Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
Yeah, that’s right. I’m declaring that Sciency Words is itself a Sciency Word. It is a science-related term, after all!
Seeing as we’re about to embark on a full twenty-six episodes of Sciency Words for this year’s A to Z Challenge, I figured this is a good time to talk about why this series exists and why I think it matters. You see, I’m a science fiction writer, and I started writing this blog as a way of teaching myself about science. And the #1 problem I had right from the start was learning the vocabulary.
And it seems I’m not the only one who struggles with that. In fact, according to this paper from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, understanding the “discursive practices of science” is the biggest obstacle high school science students have to overcome. One student is quoted in that paper saying, “Science has its own little slang to it.” And as another student said, “[Scientists] communicate with their own different words and it’s, well to me, it’s hard to like to use their words cause they’re big.”
So why do scientists insist on using such big, confusing words? Why can’t they use plain English so that everybody can understand what they’re saying? It is not because scientists want to make themselves sound smart or to make other people feel stupid (at least that’s not always the case). The problem with plain English (or plain whatever language you prefer) is that it can be a little ambiguous.
Couldn’t you just say random instead of stochastic? Couldn’t you say wobble instead of libration? Couldn’t you say forward and backward instead of prograde and retrograde? Well, no, in some contexts those words really aren’t synonymous. Those Sciency Words mean something a little more precise than their plain language “equivalents,” and that linguistic precision is really important if you’re trying to explain complex scientific concepts.
So for me, in my ongoing research journey, there’s really no way around it. I have to learn the vocabulary, and thus the vocabulary has become a big part of this blog. Because using simple words can lead to oversimplified—and woefully inaccurate—science, as I often see in the popular press. There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein which I think applies here: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or as one of the students interviewed for that Research in Science Teaching paper said, “It isn’t no slang that can be said about this stuff.”