Dinosaurs and the dangers of pedantism

Did you click here because of the word pedantism in the title? If so, you’ll like this (perhaps) apochryphal exchange between a married couple I know.

Person A: ” You’re always correcting me! Your pedantism is really getting me down.”
Person B: “I think you’ll find the word is pedantry….”

Most of can see both sides of this exchange. Nobody likes to be corrected, but who of us has not felt the deep urge to right wrongs.

So, often we have a choice to make: risk looking like a dick or miss an opportunity to educate people. For things like rogue apostrophes or grammar in general, this is a game we can all play. But for scientists or those involved in communicating science things are more complex.

Mastering technical terms is an important part of a scientific training. In conversations between experts, using technical terminology is a tremendously efficient way of discussing complex issues and a powerful way of signalling that one is part of the science in-group. When communicating to non-scientists, forgetting to translate these terms into plainer English is a obvious mistake.

Things are less clear-cut where the scientific term is a word that is used by non-scientists. Sometimes this is where a technical term seeps into normal speech (such as my use of ‘in-group’ earlier).  Here, for scientists to defend the original meaning is uncontroversial. People who describe a new product as ‘a paradigm shift’ deserve to mocked.

Sometimes a word has been given a more specific meaning. The distinction in Physics between mass and weight is one example, or I suggest, the words granite and marble. Here we need to be careful. It may be annoying for a geologist to see a ‘marble’ worktop with fossils in, but a little humility is required. The stonemasons’ definition of marble as a carbonate rock that takes a polish is at least as old as the geological one of ‘metamorphosed limestone’.

The English comedian David Mitchell has a habit of going off on rants about the way ‘scientists’ say that tomatoes are a fruit. The humour lies in how seriously he takes such a trivial point, but you get a sense that it genuinely annoys him. There’s a serious point: his working definition of fruit as being something that you’d put in a fruit salad is not the scientific one, but it is not incorrect. Tell someone that they are wrong for using it and they won’t thank you for it.

This leads me to dinosaurs.

The great pursuit of evolutionary biology – fitting all life into branches of a tree of immense size and age – is important and interesting. It provides a  extremely specific meaning of the term ‘dinosaur’ that includes birds, but excludes creatures such as Dimetrodon and marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaur that fit perfectly the more popular understanding of the word. Most people (myself included) are much more taken with the palaeobiological sense of dinosaurs (huge reptiles, teeth, claws, RAAAAR!) than the phylogenetic one. Biographies are more popular than family trees for a reason.

So, let’s all be very careful with the ‘not a dinosaur’ thing. Dinosaurs are a gateway drug into Earth Sciences – let’s not spoil things with pedantism. If you must tell someone that their definition of a word is wrong, you’d better do it in an interesting and light-touch way.

Categories: etymology

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