Analysis / by Michael Erard /

What a tiny word reveals about the scientific endeavor and those who practice it.

It’s the nouns and verbs that catch our ears first. The complex words, the sediments of Greek and Latin affixes, the long noun phrases, the passive verbs. The surnames of researchers rising and fallen. The journal titles, the acronyms. You can also hear, in that perpetual dance with certainty, the hedges that soften claims (“it was reported that”) or strengthen them (“though inconclusive, the data suggests…”). The language of science, with its specialized vocabulary and clipped rhythm, has a distinctive architecture.

The functional elegance of this rarefied speak is uniquely captured in one of its most inconspicuous words: “so.” This isn’t “so” the intensifier (“so expensive”); it’s not the “so” that joins two clauses. This is the “so” that introduces a sentence, as in “So as we can see, modified Newtonian dynamics cannot account for the rotation of any of the three observed galaxies.”

This “so” is key to a basic unit of scientific talk: the explanation. What follows “so” is another idea, insight, or fact—not because it’s merely next in a series but because it’s conceptually consequent: “So when chaperone proteins bind to their receptors, the process allows other bound proteins to expose their signal sequences.” The versatility of this precursory “so” allows for a remarkable wealth of potential follow-through. The structure of the word itself makes it extremely useful, namely the sibilant “s” and the long, hollow “o,” both of which are infinitely extendable and can carry a wild variety of emotional intonation. There’s the curt “so,” the wondering, wandering “soooooo,” the exploratory “so?” In its crudest form it buys one time. At its most elegant, it facilitates the work of intellectual hopscotch—or Twister, if that’s your game. “So” is here a verbal teleporter; it facilitates a leap from A to B that spares the listener the complexity in between without simultaneously dishonoring it. It abbreviates all the data, logic, information, or research experience that one might need to understand what follows. “So” is a transition between the “there” of specialized knowledge and the “here” of explanation.

In this explanatory role, the word frequents the vocabulary of certain groups more than others. While writing his book The New New Thing, Michael Lewis found “so” endemic to Silicon Valley. Microsoft employees claimed it as indigenous to Redmond, Washington, with the rest of their rich lexicon of geek-speak and corporate jive. Employees at Hewlett Packard survived boring meetings by counting the number of “so"s. A joke even circulated: What’s the sound of Santa Claus at an HP Christmas party? “So so so!”

An oncology researcher at Johns Hopkins recently confessed to me that he says “so” with such frequency that his patients tease him about it; his colleagues are trying to help him break the habit. He figures he caught it from his boss: “We call it the ‘so’ virus.” Indeed, as a staple entrée into an expository framework, “so” carries with it the attractive connotation of signaling the arrival of privileged information or hard-won knowledge. A mantle of authority easily assumed, if not legitimately earned.

But beyond this, can such a tiny word reveal anything about the metaphorical underpinnings and conceptual structure of scientific endeavors? In the 1990s, Columbia University psychologist Stanley Schachter counted how often professors said “uh” and “um” in lectures and found that humanists said them more than social scientists, and natural scientists said them less frequently of all. Because such words mark places where a speaker is choosing what to say next, Schachter argued, natural scientists’ low hesitation rate underscored the hard facts they were communicating. “So” can be said to have the inverse relation for exactly the same reason. It relays a sense of accuracy and rigor. One doesn’t have to worry about what to say as much as when to say it. “So” is the organizing device for a logic-driven thought process.

Former Microsoft engineer Alex Barnett wrote on his blog that “so” was a “delaminater” word. To him an idea was a concrete object, much like an onion. “So” was the word a speaker used to convey that another layer was peeling back. This metaphor implies that ideas have a kernel that one could reach with enough “so"s, a notion surely enticing to the problem-solvers and the goal-oriented. I prefer to think of “so” as a vehicle across a landscape of knowledge. It lies not so much in between points on a terminal trajectory, but more on perpetual journey across points of understanding. In this sense it shares some qualities with the infinite “why"s of a two-year-old. Another “so” can always follow the end of a thought. The trajectory is endless; the rabbit hole has no bottom. There will always be more questions for science to answer.

As a word that dwells in the lexicon of those who desire to understand and to learn, “so” is a marker of healthy intellectual tolerance. It is a hallmark of a robust cognitive approach to the world. But this is not to say that the “so” employed by professional explainers is all deduction and dialectic. It also implies an element of faith. This is the faith of any attempt to teach, argue, brainstorm, or present: the conviction that the person who is listening will understand what’s being said and comprehend its significance. More than anything else, this fidelity may spring from a need to communicate; a fervent desire to exchange ideas and, in turn, build new ones. This is an inclination characteristic of many people. “So” is just more frequent on the tongues of those who do it best.

Originally published April 24, 2008

Tags communication information literacy

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