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Thread: Why do scientists use words they don't need to use?

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    Why do scientists use words they don't need to use?

    like "stochastic" instead of "random", or "unity" instead of "one"?
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    Because we do need to use them of course.

    Mark

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    I have over 20 publications, 3 or 4 patent applications, probably hundreds of reports and memos, and I don't think I've ever used "stochastic" in a sentence (well, I guess I just used it in this one).

    I suspect it entirely depends on the particular discipline, and if there is a necessity for the particular topic to distinguish between more technically precise terms and more commonly used terms. There could also be stylistic considerations.
    Last edited by Swift; 2019-Oct-23 at 02:54 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    I have over 20 publications, 3 or 4 patent applications, probably hundreds of reports and memos, and I don't think I've ever used "stochastic" in a sentence (well, I guess I just used it in this one).

    I suspect it entirely depends on the particular discipline, and if there is a necessity for the particular topic to distinguish between more technically precise terms and more commonly used terms. There could also be stylistic considerations.
    My brother tells of a college professor saying "The behavior is common in avian species."
    In other words, birds do it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    My brother tells of a college professor saying "The behavior is common in avian species."
    In other words, birds do it.
    Part of this comes from being asked for 2000 words on what may be a simple answer. "It has also been observed in Apis mellifera".

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    I think there are two main reasons. One is that uncommon words are sometimes necessary to make distinctions that have to be made. The other thing is that scientists are like other writers, who use words unnecessarily. For example, "utilize" instead of "use" or "prior to" instead of "before" or "has the capacity to" instead of just "can." And scientists definitely do do it. I read scientific papers as part of my job (writing press releases), and me and my colleagues sometimes wonder why writers have to say "we performed an analysis of" instead of simply "we analyzed." But academic writing is full of that kind of thing, in most fields I think.

    And actually, though this is not in the field of science, there is a law that was passed in the US in 2010 that requires Federal agencies to use "plain language," so it is also an issue in government.

    https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/PLAW-111publ274

    But in general, I think that people use long words because they think it makes them appear well educated and smart. Sometimes it probably does (which is why we have a motivation to do it), but not always.
    As above, so below

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    I won't argue that some people overcomplicate language. But I'd also like to point out that scientists in particular get hit by a related problem when they try to avoid doing this. When we use an everyday word to mean a very precisely defined scientific concept people first assume a bunch of things about what is behind said because the "understand" the words used. Then when this reasoning fails they get annoyed that words they know are not being used in the way they are used to.

    I think random and stochastic are good examples of that. A stochastic process has a set of clearly defined properties relevant to how you can analyse it. Whereas random is a more widely known term that comes without this precise definition as commonly used, unless of course scientists hijack it to mean something more locked down.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula View Post
    I won't argue that some people overcomplicate language. But I'd also like to point out that scientists in particular get hit by a related problem when they try to avoid doing this. When we use an everyday word to mean a very precisely defined scientific concept people first assume a bunch of things about what is behind said because the "understand" the words used. Then when this reasoning fails they get annoyed that words they know are not being used in the way they are used to.

    I think random and stochastic are good examples of that. A stochastic process has a set of clearly defined properties relevant to how you can analyse it. Whereas random is a more widely known term that comes without this precise definition as commonly used, unless of course scientists hijack it to mean something more locked down.
    It's funny because I think we both said the same thing, except that I used one sentence to describe A and then a bunch of sentences to describe B, whereas you described A in detail and put B into one sentence.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I think there are two main reasons. One is that uncommon words are sometimes necessary to make distinctions that have to be made. The other thing is that scientists are like other writers, who use words unnecessarily. For example, "utilize" instead of "use" or "prior to" instead of "before" or "has the capacity to" instead of just "can." And scientists definitely do do it. I read scientific papers as part of my job (writing press releases), and me and my colleagues sometimes wonder why writers have to say "we performed an analysis of" instead of simply "we analyzed." But academic writing is full of that kind of thing, in most fields I think.

    And actually, though this is not in the field of science, there is a law that was passed in the US in 2010 that requires Federal agencies to use "plain language," so it is also an issue in government.

    https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/PLAW-111publ274

    But in general, I think that people use long words because they think it makes them appear well educated and smart. Sometimes it probably does (which is why we have a motivation to do it), but not always.
    Is it "me and my colleagues" or is it "my colleagues and I" ?
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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    Is it "me and my colleagues" or is it "my colleagues and I" ?
    It should be the latter of course. But Im speaking like a typical unsophisticated Merican.


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    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    It should be the latter of course. But I’m speaking like a typical unsophisticated Merican.


