“System” isn’t jargon, either

“System” is one of the words that appear in noted science writer Carl Zimmer’s list of banned words – these are words that he believes should be avoided when writing about science for a general audience. But is “system” such a hard word? Zimmer is a very good science writer, and he knows what he is talking about. However, I argue that a few of these words are widely used and understood by the public at large and have meanings and convey distinctions of meaning which can be useful in describing scientific research. Zimmer apparently believes the problems with these words are self-evident and hasn’t really explained why he thinks they should be banned. Yesterday I dealt with “process” and today I would like to add “system” to the list of excommunicated words which deserve a pardon. I’ll try to be direct and straightforward, but today’s blog is aimed at science writers and potential science writers rather than a general audience so I’ll feel free to use a wider vocabulary and more academic style on this occasion.


I should note at the outset, that Zimmer is especially opposed to a particular sense the word (as in “I chose mouse as a system to study”), but it is not clear exactly what his objection is. I would certainly agree that describing a particular plant or animal as a “system” is needlessly obscure – if that’s Carl Zimmer’s point, then it is a fair one. If he thinks any reference of a biological “system” is out of bounds – I think he is wrong, and I don’t really understand the objection, but I think there is a hint in some of the other words on his hit list. One reason I want to talk about “system” is because, in my view, it goes together with “process” and “mechanism” – all three are common and widely-understood but abstract terms. I want to explain why I think they can be useful in explaining scientific research.  


My Chambers dictionary lists several definitions of “system”. They include:

1. Anything formed of parts placed together or adjusted into a regular and connected whole
2. A set of things considered as a connected whole
7. A plan of action
8. A method of procedure
9. A method of organization


These I think are widely understood non-technical meanings which are directly relevant to scientific research. Most people, I think, would understand the word “system” used in one of the senses above, whether in a scientific or a non-scientific context. “System” is a word which appears over a billion times in Google’s index. It’s Kucera-Francis frequency is 416, which means that it occurs in written English roughly as often as the following words:


BETTER                     414
END                        410
GOVERNMENT                 417
NIGHT                      411
NOTHING                    412
SET                        414
SYSTEM                     416
TOLD                       413
YET                        419


“System” is used extensively in popular journalism, and can be found in articles on sport, politics and other topics. You can find some examples here (in the British tabloid, The Sun)


Although “system” clearly refers to an abstract concept, it has some specific connotations which make it useful for labelling – well – systems: things comprised of multiple* component parts drawn together to make a connected whole. Importantly, unlike say “process”, system does not imply an operation, change or sequence. The parts of a system do not necessarily engage with one another (as, for example, the word “mechanism” would imply). So a system could be a static, unchanging object made of constituent parts (an example would be a solar panel), or it could refer to a process in which the parts are phases or states of operation, or in which the parts move or change (literally** or metaphorically). The components might, or might not, affect one another directly and causally. So, “System” is the best word if we want to include all possibilities or if the dynamic or mechanical features are unimportant. “Process” is the best word if the dynamics are significant. “Mechanism” is an excellent word (a metaphor) which makes concrete the idea that elements of a system interact directly and causally, like cogs in a machine.



The “nervous system” is a useful example of a biological term which is fairly easy to understand. The “system” part of the phrase accurately conveys the idea that body’s signalling network is comprised of many elements which constitute a connected whole. “Network” was the best word I could find to avoid “system” in the preceding sentence, but of course it carries with it some additional connotations – I couldn’t use it to describe the solar system for example. I like it that there is a useful English word that embraces concepts as diverse as solar and nervous systems, showing how they can both be regarded as being composed of parts which form or can be considered as a connected whole. I think this is a powerful and useful abstraction, and one that can be grasped by any football (soccer) fan who understands that a team operates a particular defensive strategy (such as the “4-4-2 system”). It is not an alienating or confusing or highly technical term, not in my view overused, but it is an abstract one – and, I assert, non-scientists can deal with abstraction – it is patronizing to think otherwise. For me, words like “system”, “process”, and “mechanism” convey useful distinctions about the way we understand natural and man-made phenomena.


*I use multiple here to mean “many” and/or “several” – surprisingly it’s another word on CZs list!

**Literally is another surprising inclusion on the banned list.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

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