We have all witnessed the rhetorical impact of language in popular culture. Certain terms may serve ideological goals but mislead us about the reality they signify. How about scientific language? Does a particular terminology help shape agreement even when it is misleading or seems theoretically neutral? Let's take one example: the prion.

Stanley Prusiner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1997, coined the term prion when he proposed in 1982 that the cause of scrapie, a neurodegenerative disease in sheep, is a protein particle that somehow replicated without nucleic acid. In that first article, the prion, or "proteinacious infectious particle,"1 represented a provocative idea that was, Prusiner conceded, heretical. He admitted that "skepticism ... is certainly justified. Only purification of the scrapie agent to homogeneity and determination of its chemical structure will allow a rigorous conclusion."

Prusiner's baptism of the new term began a...

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?