Set-up: How do you know that your son will grow up to be a scientist?The joke here, of course, is that quite a lot of scientists seem to always begin speaking with the word "So." And not when they're giving the conclusions to an argument — they aren't using it to mean "therefore."
Punch-line: His first word is "So ..."
They just start from a dead stop with "So ... ". They seem to use it the way non-scientists might begin with "Um" or "Well". (I've heard computer professionals use "So", but I hear this as an attempt to sound more scientific.)
Because it's very common, I hate to pick on anyone in particular. In the most recent edition of NPR's Science Friday, 3 out of 5 scientists interviewed in the first hour used this kind of "So" at least once. Science journalist Ira Flatow and Dr. Tobias Brambrink had the following exchange:
Ira: Well then what goes wrong somewhere between the stem cells and the animal?This tic, which I'll call "The Scientist So," seems to be a recent development. I've spent 35 years listening very closely to scientists, but I first noticed it about 4 or 5 years ago. It's strange. I'd like to know why it happend, and why NOW.
Tobias: Right, so, I think the most likely explanation lies in the mechanism of cloning. So, when you clone an embryo, what you do is you take a donor cell ...
And so, here are a few wild speculations:
Because it makes so little sense, The Scientist So reminds me that science is a subculture. Subcultures do develop funny tics that seem to have no practical purpose — handshakes or dreadlocks or backward baseball caps. Although such tics seem to simply exist to exist, they provide a way to identify and control membership in the group. They do a job, whether they make any sense in themselves or not. Maybe The Scientist So marks the speaker with a cultural affiliation — that of "Scientist."
In a lot of ways, over the past few years, science has been dragged against its will into the Culture Wars. Scientists themselves must be more conscious of being members of the scientific subculture. Through the The Scientist So, perhaps scientists have found a way to "sound like scientists," like an unconscious wearing of the tartan. Perhaps it's even a circling of the wagons, part of a nascent Sci-Pride impulse, a science-shibboleth.
As I hear it, some scientists do manage to make The Scientist So convey an actual meaning. It almost makes sense when some scientists say it. By training, scientists like to start at the very beginning, with first principles, and then recostruct the reasoning behind things. But journalists and other civilians like to have the final conclusions right off the bat. Cut to the chase.
Thus, I can almost hear certain scientists thinking "I'm fast-forwarding very rapidly through a line of reasoning here." They're looking for a kind of off-ramp that's near enough to the conclusion the listener is hoping for, and they want you to understand that.
In this sense, The So is an audible "therefore" at the end of an inaudible explanation that the scientist has to think through, but which he/she isn't allowed enough time to share. The So tells the listener that something really important has been skipped for their convenience.
If The Scientist So were understood this way by the general public, I think it would be a useful reminder of what they're NOT getting from their radios and TVs and newspapers.
If more scientists are having to trim their ideas down to very simple conclusions, it would make sense that the community would develop a verbal notation, or spoken emoticon, to reflect what they're doing. Just maybe, therefore, the recent development of The Scientist So is a by-product of a positive trend — scientists are trying harder to share their findings and their methods with the news media, policy makers, and the general public.
In a way, The Scientist So may be the sound of gears grinding — torque suddenly being applied — as scientists translate the way scientists think about information into the way journalists do.