On jargon

It is true that science is more about falsifiability, objectivity, and empiricism, and less about white coats, bunsen burners, and laboratories. However, it is certainly the case that the common stereotyped view of most people is that  science focuses more on these latter superficialities than on the philosophical underpinnings. One feature of science that pseudoscientists often attempt to imitate is its use of technical language, or “jargon”.

It is often said that a precise technical vocabulary is necessary, but not sufficient, for good science.  This means that developing an extensive lexicon of technical-sounding terms might be a feature of science—but on its own it doesn’t amount to science. Unfortunately, pseudosciences often take advantage of the public stereotypes of science and scientists and develop strange but technical sounding terms to describe what it is that they do. Thus acupuncturists talk about “meridiens”, chiropractors talk about “subluxations”, and homoeopaths talk about “succussions”, despite the fact that these technical-sounding terms are so poorly defined as to be virtually meaningless.  However, without background knowledge, the general public often considers such technical-sounding vocabulary to be an indication that the practitioner knows what they are talking about and that the activity concerned is scientific.

For some geeky entertainment, it can be interesting to consider what it is that makes certain terminology “sound” scientific.  If you are interested in starting your own pseudoscience, you might wish to give some thought to this matter.  Instead of claiming to talk to fairies in your garden, you might wish to engage in “information-interchange with ephemeral horticulturally-located intelligences”.  Instead of claiming to be able to turn milk into beer, you might claim to have access to “lactic ethanolisation technology”.

One paradoxical point to bear in mind is that the technical jargon used in real science often doesn’t sound that scientific at all.  Indeed, some of the terms used can sound ridiculous.  A well-cited list of examples is contained in the website Molecules with Silly Names. You will see that some of the terms used in real science sound completely daft. Perhaps some of the most amusing examples include arsole, moronic acid, godnose, Cummingtonite, BArF, and dUMP, as well as (of course) the controversial gallery of such frightening-sounding entities as fucitol, fukalite, fucol, fuchsite, and fucU.

Interestingly, very few pseudoscientists invent silly names for their own dodgy concepts.  Presumably they want to steer as far away from ridicule as possible.



Categories: Alternative/Complementary Medicine, Jargon, Pseudoscience, Science, Scientific literacy

1 reply

  1. Great to see the blog is up and running Brian. You might appreciate this little piece of satire. Try and spot the fiction form the fraud. He says at the beginning that he wants to make the mechanisms of homeopathy understandable. ha. Cheers mate.

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