Those of you who have ever brought a piece of scientific research to completion — a process which almost always includes publishing your results — have probably run into lists like this one that spell out the meanings of phrases commonly used in scientific papers. Included are such classics as:
“It has long been known”
I don’t know the original reference.
“Typical results are shown”
Either means the only results are shown or the best results are shown.
“A trend is evident”
Okay, a trend does seem apparent to me, but no statistical analysis in the world will support it.
I’m hoping by now that you’ll have caught that these lists are intended to be humorous. Scientists are engaged in an endeavor where they’re trying to figure out what the data show about the world, not just what they want to see in their experimental results. Ideally, scientists are making sure their data and conclusions can stand up to the toughest objections they can imagine being raised before they even send their manuscripts off to the journal. And, to the extent that science is a knowledge-building project where scientists need to be able to depend on the results communicated by other scientists, they know they should be striving for scrupulous honesty and utter clarity of language. Irony is not a literary device that ought to be getting a lot of use in scientific communication.
And yet, part of what drives the “humor” in the “translation guide” is that there are scientists who do engage in … what to call it? Putting the most favorable spin on their results? Stretching the meanings of the words as far as they can go without engaging in outright lies? It’s not the kind of thing in which scientists are typically proud to engage, but when an experiment is being particularly cranky in year 7 of a graduate program, one can imagine that it might be a better option than saying, “I’ve got nothing.” And certainly, one suspects that other scientists are engaging in scientific puffery.
The other day I heard of another example in this vein. Professor Smith finds an interesting and important result, writes it up, and sends it to the journal, which accepts it for publication. A few months later, Jones submits a report of a very similar (if not exactly identical) result. The kicker: Jones includes a paragraph near the end of his manuscript saying “Our results were recently confirmed by Smith.”
OK, there’s a sense in which Smith’s results and Jones’s results do confirm each other; when different scientists get the same experimental results, it suggests they’ve gotten hold of some real feature of the world. But the wording here is certainly meant to suggest that Jones got to the result first and Smith got there later and found that Jones was indeed correct in what he reported– while the priority as established by when the two manuscripts were received by the journal is just the opposite.
Jones seems to be trying to put one over on the other scientists reading his article. Smith, especially, views this as less than honest.
Why do people use words whose meaning is some distance from the truth? I imagine it’s because they anticipate that there’s a benefit that will come to them from cultivating a certain predictable misunderstanding, or a cost that will come to them if they state the truth plainly. The way the score is kept in the world of science, Jones doesn’t get any points at all for his finding if Smith gets there first — not because it’s not an important finding, nor even because Jones didn’t get there on the basis of his own effort and ingenuity (since he did), but simply because the scientist who gets there first gets to plant his flag and claim the glory. Keeping score this way makes it seem irrational not to try to squeeze some extra points out of the system by playing on ambiguities in the word “confirmed”.
This strikes me as one more reason it might be useful to reexamine the reward structure to see whether it’s actually motivating scientists to produce more and better knowledge.