Words, words, words

I’m a writer and a scientist. For both these jobs, I think a lot about words. Nothing brings me more joy than finding just the right word to describe what I find in nature. Further, nothing gives me more anxiety than seeing how sloppily we throw around terms and phrases in science. I worry that so many of the connections between our individual bodies of work are lost in translation when all the different camps use their own specialized phrases to describe what is essentially the same concept. To this end, a poem:

Whene'er I read papers,
I can't help but feel
that most of our buzzwords
just spin the same wheel.
The models we make
hinge on what we can measure
and measurements hinge
on the time at our leisure.
More, whether a factor
holds import or no
depends on how deep
our hypotheses go.
And since we seek patterns
with broad application,
one critical goal
is precise appellation.
But lo, I'm a lumper
and my viewpoint is firm
that each subject in nature
needs not its own term.
For the more we partition
the way we confer,
the more power we lose
to connect and concur.
If we aim to speak clear,
Our conference to unfetter:
In lieu of new words,
Use the ones we have better.

From a practical standpoint, its near impossible to find all the relevant literature on a subject when there are so many terms to describe said subject. It’s also near impossible to talk to each other when we all use specialized, subdivided dialects. I’m fascinated by traits that are shaped by continuous environmental variation, traits such as growth rates, social behaviors, spiders’ webs, and floral nectar. Depending on who you talk to, these are ‘dynamically-variable traits,’ ‘infinite dimensional characters,’ ‘continuous reaction norms,’ ‘function-valued traits,’ and the list goes on. Some who read this may say ‘these are all very different ideas!’ At this (admittedly early) phase of my career, I have a hard time seeing how they are distinct, at least from a conceptual standpoint. From what I understand, all these phrases describe an environmentally responsive pattern of phenotypic expression, and the only substantive differences among them are the measurements taken or the kinds of models specified.

If you think I’m wrong, please, take my head to the chopping block! I love these kinds of constructive arguments. As I always tell my friends who roll their eyes when I start going off on this rant: if you’re never going to tell anyone about the science you do, then feel free to call it whatever you please. But recognize that no one will pay you to do that. Our work as researchers is to measure things in nature and try to make sense of them. Our job as a community of scientists is to argue about semantics until we’ve honed our collective understanding to a precise point. As it stands, 21st century graduate students like myself are floundering in a rising sea of overlapping ‘Next Big Things.’ Please, I beg of you, I don’t need more terms! I need fewer terms with clearer articulations.

We all aim to unify our specialized biological subdisciplines through The Big Ideas. To achieve such integration, we desperately need a common language.

2 responses to “Words, words, words”

  1. I enjoyed reading your poem! And about all these subdisciplines growing in number as the jargon gets more specialized: Aren’t we on the way to missing the forest for all the trees? I have always tried to stick to the fundamentals, and think about broader implications. It’s a more fun than delving into endless technical detail.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ron, I completely agree! I’m attending a virtual conference this week that brings together a lot of heavily siloed subdisciplines. It’s wonderful that we’re talking to each other, but the conversation is largely unintelligible because of the glut of specialized vocabulary. Half the talk Q&As turn into explaining definitions. We’re all talking about the same thing without recognizing it! It’s quite the comedy of errors.


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