Tuesday, August 26, 2008

If Intelligent Design really were science...

Imagine the state of scientific endeavor if real science followed the same rules as Intelligent Design.

When Oersted observed a compass needle moving when the compass was placed near a current-carrying wire, he would have said, "How interesting! Our current understanding of nature can't explain that. A supernatural Directing Agent must be causing the compass needle to move. Since I can't ever know how the Directing Agent works, I guess there's no way for me to figure out why the compass needle is moving. I guess I'll go study something else."

When Rutherford observed alpha particles bouncing straight back from a sheet of gold foil (an event, to paraphrase him, as unexpected as if he had fired a bullet at a tissue and it had bounced), he would have said "Fascinating! Our current atomic model can't explain this. There must be a supernatural Directing Agent causing it. Maybe I'll move to Hawaii and retire."

When scientists first had enough data to see that most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in specific regions, rather than being scattered randomly over Earth's surface, they would have said, "Hmm...thermal contraction shouldn't produce patterns like those. They're much too complex. It must be a supernatural Directing Agent doing it. Well, I guess we can stop looking for another explanation now! Let's have a beer!" (They were, after all, geologists.)

When Mendel observed that pea plant characteristics don't always breed true, he would have said, "Goodness! That's unexpected. Our current understanding of of heredity can't explain that. Must be God's work. I guess I'll start eating spinach, instead."

Intelligent Design isn't just not science. It stifles inquiry. It's--dare I say it?--designed to keep people from asking questions.

And for the record, "God did it" is not a valid scientific explanation.

Interesting word for today: thanatocoenosis

According to the American Geological Institute's Glossary of Geology, 4th edition, the definition of thanatocoenosis is the following:

"thanatocoenosis (n): a) a set of fossils brought together after death by sedimentary processes, rather than by virtue of having originally lived there collectively; b)...all the fossils present at a particular place in a sediment" [note: I trimmed some of the definition a bit]

The word comes from the Greek thanatos ("death") and koinos ("general" or "common").

Thanatocoenosis shares a root with thanatology (the study of death), thanatophobia (the fear of death), and thanatopsis (a view or thought about death).

This was also another word I considered as a title for this blog, but rejected because it's hard to spell...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

1000 words

One of my favorite lazy-Saturday-afternoon-with-a-book book series is Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who.... In one of them (I can't remember which), she makes reference to an activity that the main character's English teacher used to have him do: pick a topic from a dictionary or encyclopedia and write 1000 words on that topic.

I think this is a pretty cool idea, and an interesting way to practice writing without going back over the same topics over and over again.

So, I am going to try to start doing that. I will post the results here. We'll see how it goes! With any luck, I'll learn some interesting things, and you'll get more interesting posts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Interesting word for today: catachresis

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, the definition of catachresis is the following:

"catachresis (n): incorrect use of a word or words, as by misapplication of terminology or by strained or mixed metaphor" (p. 229)

The roots of the word are (what else?) Greek, from kata, which means "against" or "down," and chresthai, which means "to use."

Other words using the prefix cata in a similar way include cataclysm, catabolism, cataclastic, catacomb, catadromous, and catafalque. (Perhaps some of those will become words of the day later on...)

On a side note, I almost called this blog Catachresis...but decided that naming my blog after something I wish to avoid might not be the wisest of ideas.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Usage tip: like vs. such as

Both like and such as are commonly used to compare two (or more) things. However, if you wish to write clearly and unambiguously, it's important to understand the distinction between the two.

When used to compare two or more things, the word like essentially means "similar to" or "in the manner of." In contrast, such as essentially means "for example."

Therefore, the following two sentences have different meanings:

Carnivores like wolves generally have large, sharp teeth.
Carnivores such as wolves generally have large, sharp teeth.

The first means that most carnivores that are similar to wolves have large, sharp teeth. It implies that carnivores that are not similar to wolves--say, for example, sharks--do not have large, sharp teeth.

The second sentence tells us that a wolf is an example of a carnivore, and that most carnivores--including wolves, and including sharks--have large, sharp teeth.

The insertion of a comma can affect meaning, too. A "like XXX" phrase enclosed in commas generally means you're making an explicit match or link between two things. In essence, you are equating the two. For example:

Seals, like dolphins, are mammals.

This sentence is using dolphins as a referent and stating that seals are similar to dolphins in the specific way described in the sentence (i.e., they are both mammals). In a sentence of this form, the noun after like is generally assumed to be more familiar to the reader than is the subject of the sentence. (I.e., this sentence suggests that the writer expects the reader to be more familiar with dolphins than with seals.) This sentence is correct as written. Replacing like with such as in this case would make the sentence incorrect, because a dolphin is not a type of seal. If we wanted to use such as in this sentence, we'd have to change dolphins to a type of seal (e.g., "Seals, such as the Weddell seal, are mammals.").

Unless you want to make that explicit link between the two things, you generally want a "such as XXX" phrase inside your commas. For example:

Some actors, like Jonathan Frakes, are quite tall.

There's nothing really wrong with this sentence, if you are trying to get across that Jonathan Frakes is quite tall, and that some actors resemble him in being quite tall. But if you were trying to give Jonathan Frakes as an example of a tall actor, rather than as the definition of a tall person, then you would use such as:

Some actors, such as Jonathan Frakes, are quite tall.

(This sentence would also work with including instead of such as, but I won't go there right now.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Boring First Post

Yes, boring--I have several ideas for posts, but haven't had the time to think them through. But as my blog looks incredibly weird without any posts at all, I wanted to put at least one up--just to see how it looks.

More to come later. I hope to use this blog to review books I've read; talk about interesting topics in science, grammar, and education; and generally write about anything else that strikes my fancy.