Dined in an Indian restaurant in west Edinburgh last week with two friends from Medical School. They were kind enough to compliment me on this blog, and said I was a “debunker”. I am certainly happy to aspire to debunk. There is a lot of bunkum, or buncombe, around; humbug, humbuggery, hokum, or, to use a more technical term, “bullshit”. Why is there so much? The definitive answer to this is the tract “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University (Princeton University Press, 2005). A compelling read. I can’t quite decide whether it’s an essay in profound thought, or in farce – or both of these at once; I suspect the latter.
There’s an occupational hazard to being a debunking aspirant. You are always in danger of turning into a Victor Meldrew figure, or a Scrooge. Bah, humbug! I always remember a piece of advice my father gave me, not to hang around with people who are always moaning.
So this morning let me write in praise of something. I’ve become rather fond of a word that can increasingly be heard used, especially on the radio, in a special sense. I’m not generally impressed by words that trend (and “trending” itself is increasingly trendy) – “It’s not about this, it’s not about this, it’s about that, d’you know, going forward, like.”
The word I like is “so”. Have you noticed this? It’s best heard in a radio interview, usually with a boffin. A scientific expert is hauled in to cast light on some technical aspect of an issue that the popular press has picked up on from the academic journals. “Professor, what exactly is the Higgs Boson?”
And a short lecture follows.
I get a warm feeling when I hear “So”. It’s an invitation to prepare to receive a little piece of encapsulated knowledge, lucidly and coherently presented. To be lucid and coherent on air is not easy at the best of times, and particularly when dealing with a conceptual difficulty. You never know whether you really understand something until you have successfully explained it to somebody else. I remember training to sit the Australasian Emergency Medicine exams in Sydney. I and my colleagues would rehearse, swapping roles as examiners and examinees, endlessly grilling one another. We would increase the level of tension by choosing an intimidating setting, wearing suits, conducting the oral before an audience and in front of a video camera.
“Now doctor, tell me about the metabolism of paracetamol.” And you would pause to gather your thoughts.
One of the examiners once said to me (not referring to me – I was a plodder), “The good candidate makes it look so simple.” Science strives after simplicity; there’s an article of faith in science that the laws of physics are fundamentally simple. Lord Rutherford said that if you couldn’t explain your research to the Cavendish Laboratory’s cleaners you didn’t really understand it. But simplicity is deceptively complex. The opposite of simplicity is not complexity; it is obfuscation. There is a lovely story about the physicist and virtuoso bongo drummer Richard Feynman. Towards the end of a lecture he described two ways of dealing with a physical problem as “complicated and messy” and “simple and very elegant”. “We don’t have much time left, so I’ll show you the complicated and messy way.”
So… here is the meaning of “So”. It means, “In the following statement I am going to do my best to explain something as clearly as I can, without recourse to smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, and the other paraphernalia of bunkum.”
I’ve been listening out for “So” this week from political campaigners. I have heard lots of “Let’s be clear” but I haven’t heard a “So”. Maybe “So” is strictly for scientists. Does it occur in literature? Henry IV part 1?
So shaken as we are, so wan with care…
Not really in our special sense. How about Beowulf: Hwaet we Gardena… Not the Glasgow “stairheid” patois translation (“What wee gardens!”), but Seamus Heaney: