Look Away From The Cross
Adieu False Heart

Scientists Say So

(science journalist Ira Flatow interviews penguins)


Set-up: How do you know that your son will grow up to be a scientist?

Punch-line: His first word is "So ..."
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."

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?

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 ...
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.

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.




Interesting post. So, I've noticed this too, but hadn't conclusively identified it as being a phenomenon just among scientists instead of among academics in general. On the other hand most of the academics I encounter are scientists.


I first heard my cousin who is a scientist talk like this as many as 20 years ago. I am from India, and he was studying in the US, doing his PhD at the time, and I just assumed it was a University thing.
Isnt it possible that this is something that is already present among DOctoral students, who may or may not go on to become scientists?


Rick Evans

The "scientist so" appears to be infectious. Journalists appear to be most suseptable to infection. The difference is journalists start their questions with So, ... ? Listen to Steve Curwood of public radio's Living on Earth (loe.org) for a particularly robust example.



This is very interesting to me...I've been driven crazy by this affectation, mostly in the last few weeks. I know it's been around longer, it's just that 4 or 5 different people in the past few weeks, on different radio shows, did it, and it all added up in my head until it finally drove me mad.

I was watching Wikipedia's Jimbo Wales on CSpan last night, and he was doing it constantly.

It comes off as incredibly rude and inept; it makes it seem like the person who has just asked the question was actually interrupting the "so" speaker. It makes the "so" speaker seem isolated and arrogant...just what we need today. More disconnection. God help me if teenage girls on cellphones start using it...


This has been driving me nuts for the past year or two. I hear this a lot on tech podcasts. It can be infectious, and I've found myself using the "so" technique around the office. My theory of its origin: it's broken English, introduced by the ever-increasing Asian or Indian community of scientists. It was adopted by the rest of us because it somehow sounds more intelligent.


So (sorry), I thought for the longest time (having heard the phenomenon primarily on NPR interviews) that it was a result of NPR's editing of the conversation. The effect was so "disjointing" it never occurred that that was how some individuals actually speak. Now, of course, it's a huge peeve for me; I want to reach into the radio what seems like several times a day and shake someone.

The Celestial Monochord

Blogger's comment:

So, I was again reminded of this the other day, while talking to a close friend of mine. She abruptly changed the subject, saying "What's interesting is ..."

We laughed about it, because she had inadvertently implied that what I'd been saying wasn't in the least bit interesting, and that she was much better equipped to judge what's interesting and what isn't.

... which is probably true ...

But it reminded me of The Scientist So. It faintly emphasizes that something is going on in the scientist's head that can't possibly be happening in yours. Like Professor Fink on The Simpsons, you don't appreciate things on as many levels as he does.


I first noticed the "scientist so" about four years ago being routinely uttered by one of my poetry professors who is married to a physicist and who is also very science-oriented, herself. I have a tendency to pick up on linguistic anomalies, and once I started thinking about it, I began to notice it everywhere, but especially among academics.

THEN my wife and I became good friends with the couple across the street, who are both doctors in their late twenties. The scientific so is pervasive in their speech patterns -- so much so that I can't possibly believe they don't notice themselves doing it.

Being a poet and pseudo-journalist I've always been obsessed with economy of language (although you might not guess that by this post) and so I've made extra attempts to monitor my own speech in an effort to head off any acquisition of the scientific so. I've thought about fitting my wife with a shock collar because she has picked it up the "so bug" a little, herself. I've never brought up the subject with the neighbors, because one, I don't want to offend by acting like the annoying "word guy," and two, their scientific sos do not really harm me in any way.

The scientific so has lately made its way to advertising. While writing this just now I've heard it on one TV commercial, and while driving I've heard it on three or four radio commercials. TV commercial example: Ty Penningtion (of Trading Spaces fame) on the Bayer aspirin commercial. He says: "So this is the one room I've done that I wish I didn't have to..." or something like that, speaking about a hospital room. Totally annoying.

This phenomenon is PERVASIVE, and I'm surprised there isn't more internet discussion about it, although I'm thrilled, yes thrilled, by Celestial Monochord's treatment of the subject, particularly with regards the idea of "Sci-pride" and the general status of the scientific world within an increasingly anti-science, anti-secular America.
The most absurd example of the scientific so I have come across involved to moms at a bagel shop in Ft. Collins, Colorado. The dialogue went like this:

Mom #1: "So, have you been taking little Timmy to day care?"
Mom #2: "So, I haven't."

Obviously the first "so" is somewhat acceptable, and perfectly fine as grammar goes. But how could Mom #2 possibly think that her short response would be improved by putting a "so" in front of it? Maybe because Mom #1 is smart, has a good job or whatever, and Mom #2 wants to sound smart, too. I don't know.

The 2007 post from "Chris" states: "It makes the "so" speaker seem isolated and arrogant..." Interestingly, one person responding to a 2004 discussion of the then yet-to-be-named Scientist So comments that the "So" has an "isolationist" quality to it, which makes some sense, although I think "arrogant" is a bit heavy-handed. Here's the 2004 post.



Dang, I do that all the time and I'm not a scientist. Do you think I picked the wrong career path?


It's become far worse since this was posted, three years ago. It seems to be largely due, in my opinion, to the rise of non-professional commentary. Everyone has a voice now and can spread poorly presented thoughts at the speed of light, in fact it's even encouraged by sites like Twitter.

Listen to any tech or science podcast, you'll often hear people using all of these annoying tics in their initial sentence: "So, y'know, I don't know, basically, it's like". Once you tune into it, it can become unbearable. No matter how interested I am in the subject matter, it’s hard to take a point seriously when started with, effectively: ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’.

