Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/January 1901/Discussion and Correspondence
NEEDLESS OBSCURITY IN SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS.
After having called attention in a recent issue of the Monthly to certain circumstances leading to the retardation of science, we may now venture to discuss a few of the particular ways in which a scientific writer can perplex his brother workers. Nobody supposes that the ordinary author wishes his contribution to be regarded as a sort of 'puzzle-page' but that is the effect often unintentionally produced. The causes of this are of diverse nature. In these days of ultra-specialization and of hurry, a specialist often inclines to address himself solely to his fellow specialists, or to an even smaller circle—his fellow-specialists of the moment, forgetting those that may come at a later day. There may be in the whole world but two men who will take the trouble to read his paper, or who would really understand its bearings. Whether from modesty or from pride, from desire of brevity or from laziness, our specialist addresses his remarks solely to those two. The student who is not yet quite at the same level, the professor who tries to keep abreast of his subject in general, the worker who comes a few years later and sees things from an altered point of view; all these find themselves 'out of it,' and long investigations are often necessary before they can be sure of the author's meaning.
The same obscurity is achieved by those whose humility leads them to think other folk more learned than themselves, whereas, in writing scientific papers, as in lecturing, political speaking or leader-writing, one should remember the old request of the listener, 'Of course, I know; but speak to me as if I didn't know,' and the practical warning of the playwright, 'Never fog your audience.' Or it may be not so much humanity as the short-sighted egoism of the enthusiast, who assumes that his little corner must needs be known to all the world. But it i» perhaps not so important for our present purpose to discuss the state of mind conducing to obscurity, as it is to point out instances.
Here is a common one. In stratigraphical geology everyone is supposed to know the names of the great systems; and if the names of their main subdivisions are less familiar, they can at all events be readily hunted up in a text-book. But there are an extraordinary number of names nowadays invented for quite small divisions, or for purely local rocks, and many of these names convey of themselves very little meaning. Is there a geologist living who can say offhand what is meant by all or even half of the following names, which are taken at random from some recent publications: Plaisancien, Schlier, Catadupa beds, Calder Limestone, Hornstein, Oberen Mergel-schichten, Feuerstein, Scaglia rosata, Knorrithone, Ferrugineusschichten, Deer Creek Limestone, Semmeringkalke, Diceratien, Moscow shale, Lenneschiefer? The language or the locality may guide one to a rough determination, or a few names of fossils may be an indication to the expert; but when these names are introduced without further explanation, as is actually the case in many of the papers from which these instances are quoted, then perplexity followed by irritation is the natural result. The names just cited are of diverse nature. Calder Limestone and Lenneschiefer are terms of local application and perfectly justifiable; all that we ask is a hint, however guarded, as to the probable horizon of these restricted rocks in comparison with a better known geological series. Plaisancien and Diceratien are minor divisions on the time-scale, which are doubtless familiar enough to the students of Pliocene or of Middle Jurassic rocks, but which may cause the ordinary geologist a journey to the public library and prolonged search. Feuerstein and Oberen Mergel-schichten are terms the meaning of which is absolutely governed by the context, or by the place in which the author happens to live; stratigraphically considered, there can be no value in such words as firestone and upper marl-beds. As for Knorrithone, it is simply a vulgar barbarism, the offspring of specialism and illiteracy, which may do well enough for the notebook of a field-geologist, but is out of place in the official publication from which it is culled. A couple of friends may talk of the 'Bel. quad, beds' or the 'corang zone,' but a sense of respect for their science, no less than a feeling for foreign readers, should keep these colloquialisms out of their serious publications.
Akin to the instance last mentioned is the slovenly habit indulged in by many zoologists of referring to a species by its trivial name alone, without mentioning the generic name, which is an equally essential component of the name of the species. This is especially a custom with entomologists of the baser sort, who, in matters nomenclatorial, seem to be capable of anything. With them as with other classes of naturalists, this apparent familiarity is probably due to their ignorance that the >ame has been applied to species of, it may be, twenty other genera. They would be less prone to the habit if they knew that zoologists of wider knowledge regard it as the hall-mark of provincialism.
