Science education may be on the decline. The general level of scientific knowledge may be headed back to the Dark Ages. But the language of science has never been more popular.
Or more woefully abused.
Take, for example, the notorious paradigm shift, a term introduced in 1962 by historian Thomas Kuhn to describe a change in basic assumptions about the theory of science. The change from an earth-centered to a solar-centered view qualifies as a paradigm shift. Your redesigned logo, however, does not. It's just a change.
Here are some other examples of scientific and mathematical terms whose meanings have been appropriated and muddied by the press and especially by corporate marketing departments. (American business has had a love affair with science, or pseudoscience, since the late nineteenth century, when Frederick W. Taylor introduced "scientific management" — a method for getting more work out of employees — to the lexicon. Scan the business shelf of your library and you'll see lots of science-y terms like "force field analysis," "delta models," and, of course, "leverage.") For several of my explanations I'm indebted to the late Anglo-American linguist R.L. Trask (1944-2004), author of Say What You Mean!, a highly opinionated and hugely entertaining guide to writing clear English.
Autistic: Autism is a brain-development disorder involving impaired social interaction and communication. "Autistic" does not mean "self-absorbed," "insensitive," or "quiet," although you'll occasionally see it used that way.
Average: R. L. Trask points out that this word "has a precise mathematical sense," but is often used when "typical" or "ordinary" would be more accurate.
DNA: No longer confined to genetics laboratories, DNA has replicated all over corporate America. "Corporate DNA" supposedly involves values and culture that can be passed down to successive generations of workers. In fact, though, its meaning is as susceptible to mutation as actual DNA is. You don't have to search far to find arguments for DNA being unalterable, changeable, buildable, and rebuildable. Some companies infuse stuff into their DNA, while others bake stuff into it. (I've written frequently about corporate DNA in my blog, Fritinancy. Here's the introductory post. And here's an actual genomics scientist, Keith Robison, speculating on what "corporate DNA" might mean — for example, "There's a lot of redundancy here" and "A lot of pieces of the organization resemble decayed portions of other pieces of our organization.")
Exponential: Like "average," this word has a specific mathematical meaning (in this case, "a pattern of change in which the amount of change that occurs in a quantity during a small interval of time is proportional to the amount of that quantity present": from a glossary of systems theory). As Trask observes, "It is not just a fancy word for 'fast.'"
Fraction: A fraction is not "a tiny amount"; it's any part of a whole. Nevertheless, we frequently see passages like this one, from a San Francisco Chronicle article about Hawaiian Airlines: "Hawaiian will offer one departure from Oakland and one flight back from Honolulu each day. That's a fraction of the multiple flights formerly operated by Aloha and ATA." What fraction are we talking about — one-sixteenth? One-half? Ninety-nine one-hundredths?
Parameter: Because it resembles "perimeter," this word is frequently given the meaning of "limit" or "constraint." But a parameter is actually a numerical variable that can be held constant in a given case. Never use it to mean "factor" or "characteristic."
Perfect storm: It's not merely a coincidence or a confluence of random events. A perfect storm is (quoting Wikipedia) "the simultaneous occurrence of events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination." Perfect storms are rare and catastrophic: Sebastian Junger's accurately titled 1997 bestseller The Perfect Storm told the story of a once-in-a-century nor'easter. Coming down with a cold and misplacing your car keys on the day of your big presentation at work is not a perfect storm.
Quantum leap: In physics, a quantum leap occurs when a subatomic particle such as an electron jumps directly from one energy level to another without passing through a continuum of energies in between. Note that quantum leaps occur only on a microscopic scale, which means that they're very, very small — not the huge, um, "paradigm-shifting" leaps that they're commonly associated with. (One of my blog readers, who works in space systems, took the time to patiently explain this to me. Thank you, Michael Holt!)
Schizophrenic: True, schizo- is the Greek root that means "split." But a person afflicted with schizophrenia does not have multiple-personality disorder, and it's simply wrong to use "schizophrenic" to mean "conflicting." Here's Trask again: "The current administration's policies may seem to be inconsistent, but they are not schizophrenic."
My list is one short of the traditional top ten. Do you have a favorite scientific-lingo peeve? Write a comment and add it to the list.