What I'm finding even worse is the rise of feigned shock at how stupid you are, by armchair commentators that haven't understood the topic they're replying to: "Umm.. WOW, just WOW, are you serious? Really?? WOW Much? Can anyone say 'WOW'?".

The entire Anglo-Saxon world is going to end up speaking like Valley Girls and Geeks. Go California.


Wow, am I glad I found this blog - and was amazed that it dates back to three years ago! I, too, have been recently hearing this "So..." preface to simple statements increasing, and I have noticed one of my colleagues at work (a university prof., but not a scientist) doing this as well...in his emails! This is utterly annoying, and I responded to the email in kind, albeit good-naturedly (or so I thought). Needless to say, I saw him in the hall the other day and he seemed pretty "ticked" off... so, I hope it wasn't because of my so-so attempt at humor...!

Peter C.

This is interesting and I have been obsessing over the reason, too: in recent weeks I heard Malcolm Gladwell on Charlie Rose do it several times during the interview and in real life this insanely smart programmer from IBM who came to give a presentation at my workplace did it too.

I've heard it elsewhere but these two instances stick in my mind.

In these cases, it is not a "So, well, umm...." sort of wandering (as pointed out by CXT above) but a single "So" tacked on to a direct answer to a direct question. It does not annoy me but it has fascinated me.

One thought I've had is that it resembles the joke telling convention: "So, two guys walk into a bar..." In that instance the teller is sort of resetting the conversation, indicating a new narrative completely separate from whatever conversation may have been going on before.

But as it relates to the "super smart," or scientists, which is where I notice it, it seems indicate some sort of separation between the questioner and the questionee, almost a linguistic way of ignoring the existence of the question or at least separating the speaker from the questioner, as if to say "I am existing and thinking on this level far above where you and the rest of the mortals are languishing." As others mentioned above, it seems to have an "isolationist" quality.

Ultimately I think it's an affectation, a sort of learned behavior: the same way that rich people develop them from being in a certain culture for a long time, one that is separate from the culture of the masses, so must it be with the deep thinkers.

So, at least that's what I think.

I'd love to hear more about this as I'd like to write something about it at some point.

The Celestial Monochord

Blogger's comment:

I've worked in scientific publishing for more than a decade, and while The Scientist So is common in conversation, it never appears in manuscripts.

If I were in a position to do so, I would do a proper study of the issue. Among other things, I would try to measure its frequency of use against how "inside" or knowledgeable the scientist perceives the listener to be. This would show whether scientists use it among themselves, or only with "the public" -- providing real evidence (vs. anecdote) pertaining to its function within the community of scientists.

I don't know of any other groups that have a comparable tic. I mean, actuaries don't start sentences with "wakkah wakkah"!

If The Scientist So was, as I suggested earlier, an identifier of group membership, you'd think similar groups would have similar identifiers.

Hmmm ...

Stephen Ritchings

Hearing this locution (as others have, apparently) while listening to NPR broadcasts, over the last several years, I have noticed the following:

The usage seems to occur when a technically-trained person -- say, a NASA scientist, or a university-affiliated biologist -- responds to a question that draws upon his store of knowledge. It seems to be the "so" related to "therefore." I have assumed it to be a tic emanating from the lab or the lecture hall-- possibly even from a single influential lecturer ?


While watching the pbs News Hour I noticed this (scientist so) for the first time a couple weeks ago. The speaker was even wearing a lab coat, but I didn't make the scientist connection until I heard Ira Flatow on NPR Science Friday make joke about it that sounded like the one in the post. How do you know if someone is a scientist? The start their sentences with 'so'.

My theory is that the speaker is saying: "so, to catch you up to where this story starts, I'm going to start here:"

I notice these kind of things all the time. I like to call them "artifacts" of spoken language. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one driven towards insanity by them. What about all the other silly ways people start sentences:

"you know what"

kathryn page

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. To all of you kindred souls goes a big kawhoosh of gratitude. I DO take this tic as arrogant and condescending for the reasons others have expressed so well. I'm not sure it's a scientist thing as much as a young-and-brainy thing. Young being more operative here. The first wave of this irritating usage I can recall was back in the 70's when Werner Erhardt and his "est" flock used it with impunity, but then they were creating a whole new dialect.

I actually like sentences that start "you know what"--the implication is that the speaker wants ME to know something. A little gift.


Wow, this has been bugging me like crazy for the past year or so. It seems like every person interviewed by NPR is doing it now, scientists, economists, journalists, and more. Listening to Science Friday, I end up screaming at the radio, "Stop starting sentences with 'So!' Why are you doing that?!"

Thanks for the post!

Arthur Allen

I've only made conscious note of it over the last year or two, and I've been interviewing scientists for the past 15. Am I wrong in thinking that it is said more by younger scientists, and, perhaps, more frequently by women?

To me it has a tranquilizing effect: Worry not, earthling. I, being a person of considerable authority and intellect, understand your problem and will resolve it with calm and deliberation.

I'm intrigued by the idea that it may have entered the lingo via South Asian scientists.

Bill Moak

Thank you for posting this! I listen to NPR's Science Friday on a regular basis, and the other day I counted a scientist guest do this seven (7!) times in the span of five minutes. It comes across as arrogance to me; I even speculated that there is some course where they teach this, sort of like there must be a course on "writing illegible prescriptions" for physicians. It had not occurred to me that they might not even realize how annoying it is, or that they are doing it at all. So, that is my two cents' worth.


The use of "So" as a sentence starter is approaching epidemic levels. The worst offender of late almost made my head explode. I heard THE U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION, Arne Duncan, on the radio the other day start his sentences with "So" at least 6 times in a very short interview! He graduated from Harvard for goodness sake. How could he possibly not know how awful and uneducated it sounds? Shame on him and all of the other supposedly "highly educated" people that have been perpetuating this travesty.

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