Everyday Words Whose Scientific Meanings Are Different

THEORY

In everyday language, a theory is something that hasn’t been proven. We use it to mean ‘hypothesis’.

I don’t know why socks go missing but I have a  theory.

MARK COLVIN: Do you think that to a degree [the theory of evolution is] a communication failure by science? Do you think that just the very word, “theory”, in the “theory of evolution” has misled people?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, I think that’s not the only communication failure. I think that simply not bothering to go out there and talk in the public square is part of the problem.

– from this interview.

Here’s how the word ‘theory’ works in scientific literature, compared to some similar words:

  • Hypothesis–>An educated (or uneducated) guess
  • Science Method–>The 7 step process to test said guess
  • Theory–>The “why” of something works
  • Law–>The “what” of something that works

courtesy of Freethought Blogs.

NATURAL

In common usage, ‘natural’ = ‘good’.

The Incredible Arrogance of Thinking ‘Natural’ Means ‘Good’

This one is a marketing difference and it pays to remind oneself regularly: brown packaging and ‘natural’ on the box doesn’t mean jack. Cancer. That, too, is ‘natural’.

CASUISTRY

A college professor taught me the word “casuistry” when it came up in office hours during a conversation we were having about a presentation I was slated to give on John Donne. It has two definitions: the first more technical definition has something to do with applying abstract rules to concrete instances. The second, in more common usage, is something like “specious, sophistic reasoning.” It’s especially associated with the Jesuits, who (allegedly) used it to rationalize light punishments for aristocratic sinners. It’s a great word. I especially like to use it when I’m losing an argument, because even if, say, my husband is being perfectly logical, nothing undermines a debate by calling him a casuist.

Persephone

SYMBIOSIS

In science, symbiosis means ‘a close relationship’. There are four main kinds of symbiosis, one of which is mutualism.

In everyday English, when people talk about ‘a symbiotic relationship’ we are most often talking about mutualism, or ‘a mutual relationship’, which would be technically more accurate.

Apart from mutualism,  three other types of symbiosis are:

  1. Commensalism, in which one species benefits while the other remains unaffected
  2. Parasitism, in which one species benefits while the other is harmed
  3. Neutralism, in which both species are unaffected

TOXIN

Common Usage: Man-made chemicals

Scientific Usage: Biologically produced poisons.

(Toxoid: A toxin which has been rendered no longer toxic eg. a vaccination is ‘toxoid’, which doesn’t exactly help the vaccination cause.)

 

MYTH

Myth
from A Comprehensible Universe: The interplay of Science and Theology

EPIDEMIC

Scientists generally use the term “epidemic” to refer to a disease that occurs suddenly in a discrete population, an outbreak. An epidemic is not declared on the basis of high numbers but on the speed or rate that new cases pop up. In the nineteenth century, the word was used almost exclusively to describe a wave of infectious disease. In the typical graph of an epidemic, the number of cases is plotted against a measurement of time, such as days or weeks, to show how quickly the disease is spreading.

With the notable exception of AIDS, in modern times we’ve had less experience than previous generations with fast-moving infectious diseases, like polio or smallpox, that can affect entire populations. As a result, the time component of the definition of an epidemic has become less crucial. As one consequence, the definition of ‘epidemic’ has broadened. Now, we use the word with little reference to the speed at which new cases are occurring, which puts us one step away from the original usage. And when we talk about epidemics of conditions that are not contagious — such as skin cancer, autism, anorexia nervosa, and teen pregnancy — or conditions and situations that are not even real diseases — like alien abduction, or satanic child abuse — we’re two steps away.

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism by Roy Richard Grinker

Related Link

What scientists say in research papers vs. What they actually mean, from io9

Picturebook Study: Colour Analysis

THE IDEATIONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

In its most basic role, colour is used to represent the hue of things as they appear in the real world.

  • Grass is green
  • Sky is blue (or not)
  • Cows on small farms are black and white
  • Brick houses are red
  • American barns are red
  • Suns are yellow or white in the West, red in Japan
  • and so on

 

THE TEXTUAL ROLE OF COLOUR

  • The same colour might be used over and over to mean something symbolic, like the colour red in the film Sixth Sense (a color motif)
  • Colour may be used contrastively to highlight or foreground some element within a composition to make it especially salient to the viewer.