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    Then shouldn't it be "me and my bros" instead?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim View Post
    Then shouldn't it be "me and my bros" instead?
    Sure. Or since Im from New York, maybe me and my pals.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    But I’m speaking like a typical unsophisticated Merican.
    Right there. Redundancy of words. Equivalent to
    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    But I’m speaking like a Merican.

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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    like "stochastic" instead of "random", or "unity" instead of "one"?
    Well, these are not strict synonyms, so (as Shaula points out) it may be that "scientists" are making a useful distinction when they use one word instead of another. And, because the nomenclature of science was stll shaking down when Latin was the lingua franca for scientific communication, a lot of that usefully defined vocabulary tends to be polysyllabic Romance rather than the Germanic alternatives in common use.

    Also, everyone makes word choices, all the time, depending on how they wish to be perceived. In some cases it's just showing off or anxiety, but very often it's an in-group/out-group thing - there's a way of talking that signals you're part of a particular club, and that's by no means restricted to scientists. If you're a member of multiple different groups, you'll often code-switch according to which group you're currently addressing.

    Sometimes people from the out-group can't tell if someone's vocabulary merely signals their in-group, or actually makes a useful technical distinction using terms of art. I was once involved in the care of a (IIRC) professor of mediaeval literature, who seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about doctors. When I visited him post-operatively to discharge him from the recovery room, the student nurse looking after him asked what she should do about his intravenous infusion.
    "You can discontinue that when he goes back to the ward," I said.
    "Hah!" exclaimed the professor. "Typical medic, using a four-syllable Latin word when there's a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon alternative of one syllable: 'stop'."
    "No," explained the nurse. "There's a difference between 'stop' and 'discontinue'. If I stop the infusion, I just turn it off - I couldn't send you back to the ward like that. If I discontinue it, I disconnect it completely."
    He managed a grudging harrumph, but then said, "Well. But my point remains."
    "Shouldn't that be 'stays'?" asked the nurse, brightly, before I could even open my mouth.

    Grant Hutchison

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    It's obviously reflective of the French influence in science. As everyone knows, in French, you never use one word when ten will do.

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    Sometimes you need the words. AFAIK, There's no simple English for Markov Chain, or even Abelian group.
    As a Biochemist (9 patents), I've had to use "stochastic", Boson and Fermion. They tend to come up a lot when you are studying things that follow a discrete algebra, as opposed to algebra of the real numbers. Statistical mechanics, harmonic oscillators, combinatorics etc. will draw you into a vocabulary that most folk don't know. If you stick the word "random" in there, when you mean "stochastic", people will be fooled into thinking they know what you are talking about.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula View Post
    I won't argue that some people overcomplicate language. But I'd also like to point out that scientists in particular get hit by a related problem when they try to avoid doing this. When we use an everyday word to mean a very precisely defined scientific concept people first assume a bunch of things about what is behind said because the "understand" the words used. Then when this reasoning fails they get annoyed that words they know are not being used in the way they are used to.

    I think random and stochastic are good examples of that. A stochastic process has a set of clearly defined properties relevant to how you can analyse it. Whereas random is a more widely known term that comes without this precise definition as commonly used, unless of course scientists hijack it to mean something more locked down.
    Also, more commonly used words are more flexible in the ways they are used. A "stochastic process" is a process which is stochastic in nature. A "random process" could be that, or it could be "any arbitrarily chosen process".

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    In medicine, many of the terms are old, latin, and entrenched.

    For example- there is an autoimmune condition that affects the skin and muscles known as "Dermatomyositis".
    Later on, it became clear that some patients didn't get muscle involvement.... but the term "Dermatitis" was already taken.. hence the condition is named: "Amyopathic Dermatomyositis". In some cases, the muscle involvement is just delayed so one can refer to this situation as "Pre/Amyopathic Dermatomyositis".

    The point is that often these things need to be given labels.. and these labels have all the foibles of historical contingency.

    I assume the analogy is natural selection which evolves a mammalian eye with a big blind spot, vs electronic light sensors (CCDs) which can be designed 'from scratch' repeatedly.... although Kuhn would say even then that scientists in this field of technology are limited by their own self-imposed paradigms.

    There are medical coding systems (usually for billing purposes) but nobody says "I have just been diagnosed with 33.10."

