Archive for The language of science

Death by french fries

The Daily Telegraph did not do much for its reputation, at least in my eyes, when it confused the defense with the prosecution after a celebrity sexual assault mistrial. Nor when it recently consulted me about whether there were grammar mistakes on a banknote, learned that there clearly were not, but went ahead and published the claim that there were anyway. Now for a sample of the Telegraph's science reporting, written by Adam Boult, who I suspect didn't complete his statistics course:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Memes, tropes, and frames

In a workshop over the weekend at the Annenberg Public Policy Center,  one of the presentations was based on a paper by Dan Kahan et al., "Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test", Journal of Risk Research 2017. The abstract starts this way [emphasis added]:

This paper examines a remedy for a defect in existing accounts of public risk perceptions. The accounts in question feature two dynamics: the affect heuristic, which emphasizes the impact of visceral feelings on information processing; and the cultural cognition thesis, which describes the tendency of individuals to form beliefs that reflect and reinforce their group commitments. The defect is the failure of these two dynamics, when combined, to explain the peculiar selectivity of public risk controversies: despite their intensity and disruptiveness, such controversies occur less frequently than the affect heuristic and the cultural cognition thesis seem to predict. To account for this aspect of public risk perceptions, the paper describes a model that adds the phenomenon of culturally antagonistic memes – argumentative tropes that fuse positions on risk with contested visions of the best life. Arising adventitiously, antagonistic memes transform affect and cultural cognition from consensus-generating, truth-convergent influences on information processing into conflictual, identity-protective ones.

During the discussion, someone remarked in passing that these things are properly not memes or tropes but rather frames.  What follows is a bit of idle lexicographic investigation into this terminological tangle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It's the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (59)

The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (54)


"Slow-talking the inaugural" was just reposted in Significance, a a statistics magazine published by the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society. Or following their logo,

which I guess can be approximated via Unicode as SIGNIFICΛNC.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Excel invents genes

Mark Ziemann, Yotam Eren and Assam El-Osta, "Gene name errors are widespread in the scientific literature", Genome Biology 2016:

The spreadsheet software Microsoft Excel, when used with default settings, is known to convert gene names to dates and floating-point numbers. A programmatic scan of leading genomics journals reveals that approximately one-fifth of papers with supplementary Excel gene lists contain erroneous gene name conversions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

Language Log literally changes your brain

Emily Hopkins, Deena Weisberg, and Jordan Taylor, "The seductive allure is a reductive allure: People prefer scientific explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive information", Cognition 2016:

Previous work has found that people feel significantly more satisfied with explanations of psychological phenomena when those explanations contain neuroscience information — even when this information is entirely irrelevant to the logic of the explanations. This seductive allure effect was first demonstrated by Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray (2008), and has since been replicated several times (Fernandez-Duque, Evans, Christian, & Hodges, 2015; Minahan & Siedlecki, 2016; Rhodes, Rodriguez, & Shah, 2014; Weisberg, Taylor, & Hopkins, 2015). However, these studies only examined psychological phenomena. The current study thus investigated the generality of this effect and found that it occurs across several scientific disciplines whenever the explanations include reductive information: reference to smaller components or more fundamental processes. These data suggest that people have a general preference for reductive information, even when it is irrelevant to the logic of an explanation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)


John Oliver on TV Science — featuring the TODD talks ("Trends, Observations, and Dangerous Drivel"):

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

It's about time

Biologists are figuring out what many other fields learned decades ago:

See Amy Harmon, "Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet", NYT 3/15/2016. Also see "Reviewer Two must die".

Academic journals are on their way to playing the same role in the life of science and engineering that caps and gowns do: a quaint cultural relic that plays a role in celebratory rituals, but has nothing to do with the day-to-day process of exploration, discovery and communication.

Comments (9)

How to turn one out of five into three out of four

Towards the end of last year, there was a bit of a fuss in the UK about the role of alcohol in hospital costs. Thus Sarah Knapton, "Three in four people in A&E at weekend are there because of alcohol: 70 per cent of people are admitted to emergency units at the weekend as a result of drinking", The Telegraph 12/21/2015 — illustrated with the rather atypical picture on the right.

And there was plenty of other coverage, e.g. "Alcohol-related A&E cases rise to 70% of workload at weekends", Daily Mail 12/21/2015; Mike Doran, "Alcohol responsible for up to 70% of all A&E admissions as experts renew minimum unit price calls", The Mirror 12/21/2015; Annalee Newitz, "Drunk people account for 70% of weekend emergency room visits in UK city: Drinking binges are now a scientifically measurable phenomenon", Ars Technica 12/22/2015.

But there's just one little wrinkle: the actual rates that the study found (of alcohol involvement in weekend emergency-room visits) were more like 20%. So how did the journalists get from "one in five" to "three in four"? Well, basically in the same way that we're allowed to conclude that in 1986, the rate of space-shuttle explosions was one per week. After all, there was one week in that year (the last week of January) when there was an explosion. And in the cited study, there was one weekend hour (2:00-3:00 a.m.) when a bit over 70% of the patients were measured with a non-zero breath alcohol content.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)


Christiaan H Vinkers et al., "Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis", BMJ 2015:

Design Retrospective analysis of all scientific abstracts in PubMed between 1974 and 2014.  

Methods The yearly frequencies of positive, negative, and neutral words (25 preselected words in each category), plus 100 randomly selected words were normalised for the total number of abstracts. […]

Results The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Nicholas Wade's DNA decoded

Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title:  "Researchers just found the gene responsible for mistakenly thinking we've found the gene for specific things. It's the region between the start and the end of every chromosome, plus a few segments in our mitochondria."

For background, see "The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009.

Comments (7)

Replicability vs. reproducibility — or is it the other way around?

The term reproducible research, in its current sensewas coined about 1990 by the geophysicist Jon Claerbout.  Thus Jon Claerbout & Martin Karrenbach, "Electronic Documents Give Reproducible Research a New Meaning", Society of Exploration Geophysics 1992 [emphasis added, here and throughout]:

A revolution in education and technology transfer follows from the marriage of word processing and software command scripts. In this marriage an author attaches to every figure caption a pushbutton or a name tag usable to recalculate the figure from all its data, parameters, and programs. This provides a concrete definition of reproducibility in computationally oriented research. Experience at the Stanford Exploration Project shows that preparing such electronic documents is little effort beyond our customary report writing; mainly, we need to file everything in a systematic way. […]

The principal goal of scientific publications is to teach new concepts, show the resulting implications of those concepts in an illustration, and provide enough detail to make the work reproducible. In real life, reproducibility is haphazard and variable. Because of this, we rarely see a seismology PhD thesis being redone at a later date by another person. In an electronic document, readers, students, and customers can readily verify results and adapt them to new circumstances without laboriously recreating the author's environment.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)