Evolving Terms

No stranger to controversy, the word “evolution” was the star of a recently published paper by researchers from the Biology Department of the University of VA, Charlottesville.

Their paper, Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word, takes the reader through a study of the terminology used by evolutionary biologists and medical researchers to describe the “evolutionary” process that leads to antimicrobial resistance. The researchers found that in evolutionary journals the word “evolution” was used to describe the process 65.8% of the time compared to 2.7% of the time in medical journals, which preferred terms such as emerging, increasing, and spreading.

The paper goes on to show that the use or non-use of the word evolution in a scientific paper is a good predictor of whether the word evolution is used in the paper’s media coverage. The researchers conclude,

“Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers.”

I have to admit than I’m a little uncomfortable with this final leap. They make two assumptions in this last sentence that I don’t believe they’ve supported in the paper:

1. Researchers have a responsibility to promote the relevance of evolution
2. Researchers are obscuring the relevance of evolution

Let me tackle number 1 first. In my opinion researchers have a responsibility to report their work accurately, beyond that I don’t much care what words they use or don’t use – as long as they are not giving up an accurate word for one that is less accurate.

And number 2, the paper provides no evidence that researchers are obscuring the relevance of evolution beyond the speculative statement, “It has been repeatedly rumored that both the NIH and the NSF have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word ‘evolution’ in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy.”

As one responder to the article wrote, “It may be that those who want to describe the results of their research are reluctant to use the ‘evolution’ label simply because, to do so, does not say very much.”

Something to think about…

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