Sunday, August 23, 2009

Atrocious science writer clichés

Wired's Betsy Mason, who plainly has better taste and better sense than the average science writer, has an entertaining list of

5 Atrocious Science Clichés to Throw Down a Black Hole
A black hole is the perfect place for stuff you never want to see again. So Wired Science is joining’s extended black hole party by chucking in some of the worst, most overused science clichés.

I heartily endorse all of her picks, especially the first three. Online comments to the article add a number of other choice clunkers.

In that spirit, I'll add a few of my own.

  • atom smasher – actual atom smashers largely ceased to be big news in the 1950s or so, shortly before they were superseded by particle accelerators, like the Stanford Linear Accelerator (1966), designed to smash the constituent subatomic particles of atoms
  • god particle – nauseating term for the Higgs boson, designed to appeal to the religiously obsessed by people who really should know better; New York Times writer Dennis Overbye actually covered himself in... well, something, when he attempted to defend this merde, instead of casting it into the outer darkness
  • black hole machine – a popular circumlocution used by writers who seize up at the thought of using the proper name Large Hadron Collider, based most unfortunately on the widely circulated nonsense about the possibility a microscopic black hole created by the LHC might destroy the universe (a feat that, in spite of much to be said in its favor, even black holes a billion times more massive than our sun are incapable of)
  • pave the way – a hoary metaphor that must date from the days of Telford and McAdam, if not the Romans and their roads; it's now full of potholes, and most commonly used to refer to some scientific finding of no great importance at present, but for which its discoverers are hopeful of being recognized at some indefinite time in the future
  • groundbreaking – another construction metaphor equally as odoriferous, and inane, as "paving the way"
  • breakthrough – what some writers call a scientific finding, just before they say it "paves the way"
  • a possible cure for _____ – a way to describe a biomedical discovery that will probably also be described as "groundbreaking" or "a breakthrough", even though the odds are heavily against it leading to a cure for anything
  • shed light on – listed by Betsy also, but so awful it needs to be repeated in this list. (Added 10/15/09: see this for an egregious example that combines, in the title and first two paragraphs, the last three types of atrociousness.)
  • guardian of the genome – what writers who are too cowardly to write "p53" use for the name of said protein and its gene, apparently because they think that the public appreciates authoritarian metaphors
  • Lou Gehrig's disease – a neurological disease whose proper name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, named after some American athletic dude of the 1930s who's mostly remembered now for having contracted the disease; also referred to by Brits as "motor neurone disease" when, if they had any sense, they'd call it Stephen Hawking's disease
  • key to unlocking the mystery – as if scientific "secrets" are highly classified memoranda or cabalistic esoterica kept under lock and key... I suppose this sort of thing appeals to detective story fans and conspiracy theorists; great for promoting science as a form of infotainment, but a cliché nevertheless, as is most of the genre it's based on; this cliché is akin to "paving the way", because it's useful for describing results that fall short of resolving a question

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Anonymous CP said...

I would throw in "decode the genes" and "crack the genetic code" when used in the context of sequencing a genome. If sequencing "cracked the code" then most biologists would be out of a job.

9/18/2009 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Dudley Brooks said...

Great article, Charles! A groundbreaking analysis that paves the way to shedding light on the quality of science writing, so vitally important to today's modern world of the future. It may be the key to unlocking the mystery of why Johnny can't do science.


10/28/2009 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Zeelia said...

How about cliches that have no meaning at all. My favorite is the word "ameliorate." Protein X ameliorated the effects of whatever disease I'm studying. The translation is usually somewhere along the lines of I put a completely unphysiological amount of protein X into a cell and it did something I can now publish.

10/18/2010 10:20:00 AM  

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