    Top-down imposition of cultural changes- e.g. the French revolutionary calendar, non-binary gender pronouns, esperanto are difficult to stick... even when more sensible. The metric system in the USA is a case in point.




    https://www.icd10data.com/ICD10CM/Co...36/M33-/M33.10
    Last edited by plant; 2019-Oct-24 at 02:33 AM.
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    Actually, amyopathic dermatomyositis makes sense. The condition of having a characteristic rash of dermatomyositis without muscle pain or weakness used to be called dermatomyositis sine myositis - "without the myositis". Switching to amyopathic was made on the basis that a patient might actually have an asymptomatic myositis to go with their rash - "no muscle suffering". Now that laboratory tests can demonstrate the presence of muscle inflammation in the absence of symptoms, there's a move to call it clinical amyopathic dermatomyositis (CADM) - "I can see the classic rash, I can find no signs or symptoms of myositis, but the lab tests may show it".
    Of course, none of this even mentions the lung involvement. The disease is named for its presentation, not for its progression.

    But, yes, disease names (like every other word in the English language) are in general subject to their sense moving away from their etymology.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Engineers have specific words too that have technical meaning but get used everyday in different ways. Stress, strain, engineer, design, force, pressure, frequency, nut, bolt, screw, bond, beam, strut, tie, board, tolerance, failure, test. The general usage does cause failure to communicate, so special words are added or adjectives coined, after all we do not want everybody to understand everything, .
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    Apparently the word "trigger" is out amongst the Psychologists*. They've gone to stressor, or do they spell it stresser?, instead.
    This puts quite a strain on the eardrums of people who took mechanical engineering/physics in college.
    In most technical fields, the precise meaning of words is crucial to whether or not you can solve a problem. Slang, or casual language, will only get you in trouble.

    ------
    *I suspect because all the mass shootings in the US have turned the word trigger into something more closely tied to guns than the little part of a mouse trap you put cheese on, or smear with peanut butter. i.e.: The word "trigger" now stresses Americans.
    Last edited by Squink; 2019-Oct-24 at 02:55 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    In most technical fields, the precise meaning of words is crucial to whether or not you can solve a problem.
    Q: How do you tell the difference between a physicist and a plumber?
    A: Ask them to pronounce "unionized".

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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveC426913 View Post
    Q: How do you tell the difference between a physicist and a plumber?
    A: Ask them to pronounce "unionized".
    And a chemist would say un-ion-ized.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Apparently the word "trigger" is out amongst the Psychologists*. They've gone to stressor, or do they spell it stresser?, instead.
    This puts quite a strain on the eardrums of people who took mechanical engineering/physics in college.
    In most technical fields, the precise meaning of words is crucial to whether or not you can solve a problem. Slang, or casual language, will only get you in trouble.

    ------
    *I suspect because all the mass shootings in the US have turned the word trigger into something more closely tied to guns than the little part of a mouse trap you put cheese on, or smear with peanut butter. i.e.: The word "trigger" now stresses Americans.
    The US meaning of Trigger has been misused and transformed by internet trolls. "LOL, I triggered you!"
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Apparently the word "trigger" is out amongst the Psychologists*. They've gone to stressor, or do they spell it stresser?, instead.
    This puts quite a strain on the eardrums of people who took mechanical engineering/physics in college.
    In most technical fields, the precise meaning of words is crucial to whether or not you can solve a problem. Slang, or casual language, will only get you in trouble.

    ------
    *I suspect because all the mass shootings in the US have turned the word trigger into something more closely tied to guns than the little part of a mouse trap you put cheese on, or smear with peanut butter. i.e.: The word "trigger" now stresses Americans.
    Has it reached a tipping point? 15% minimum?
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    When we realize that patterns don't exist in the universe, they are a template that we hold to the universe to make sense of it, it all makes a lot more sense.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Apparently the word "trigger" is out amongst the Psychologists*.
    I think psychologists are still happy with the word "trigger", they'd just like people to stop misusing it to describe every mild stressor in their lives. If you suffer from true PTSD triggers, it's actually really frustrating to hear someone claim to be "triggered" by exposure to a political viewpoint they disagree with.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Sure, Grant. Psychology/Psychiatry has to operate on the edge between the speech of science and laymen. That forces them to use odd constructions sometimes. P450 2D6 --> Liver enzyme.
    Makes me glad I went more towards the hard core stuff.

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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    Is it "me and my colleagues" or is it "my colleagues and I" ?
    There is no simple answer to this. I could point you at a linguistic PhD thesis on the factors that affect the choice of coordinated pronouns, if you are interested.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    It should be the latter of course. But Im speaking like a typical unsophisticated Merican.


    OK.There is a simple answer. But it is wrong.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    I could point you at a linguistic PhD thesis on the factors that affect the choice of coordinated pronouns, if you are interested.
    Oooooh, yes please.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Slang, or casual language, will only get you in trouble.
    Just make sure the casual language is within our rules and I won't do anything to you.
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