concept intuitively to the lay folk, you risk overloading and diluting its meaning; but if you invent a new word for the sake of precision, you usually end up with another new technical word that means nothing to people outside your field. And it’s not always sufficient to just use an existing word for the concept, as terms emphasize different aspects: in my undergrad thesis in music theory, I made up the word “polydiatonicism,” even though the familiar concept of “polytonality” was awfully close. The latter had become brittle with use, and I wanted a fresh term, but I always wonder whether I should have just gone with what was there. Perhaps that’s why the blood disease has four names.
    Finally, as Erica points out, the terminology isn’t always the hardest part. There’s no shortage of jargon in music theory, but a wise theorist once said that the two trickiest words he knew were “the” and “is.”

    • Meera says:

      Yes, I see the dilemma. And I don’t think scientists are maliciously naming and renaming things in more and more complex ways *in order* to obscure them (some of them may be, but I believe the core scientific impulse is to clarify). But I do think there is some room for improvement in the process, even if it’s just for the sake of keeping your papers more searchable to others in your own field. More philosophically, I think it’s telling that your impulse to make up a new word had to do with your desire to own your ideas, which you saw as fresh instead of brittle. I think that’s right, in a way. It makes sense to me. But maybe it means fewer people will know that they exist. (Incidentally, did you insert “polytonality” in your thesis abstract so it would come up in results alongside similar papers?)

      As I once said, there are many hardest parts. :)

  3. Lori says:

    Great essay, Meera. Timely, since I spent a large part of last week at a meeting that more or less boiled down to arguing over semantics – what is the difference between discard mortality and post-release survivorship? How can mathematical models which be explained plainly to a wide audience of scientists, management, and industry representatives? As a scientist who regularly communicates to the public, this is something I struggle with. I used to teach simple latin roots to my biology for majors class, mostly because teaching di- meant two and rhino- means nose would help the subject seem less foreign, not to mention be a big help in the GRE! Many scientists scoff at using common names for species, for fear of confusion or dumbing down the subject. Scientific language is a barrier, just like any other vocabulary. It can also be a crutch, a weapon, something used to make others seem as outsiders.

    • Meera says:

      Knowing latin roots is extremely helpful! And they make scientific names feel much more logical, rather than arbitrary. The scientific name for the common goldeneye (Buchephalas clangula) makes me so happy. Its head *does* look a little ox-like. And now, even though I’ve never heard it, I remember that it has a loud, perhaps obnoxious, voice.

      Even the term “common name” is part of the story here.

      Did your meeting get anywhere useful?

  4. Peter says:

    “Many hardest parts” is a good phrase. It brings to mind the 90-90 rule: “The first 90% takes 90% of the time. The other 90% takes the other 90% of time.” As for the abstract, I didn’t do what you suggested—I was young(er) and foolish(er) then.

  5. These two posts lit up various parts of my brain in ways I have no words for. (And even if I did, I’m sure I would misuse them.)

    Just yesterday I received a comment from a woman in Wales, who referred to a set of “spanners” she’d been admiring at a store. She described their colors and texture in vivid detail, but failed to define the term itself. At the end of the paragraph, she finally offered some additional information, which instantly told me that spanners were what I would call wrenches. At that moment I could feel my mind coalesce from the random cloud of nearly infinite possibilities into the discrete objects I had been familiar with all along.

    Your posts also reminded me of sumo wrestling, of all things. When my wife and I and our son were in Japan a few years ago, there was a major sumo tournament going on. Of course the event was widely covered in the media, and I read an article about it in an English-language newspaper. Like most sports, sumo is more complex than it appears to be to the uninitiated (including me). As the two wrestlers battle each other, every movement of the body — the direction and speed of a turning hand, the way the torso is positioned, the angle of the head, the force that is exerted — each of these things has a precise name. I suppose that if you watch enough sumo, you begin to see them as distinct phenomena, rather than the pushing and slapping I witnessed. Even nuance, if unnamed, remains unseen and non-existent.

    Thank you for these posts, and your fascinating blog. I look forward to my next visit.

    • Meera says:

      Charles, thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary. I especially like your first story because I grew up calling a wrench a spanner (and a cookie a biscuit, and a hood a bonnet, and a trunk a boot). I also really like your description of the feeling of specific knowledge suddenly coalescing from a random cloud. I think that’s exactly right. I’ve felt that way myself.

      And the sumo wrestling story! What it makes me think of is changing the speed of a video reel, with the naming of each of the tiny movements slowing down the playback. Or adjusting the magnification on a microscope.

      It seems the case from your two examples that names perform dual functions that sound contradictory (but aren’t, of course): they both limit and expand our perspectives.

      Thanks so much for reading and I hope to see you here again.

  6. [...] “This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.” [...]

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