March 11, 2004

Heretical? Clandestinely?

... or, Why Much of Mainstream Science Journalism Is Still so Shoddy ...

An article this morning in the WaPo describes the findings at Harvard that female mice produce new egg cells throughout their adult life.

This is surprising enough in its own right, overturning a certain tenet of mammal biology, but the writer and/or editor have to spice the discussion up by describing "the heretical possibility that women, too, clandestinely produce fresh eggs for at least the first half of life."

Now, the Confidence Man is all for "lively" and engaging science writing.

But -- "heretical"? "Clandestinely"?

"Heresy" is a loaded charge to toss around, especially in scientific circles, and trebly so in the current atmosphere of ultra-politicized science "policy" at the federal level being dictated by a bunch of Christian mullahs. Science, contra those further than the Confidence Man down the spectrum toward cultural and ontological relativism, doesn't really trade in heresy or orthodoxy in the sense that the writer uses, and he should know better.

"Clandestinely," though, is a whole 'nother kettle of fish entirely.

First of all, it imputes intent to not only the possible adult production of egg cells in humans, but intent as well to the occultation of this fact from the general public and/or [male?] scientists.

Secondly, it implies almost a sort of female conspiracy in the putative occultation. [Can one person act "clandestinely"? Only as an agent in the service of some other individual or group of individuals. Otherwise, the activity would be merely "private."]

Thirdly, it's unnecessarily colorful, evoking either a Mata Hari-esque dance of seduction and subterfuge, or a rear-guard burqa-clad plot for subversion. [OK, now the Confidence Man himself is engaging in unnecessarily colorful connotation: "rear-guard" actions would more properly be used by sodomites against or within the Taliban, eh? Not that there's anything wrong with that ...]

Fourthly, and this is what really gets the Confidence Man's proverbial goat, the adverbial form of "clandestine" is simply too damn clunky. It's an awkward word, both visually and verbally.

Ahhhhhhhhh, but wait -- we see, now, the writer is being clever [or, perhaps, just lucky]: "[Latin clandestnus, probably blend of *clam-de, secretly (from clam. See kel-1 in Indo-European Roots), and intestnus, internal; see intestine.]"

Ah, yes, "see intestine," indeed. Well, if the writer was indeed going for a genuinely abstruse Latin pun playing on the antiquated/infantile notion of women bearing children in their digestive tract -- bra-vo! Well done! Otherwise, um ... see our notes above ...

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