The Devil’s dictionary returns!

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


All entries copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge.

philosophy  a field of knowledge which aims to prove that knowing anything is impossible – well, except for that. Years of study are required to unlearn everything a person has picked up over the years, followed by great mental discipline and constant vigilance to prevent information from seeping into the vaccuum that has been created. The brain has a natural hunger for knowledge and finds clever ways to smuggle it in without a person’s knowledge, which causes difficulties because anything you don’t know that you know is hard to identify and remove because it never occurs to you to look for it. The extent of unlearning required by a true philosopher is usually only achieved upon earning a doctorate, at which point you have racked up about $300,000 in debt from student loans in the pursuit of ignorance. On the salary provided by the 7-11 or Dairy Queen, which are the only jobs you are qualified to do, it takes about a 3000 years to repay this sum, not taking inflation into account. But perhaps it is worth it; philosophy may be the key to a happy life, although by definition, there is no way to know this.

Philosophy is sometimes called “the Queen of the Sciences,” but only by philosophers, revealing a secret bias toward monarchical forms of government. Actual scientists, on the other hand, call it something else, such as “a bunch of malarkey covered in spam and generously topped with Cheeze Whiz.” Natural scientists consider philosophy a completely theoretical field that has no bearing whatsoever on the real world, because philosophy has neither mass nor energy, and thus by definition cannot interact with matter. Philosophers counterargue that millions of books have been written on the subject and can be viewed in archeologial sites called libraries. Natural scientists respond by calculating the cost of printing all of these books, in terms of the millions of acres of trees that have been sacrificed, and thus the extent to which philosophy is accelerating the end of the world.

Despite the inherent antagonism between these two views, it should be noted that many natural scientists go through a brief phase of intellectual flirtation with philosophy, usually when confronted with the task of writing a dissertation. This little fling usually doesn’t cause any permanent damage, unless it produces a child or lasts too long. Sustained dosages of philosophy are toxic and can lead to a mild disassociative state in which a scientist believes his or her body to be a robot under the control of aliens, or secret government powers using mind-control devices, which is why so many of them wear tinfoil hats. Documented symptoms of full-blown cases of philosophy include hemlock poisoning, insanity through syphillis, depression, existentialism, atheism and nihilism, although the order in which they appear may vary. Happily, in most cases of temporary philosophy, an external stimulus causes the mental fog to dissipate, much the way pressing a button can open a garage door and let out the cats, or opening a keg of beer produces pandemonium. A person infected by philosophy may remember going into a bookstore to buy a copy of Also Sprach Zarathustra; then there’s a gap in your memory, and suddenly you wake up on the side of a barren hill in a foreign land, surrounded by a large herd of goats. If this ever happens to you, philosophy is probably the culprit. That, or aliens. Although some philosophers become contract killers instead of goatherds.

A typical dialog between a scientist and a philosopher goes something like this:

Scientist:  Hey, how are you doing today? Oh, I forgot that you maintain that we can never know for sure what day it is, or if such a thing as a day even exists.
Philosopher:  That’s correct, but it is possible to talk about a day without establishing that it exists. Providing we share a frame of reference that contains “day” as a concept.
Scientist:  But wouldn’t the frame have to exist, for us to share it?
Philosopher:  Not necessarily; it’s enough to postulate that it does, and that your framework and mine are similar enough to permit communication.
Scientist:  But what basis can there be for doing so? Doesn’t it make all communication a thinly-veiled lie?
Philosopher:  No, because lying presupposes the existence of a truth that can be lied about.
Scientist: …And somehow you get out of bed in the morning. Me, I get up, develop a hypothesis that it’s Tuesday, which it either is or isn’t; it can’t be both. So I perform an experiment that will disambiguate the situation by clarifying the Tuesday-ness of a particular day. For example, by asking my wife.
Philosopher:  Ah, but who’s to say that your wife’s Tuesday is the same as your Tuesday? When your wife asks you if her butt is fat, is fat to her the same as it is to you?
Scientist: I’m not in the mood for the “fat” argument today. Keep it up and things are going to get ugly.
Philosopher:  Why does the the failure of objectivity as a tenable world view always incite you to violence?
Scientist: I can tell you for certain that what you mean by violence isn’t what I mean. You’ll find out, though, if you brainwash any more of my PhD students.
Philosopher:  Is that so?
Scientist:  You betcha.
Philosopher:  Well maybe I will, just to prove a point.
Scientist: Go ahead, I dare you.
Philosopher:  By the way, did you drive to work today? My car’s in the shop.
Scientist:  Yeah, you need a ride home?
Philosopher:  I’d really appreciate it. Should I come by around five?
Scientist:  Works for me. Catch you later.

psychology  a field devoted to the study of invisible, immaterial, and other formless entities such as the mind, the psyche, and large imaginary rabbits. Psychologists use invisible tools to cut these phenomena into subcomponents that are also invisible, but smaller. This produces new entities such as the Id, the Superego, and a ghost called Elvira. By studying defects in the interactions of these components, and the use of silverware by psychiatric patients, psychologists have identified the causes of a number of mental diseases which no one previously recognized. Diseases are assigned names based on characters from Greek mythology who have committed terrible acts of a sexual nature.

Psychology is considered a science only by its practitioners and those they manage to draw into their collective delusion. They justify this claim by pointing out that the psychology curriculum requires them to take a course in statistics. They also do a research project in which they stand at a window, watch the behavior of zoo animals, and count whatever happens, usually acts of a sexual nature. The real trick is to find clever excuses to discount any evidence that fails to confirm the initial hypothesis. Either that, or to make up the hypothesis after the observations have been performed. Statistical methods are then used, in a random order, to convert the hypothesis into a theory that can be immediately applied to human society.

Psychologists claim to be studying the brain, although most of them have never actually seen one. If some other part of the body takes part in an activity that interests them, such as acts of a sexual nature, they are not required by law to shut their eyes and ignore it. Noticing it deliberately is considered bad form, however, because it encroaches on territory claimed by specialists in other branches of medicine. The eyes, for example, lie in the domain of optometrists, while facial muscles are the province of plastic surgeons. Hair is the exclusive territory of coiffeurs with names like Raimondo or Giancarlo, unless it emerges from the nostrils or ears. That places it in the domain of psychologists again.

litmus test  a scientific method to determine whether something is what someone claims it is or is in fact something else. A litmus test is performed by sticking a thin strip of blue paper into the mouth of the subject, or whatever orifice is available, and waiting to see whether it turns red, or sticking in a red strip of paper to see if it turns blue. This will tell you whether something is what it is supposed to be or something else, but only if you know how to interpret the results, and haven’t somehow mistaken a strip that was originally red for one that was originally blue and then turned red again, or vice versa, respectively. Ideally litmus tests are performed as double-blind, randomized studies in which the person who inserts a strip knows neither what color a particular strip was to start with, nor what color it is now; neither should the person administrating the test hope for a particular result, or know what a color would mean if it occurs, which is usually not a problem by this point; otherwise it can be solved by wearing sunglasses.


Note: If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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