Tricky Science-Speak


Scientists sometimes confuse people with inscrutable acronyms -- BPA, NIEHS, NTP, EPA (bisphenol A, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program, Environmental Protection Agency), words that are difficult to pronounce -- "phthalates", or words that are difficult to get to the end of -- "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis". But lately, we've been stumping people with words everyone thought they knew, like "trick". People went wild over the idea that East Anglia scientists had used a "trick" to manipulate raw data.

"Trick", previously associated with annuals "treats" and six year olds in fairy costumes, was suddenly linked to nefarious acts. Yes, there is that "trick", but it's not often used1. And did the media mayhem over "trick" top the media mayhem over the breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction" during Super Bowl half-time a couple of years ago? Hard to say -- but global warming is actually serious.

Scientists explained over and over that "trick" can be a good thing, like mathematics, logical thinking, transparency, pragmatism, maybe even dignity for life -- but their insistence only increased suspicion and talk. "Trick" dominated the news cycle longer than any five letter word should be allowed to and even wormed its way into events like the US legislature, where senators leveraged the word in committee meetings to veer away from very important topics like the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)2.

Now we see the word all over the place. And like the original East Anglia "trick", it's often used to rationalize why climate change, the reality, isn't being translated into climate change policy. The Financial Times reported on the tension between China and the US in Copenhagen and quoted China's on its changing stance:

"'China will not be an obstacle [to a deal]. The obstacle now is from developed countries,' he said. 'I know people will say if there is no deal that China is to blame. This is a trick played by the developed countries. They have to look at their own position and can't use China as an excuse...'"

John Tierney recently used the word to propose a temperature based carbon-tax -- a joke perhaps, or to scoff at science?

"[U]se the temperature readings as the basis for a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade system...the carbon tax would be more effective at reducing emissions because it is simpler, more transparent, easier to enforce and less vulnerable to accounting tricks and political favoritism."

Up to his usual tricks, that Tierney.

Talking about the challenge the US Senate presents for Obama in Copenhagan, Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center described Obama's challenge as a "Goldilocks Problem":

''The trick is finding something just right in balancing the importance of demonstrating international leadership while not undermining the legislative dynamic here at home.''

Moving away from climate change, the word "trick" can morph from a bad thing or a challenge, to a good thing. An author recently mused in an essay in the New York Times about the "tricks" to maintaining a marriage.3


The confusion over "trick" is not entirely unjustified. Merriam Webster has seven possible uses of "trick". And another word that's ambiguous for some people, again, reasonably so, because it has nine uses in Merriam Webster, is "hack", as in, they hacked into the email server in East Anglia and stole a thousand emails.

During the December 2, 2009 hearing on the pressing imperative of revising the "Federal Toxic Substances Control Act" (TSCA), climate denier Senator Inhofe (R-OK) hijacked the meeting to windbag on about "tricks" in emails necessitating a halt to EPA emissions rulemaking.

Senator Boxer (D-CA) responded eloquently and forcefully, noting that although she was concerned about criminal acts of "hacking", she was more concerned about anthropogenic carbon emissions, about global warming, and about the repercussions for human health -- that's where her duty was, to the people effected by global warming. About the email break-in she said:

We're dealing with a criminal act of hacking into a computer...It seems to me they must have been hacking this for years. And just before Copenhagen they came out with it...That's what it seems to be...because, these emails, they go many are there? Over a thousand emails? So I don't know how long a thousand emails...

This may be a silly example, but it shows how people with expertise in a particular area assume common understanding of simple words. Here it seems like "hacking" into a computer is visualized as George Washington trying to "hack" down a giant redwood tree in the Muir Woods National Park.

Hack can mean to chop at roughly. It can also mean to tolerate or bear something, for instance, I don't know how Senator Boxer can hack Senator Inofe's perennial global-warming-is-a-hoax B.S. so gracefully. Used as a noun, hack can also be a cough, a horse, a worker, or (derogatorily) someone who misconstrues or butchers something -- for example, Senator Inofe is a real hack when it comes to science and global warming.

But when someone hacks into a computer as they did in East Anglia, they exploit a vulnerability in order to access data owned by someone else. Different than hacking at a tree. It can take a computer hacker a while to find the vulnerability and locate the data, but then they most often swoop in, get it, in this case a bunch of emails, and go. Sometimes they lurk about, poised to commit further crimes, or leave an opening to come back, obviously there's no rules, but generally they're not hewing emails out of the server one at a time over many years 465 -- hack, hack hack, 466 -- chop, chop, 467 -- hack, hack -- that's a different use of the word.

The Trick for Scientists, If They Can Hack It

So "trick" can not so intuitively mean find a solution, as well as to deceive, and "hack" can mean deceptively break into a computer in order to plunder or pillage, as well as to chop at something. And confusingly, computer scientists, sometimes known as "hacks" but in a good way, will "hack" a solution to a very tricky programming problem, just as scientists use a "trick" to help analyze and make sense of data.

And that's the challenge for scientists -- a trivial one, but another one. In addition doing science, teaching, writing grants, motivating grad students, negotiating politics and budget cuts, actually physically looking out for hackers and those who would break into scientists offices and steal computers as part of a global effort to undermine climate science; in addition to assessing threats of bodily harm, scientists need to simplify concepts, avoid acronyms and watch their use of simple seeming words whose meaning they take for granted.

All that work because even people with the best intentions don't always have a grip on either science or its lexicon. And once scientists sort out "trick" and "hack" for everyone, they'll then face the greater challenge of explaining the risks of doing nothing about global warming, with the risks of doing something. After all, probability and risk are orders more challenging for people to grasp than "tricks" and "hacks".


1 See, "Do Names Portend Profession?", in AR's Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry


We wrote about TSCA here. Of 80,000 chemicals produced, there's little information about which ones are on the market, and only 5 are regulated by the EPA.

3 In the NYT on marriage: "Recently one of my wife's college students kept pressing us, with baffled curiosity, for our secret, as if there had to be some trick to it..."

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