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This week we'll look at word that express interesting concepts from science.

I find no entirely satisfactory definition find for our first word. But let's take what seems to be the best, from Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems, and then explain what may be missing.

Hawthorne effect – production increased not as a consequence of actual changes in working conditions introduced by the plant's management, but because management demonstrated interest in such improvements
[from the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Co., Cicero, Ill., where its existence was established by experiment by G. Elton Mayo]
quote:
Mayo ... tried to demonstrate that better work place hygiene would have a direct and positive effect on worker productivity. So he turned up the lights. Productivity went up, as predicted. Then, as he prepared to turn his attention to another factor, he routinely turned the lights back down. Productivity went up again! … a theme we will return to continually in the book, is that it is attention to employees, not work conditions per se, that has the dominant impact on productivity. (Many of our best companies, one friend observed, seem to reduce management to merely creating "an endless stream of Hawthorne effects.")
– R.H. Thomas/Waterman Peters, In Search of Excellence, pp. 5-6.

I'd suggest that the cause of the improvement may be any of several factors:
  • change itself being good for its own sake;
  • the sense that the boss cares about you (the Hawthorne effect has been called the "Somebody Upstairs Cares" syndrome);
  • the sense that someone is watching and evaluating you (a "Big Brother" concept)
 
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This is the simplistic answer as popularised by the likes of Peters. It is far from the whole story and Elton Mayop was not involved it the initial experiments (that were to do with the lighting levels). Mayo did much more work involving all sorts of factors of which lighting was but one. The conclusion that most accept is that the variation in work performance was due primarily to management's interest in the workers rather than anything that was actually done to or with the workers.

However, as it was at the Hawthorne Works that the experiments took place, the "Hawthorne Effect" has become a common phrase in the HR world. It is usually taken to mean that "the details of an observed phenomenon will be affected by the fact that it is being observed".

As a simple example, if an observer is posted to record the numbers of instances of vandalism in an area, that numer is likely to decrease simply beacuse the potential vandals know they are being watched.

Richard English
 
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quote:
It is usually taken to mean that "the details of an observed phenomenon will be affected by the fact that it is being observed".


Sounds like a restatement of Schrodinger's Cat.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by arnie:
quote:
It is usually taken to mean that "the details of an observed phenomenon will be affected by the fact that it is being observed".


Sounds like a restatement of http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,,sid9_gci341236,00.html.


More like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, I'd have said.

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Surely in research the "Hawthorne Effect" is an important intervening variable that must be controlled.
 
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To me, the last sentence of the quotation is what makes today's word more than a scientific curiousity.

synesthesia – a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when hearing a sound produces the visualization of a color
quote:
Julian Asher had a theory about the symphony concerts he attended with his parents. "I thought they turned down the lights so you could see the colors better," he says, describing the "Fantasia"-like scenes that danced before his eyes. Asher wasn’t hallucinating. He's a synesthete—a rare person for whom one type of sensory input (such as hearing music) evokes an additional one (such as seeing colors). Violins appear as a rich burgundy, pianos a deep royal purple and cellos "the mellow gold of liquid honey."

Almost any two senses can be combined. Sights can have sounds, sounds can have tastes and, more commonly, black-and-white numbers and letters can appear colored. For most of the last century, scientists dismissed synesthesia as the product of overactive imaginations. But in recent years they've done an abrupt about-face, not only using modern technology to show that it's real but also studying it for clues to the brain's creativity. "Synesthesia is not a mere curiosity," says retired neurologist Richard Cytowic. "It's a window into an enormous expanse of the mind."

Why do people develop synesthesia? The truth is that no one knows. It is possible that most of us not only have these connections but use them regularly, although at such a low level that we don’t realize it consciously. After all, we describe subzero weather as "bitter" cold, while a taste like cheddar cheese may be "sharp" and a color like hot pink "loud." " Maybe metaphor, abstract thought and synesthesia all have a similar neural basis," says [Dr. V. S. Ramachandran [of the University of California, San Diego].
– Anne Underwood, Real Rhapsody in Blue, Newsweek, Dec. 1, 2003 (excerpted)
 
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Laffer curve – a graph of tax revenue as a function of tax rate, illustrating the theory that beyond a certain point, higher rates will reduce the tax revenue received (by discouraging economic growth).
And conversely, if rates are beyond that point, then reduced rates will increase revenue.
[Arthur Laffer (born 1940), American economist]
quote:
By 2001, however, Putin and his political party effectively controlled the parliament, and he got results. The government passed a new, simplified tax code for individuals and small businesses. It was an unmitigated success: "There was a classic Laffer curve response — more revenue was generated for the government because more people filed taxes rather than avoided them," says Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital in Moscow.
– Bill Powell, Russian Roulette, Fortune, Nov. 24, 2003
 