What is true of geological formations and of species applies also to genera. Until the reform proposed by Prof. A. L. Herrera is adopted, the scientific names of animals and plants will not be self-explanatory. How many scientific men, asks the ingenious Mexican, outside the system-artists of the group, understand what is meant by Spinolis zena? Is it a mush room, an ant, a rose, a spider or a monkey? Some names are intended to indicate the class to which the plant or animal belongs; thus a name ending in crinus is pretty sure to belong to a crinoid, one ending in ceras may be a fossil mollusc belonging to the Ammonoidea; graptus is fairly certain to be a graptolite, and saurus a fossil reptile. The principle might well be extended, and systematists should at least refrain from applying a termination tacitly ear-marked for a particular group to a new genus belonging to an other group. If the name of an Echinoderm genus ends in cystis, the reader naturally supposes that the animal belongs to the extinct class Cystidea, and he is not a little disturbed if he discovers that it is a recent sea-urchin. However, these things are so, and will continue to be so, until people realize the responsibility that rests on the proposer of a new name. It is unnecessary to do more than recall the fact that, owing to inadvertence or ignorance, the same name has often been applied to more than one kind of organism, and may for years continue to be used in both senses, while many names well-known in zoology occur also in botanical nomenclature.
The point we would emphasize is this: Considering the difficulties that inevitably spring from such a state of affairs, it is the more incumbent on writers to explain the nature or systematic position of the organism about which they are writing. Merely to give the name, even if it chance to be correct and elsewhere unappropriated, is not enough. Still less is this satisfactory when the name has been used in more than one sense. How often does a zoologist spend time and trouble in looking up a paper on some genus in which he believes himself to be interested, only to find that the subject of the article is some different animal, or even a plant, bearing the same name. To show how real a grievance this may be, let us give an actual case. Last year two naturalists presented to the French Academy of Sciences an account of their investigations into the perivisceral fluid of Phymosoma. The mention of perivisceral fluid indicates that Phymosoma is an animal and that it possesses viscera; also that it is not a fossil. But neither the title nor the paper itself gives any further hint as to the zoological position of the creature. We must, therefore, have recourse to some work of reference, such as Scudder's 'Nomenclator,' and here we find Phymosoma given as the name of a sea-urchin, better known as Cyphosoma. This may be the reason why the paper in question has been indexed in a well-known bibliography under the head of Echinoderms. But on inquiring further into the matter we find, first, that the sea-urchin Phymonoma is only known as a fossil, or if it does occur in the recent state, it is by no means so common as readily to afford material for biological investigation; secondly, that the phenomena observed are not such as we have hitherto been taught to associate with the Echinoidea. These considerations, while not excluding the possibility that the Phymosoma of the paper is a sea-urchin, arouse our suspicion. But what is to be done? We ransack the works of reference in a great library, we appeal to our zoological friends, specialists in various branches, professors, bibliographers. In vain. The resources of civilization appear exhausted, and we. . . . 'Why on earth don't you write to the authors?' says some superior practical person. My dear sir, are you not aware that the address of a scientific writer is never affixed to his publications, that if he is a Frenchman with a common name his initials are invariably replaced by M., and that, with all respect to Messrs. Cassino, Friedländer and other benefactors of scientific humanity, it is still as difficult to hunt down a budding author as to solve any other problem of scientific nomenclature? Before risking a letter that, even should it arrive, may elicit no reply, it occurs to us that the authors, being French, are likely to follow the names used by Prof. Edmond Perrier in his large 'Traité de zoologie.' Unfortunately this work, since it is still in progress, has as yet no index. However, by dint of wading through the probable groups of animals, we are at last rewarded by finding Phymosoma among the Gephyreans. No doubt a specialist on that small section of the worms will think all this fuss highly absurd, for the name Phymosoma is naturally quite familiar to him. So much the worse, since no Gephyrean has a right to it. True it is that A. de Quatrefages, in 1865, obscurely printed the name Phymosomum (not Phymosoma), as applicable to a subgenus of the Gephyrean Sipunculus; but the name Phymosoma was proposed for the sea-urchin by d'Archiac and Haime, in 1853. If both names be objected to on the score of etymology, and the more correct form Phymatosoma be suggested, confusion is certain to arise with a name given to a beetle in 1831 by Laporte and Brullé, viz., Phymatisoma, which is, in fact, though erroneously, frequently written Phymatosoma. At every turn, then, there is risk of that very confusion which it is the object of scientific nomenclature to eliminate.
Now it is distinctly to be understood that this narration has not exaggerated the facts one jot, and it is clear that the experience may have been shared by many others. All this loss of time, vexation of spirit and promulgation of actual error might have been spared by the insertion of the single word 'Gephyréen' in the title, or, at least, by some intimation in the paper itself. Justly then do we stigmatize heedlessness in such matters as an agent in the retardation of science.