Tuesday, July 3, 2007

So-called Science

What message did you infer from my choice of title? Perhaps that I am going to talk about something that is posing as science - pretending to be the real deal - but that is actually some kind of quackery that is not deserving of the magnificent and imposing label Science?

I'm actually going to talk about one of my pet peeves – the use of the words “so-called” in the reporting of scientific discoveries.

Take this press release from Science Daily as an example. The article was “adapted from a news release issued by Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard” and explains a genuinely interesting development in the field of stem cell research. It generally reads very well indeed, containing enough information to satisfy my scientific curiosity, but with a pace and use of language that should keep a lay reader interested.

But there's my pet peeve, right in the first paragraph:

a new study unveils a special code -- not within DNA, but within the so-called "chromatin" proteins surrounding it -- that could unlock these mysterious choices underlying cell identity.
They're not so-called “chromatin” proteins, they're just chromatin proteins. I see this kind of thing crop up again and again in scientific reporting - on the internet, in newspapers, even on the BBC News (Gasp! Surely not!). Whether it's “so-called shot gun cloning” or “so-called regulatory regions [of the gene]” (both examples that I found in a two-minute Google search just now), this phrase in this context just really grates on me for some reason. Maybe it's just me, but the words “so-called” seem to effectively cast doubt on the honesty and motives of the person or study being quoted.

Scientists are not making these names up just to confuse journalists! Genes, proteins and methods have actual names that we all use, just like any other object or process. We're not trying to pull a fast one on you and laugh at you behind your back. Honest. So how about using (and defining) the real name in a way that doesn't make us look so dodgy?

It's not all bad. Here's an example of what I would consider to be the correct usage of the phrase, in a description of the genetics of red hair:

Scotland... has the highest proportion of redheads (13 per cent of the population have red hair; 40 per cent carry the recessive so-called “ginger gene”), with Ireland coming a strong second.
Hooray! This sentence successfully conveys the fact that the gene involved in human hair pigmentation is not actually called the ginger gene, that it has another, real scientific name. I guess the MC1R gene just wasn't as much fun to write about.

Well, time to go now. I have to make a so-called curry for dinner.


  1. Theres a whole blog dedicated to another so-called pet peeve, literally.

  2. Ha! That's excellent. I'm not on that much of a crusade, although I might point out any seriously annoying uses of the same phrase at a later date...


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