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alpha male - a male in a pack of wolves, etc., to whom other members submit (in humans: dominant man; a man who controls the activities of a group and to whom others defer)
quote:
Lauri Stewart, community coordinator for the Independent Police Review Division, which serves as the intake center for police complaints, said too much police training focuses on the "aggressive, Alpha-male, dominating control" approach.
– Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, Dec. 4, 2003

Some people never learn. You would think that a legal scrap is the last thing the BBC would want after its recent confrontation with Alastair Campbell, but now the corporation is on the verge of yet another fight with a famously implacable alpha-male: American novelist JD Salinger.
– David McAllister, The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2003

 
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quote:
Originally posted by wordcrafter:
Some people never learn. ...a famously implacable __alpha-male_:_ American novelist JD Salinger.


It would seem that some people never learn the rules of hyphenization. Two words combined to make one adjective take the hyphen as in the first example BUT, as I understand it (and, mind you, I'm never wrong)* the second example should read "a famously implacable Alpha male American novelist..."

The capital "A" in "Alpha male" I believe is optional.


*Don't ask me why but I dislike using those little smiley faces to denote sarcasm, etc. I assume even R.E. knows me well enough by now to not respond to comments of this sort with huffy outrage.
 
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Interesting point about hyphens, CJ. What does that say about the essential hyphen in Rolls-Royce? Wink Razz
 
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Today's word fascinates me. The dictionaries' definition is in incomprehensible medicalese, but the concept is simple: things that may be good for you in reasonable doses (such as exercise) can be bad for you in larger doses -- and vice versa. There will be a long quote in explanation.

hormesis - an effect where a toxic substance acts like a stimulant in small doses, but it is an inhibitor in large doses.
quote:
Evidence is growing that most hazardous chemicals, as well as radiation, not only are harmless at low doses--but may actually do a body good. ... this mind-bending effect, called hormesis, is pure poison to the conventional wisdom in toxicology. It contradicts the idea that carcinogenic chemicals pose risk at any dose, no matter how low.

And if hormesis experts are right, the time-honored method for quantifying toxic risks at low doses has all the accuracy of a fun-house mirror. Here's the standard technique: Lab animals are exposed to megadoses of a toxin, causing pronounced effects that are readily measured. That yields guesstimates of the human effects at megalevels. To estimate the risk at low doses, regulators assume that the toxic effects fall in a straight line with the dose. Tumor incidence in rats vs. doses of saccharin, for instance, would be graphed on X and Y axes as a straight line. The handy line shows the purported risk at doses down to zero.

But scientists who go to the trouble of measuring actual toxic effects at low levels often observe a J-shaped "dose response" curve instead of a straight line. That means the risks many toxins pose at real-world levels have probably been exaggerated. The J-curve also suggests an idea that, at first blush, seems daft: Policies that foster small exposures to toxins might be better for public health than ones aimed at eliminating them.

Exercise fits the J-curve too. Moderate workouts are plainly beneficial--they can boost the immune system and lower the risk of heart disease. But overdoing it can suppress immune function and deplete internal stores of antioxidants, potentially leading to tissue damage from "free radicals."
– David Stipp, BRAINSTORM: A Little Poison Can Be Good For You, Fortune, June 9, 2003 issue

The link will take you the table of contents, from which you can scroll down to "columnists" to see the full article. (You may also enjoy the feature article titled Taking on Viagra.)

[This message was edited by wordcrafter on Sat Dec 6th, 2003 at 12:12.]
 
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Fascinating discussion. We talk about different drug effects at different dosages in pharmacology, but extrapolating that to carcinogens is interesting. However, I do hope that we get enough data on the carcinogens before we start saying they don't have carcinogenic effects at lower dosages.

I was also intriqued by your coinage of medicalese. I could only find it in one dictionary, and that was the Merriam Webster's Premium Dictionary that you have to pay for.

Just today I read an interesting reference to a scientific word:

"Regarding the woman trampled in a Florida Wal-Mart by shoppers in a feeding frenzy, maybe Christmas ads should carry a disclaimer similar to cigarettes."
 
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If not controlled then certainly taken into consideration, yes. Which is why it's an important effect.

Richard English
 
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