 

THE INTERPERSONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

This is about the emotional effect colour has on the viewer. This refers to the visceral response we have, independent of the actual story being told. Other useful words are: ambience, mood, atmosphere.

  • A picture book filled with bright, light colours might feel childlike and joyous
  • A picture book done in monochrome might make us feel melancholy or reflective or sombre.
  • Sepia tones put us in mind of an historicised story.
  • Colour and texture can be either infused or defused (I’ve also heard the term ‘diffused’ or we might say ‘drained’.)
  • Lighting effects can make a picture seem either dramatized (e.g. arte noir) or flat
  • We can speak in terms of vibrancy, which is another term for saturation (lots of colour, or tending more towards monochrome). Vibrancy creates excitement whereas muted choices create gentle, restrained feelings, or perhaps flat feelings. Note that ‘muted’ can refer to either light or dark images. Rosie’s Walk is muted but light, whereas Wolves In The Walls is muted but dark.
  • Vibrancy/saturation is tied directly to the variable of ‘value’ — the lights and darks — imagine the illustration blocked out in grey scale. That’s its value. (Illustrators often do a values picture first, and digital illustrators often work by doing the values and only adding colour on separate layers after all the value details have been finalised. This allows hue and vibrancy to be changed easily at any stage of the publishing process.)
  • We can speak in terms of warmth, according to how yellow/blue a picture is.
  • Warm colours and cool colours can signal the temperature of the environment but also the emotion of the characters, or both.
  • And something not seen in digital art software: we can also speak in terms of ‘familiarity’. Familiar illustrations will have more colour differentiation whereas ‘removed’ illustrations will have less.
  • A ‘familiar’ ambience is made up of lots of ‘colour differentiation’. (Lots of different colours.) The reason it’s called ‘familiar’ is because the real world is also made up of lots of different colours, and we are familiar with the real world.
  • When illustrators make use of a reduced palette they are making the conscious decision to move readers away from the familiar and into the strange. There will be a reason for wanting to move us away from reality and it’s just a matter of working out what that reason is when analysing an illustration.
  • This removal from reality needn’t be in the literal sense — it might be
  • Vibrancy, warmth and familiarity are all active simultaneously — they don’t cancel each other out.
  • An opposite of the ‘familiar’ colour scheme might be described as ‘saudade’, from Portuguese.

saudade

  • Saudade Pinterest Boards
  • A mixture of familiar and saudade colour palettes in the same book can show the difference between, say, characters who are enjoying life and a part of their environment and those who are removed. (As an example see Anthony Browne’s Piggyback – the father is depicted in vibrant colours while the mother is removed. Another is Cooke and Oxenbury’s So Much.)
  • In picturebooks you often see a page sans setting — a part of the scene has been pulled out and placed on a white background. This is done to draw the reader’s attention to the emotion in the picture rather than to encourage a focus on the ambience.
  • Splashes of colour within generally dark pictures usually mean something in the story, too. For example, a bright splash of colour that runs through a book might foreshadow a happy ending.
  • Another kind of colour contrast used in picturebooks: A coloured frame or margin that carries the ambience. Try dividing the picture into parts according to light and dark, in shadow or in light, warm or cool, and see how the composition looks now.
  • White margins don’t mean much in picture books because they’re neutral but black margins do have an effect. We’re less inclined to react emotionally to a picture when framed in black. (Art students are told to avoid black straight out of the tube altogether, presumably for this reason.)
  • When a children’s picture book is entirely black and white the decision has been made to forego the opportunity for ambience, or at least downplay it. Even in black and white pictures you still get the full continuum between simple black and white line drawings with no ambience to drawings that include shading and hatching and dotting to create texture and then there are those that emphasise lighting effects to create a greater sense of atmosphere. (These last kind have infused ambience rather than ‘defused’. Another word for ‘defused’ is ‘flat’.)
  • Black and white is not the typical choice for picturebooks but you’ll find it anyway. (Why the black and white?)

Notes from Reading Visual Narratives (2013) by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

FURTHER READING

Here’s a very nice resource for anyone who would like to know about the History and Science of Colour Temperature, at a website called Filmmaker IQ.

Film School Rejects shared a program which averages the colour of films and comes out with a single hue. It would be interesting to apply this to picturebooks. Meantime, there are plans to use it on Disney films.