Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cartoons in biology?? How about: diagram, figure, illustration or schematic

Molecular biologists often refer to depictions of cellular processes or structure as cartoons.  (here is an example).  I think it is a poor word choice.  Cartoon is generally used to indicate a humorous depiction or an unfinished product (i.e., a sketch on a carton), so it is somewhat insulting to the creator of the illustration (unless it is, in fact, unfinished or humorous).  What I think they are trying to say by calling their diagram a cartoon is something like: "do not forget that this diagram is a vast oversimplification of reality!  Proteins are not really boxes and lines are really not protein associations!  Proteins aren't made of ribbons!"  At times, one also gets the feeling they are trying to convey something more, "Our field is so complex, our diagrams are ludicrously simple compared to reality!" or even, "Aren't I cute for calling this a cartoon even though this is a science talk!"

Fortunately, there are several other words suggesting that a depiction is not a precise representation of reality but rather a simplification that serves to emphasize certain facts or relationships, and they don't carry any of cartoon's demeaning connotations: diagram, figure, illustration, schematic.  IMHO, these are vastly preferable for referring to depictions of biological phenomenon.  This seems to be well supported by definitions, synonyms, and word associations:

Merriam-Webster (online)

Etymology: Greek diagramma, from diagraphein to mark out by lines, from dia- + graphein to write — more at carve
Date: 1619
1 : a graphic design that explains rather than represents; especially : a drawing that shows arrangement and relations (as of parts)
2 : a line drawing made for mathematical or scientific purposes

Inflected Form(s): plural sche·ma·ta \-mə-tə\ also schemas
Etymology: Greek schēmat-, schēma
Date: circa 1890
1 : a diagrammatic presentation; broadly : a structured framework or plan : outline
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin figura, from fingere
Date: 13th century
2 a : a geometric form (as a line, triangle, or sphere) especially when considered as a set of geometric elements (as points) in space of a given number of dimensions b : bodily shape or form especially of a person c : an object noticeable only as a shape or form
s moving in the dusk>

3 a : the graphic representation of a form especially of a person or geometric entity b : a diagram or pictorial illustration of textual matter


Date: 14th century
2 : something that serves to illustrate: as a : an example or instance that helps make something clear b : a picture or diagram that helps make something clear or attractive

Etymology: Italian cartone pasteboard, cartoon, augmentative of carta leaf of paper — more at card
Date: 1671
1 : a preparatory design, drawing, or painting (as for a fresco)
2 a : a drawing intended as satire, caricature, or humor b : comic strip
3 : animated cartoon
4 : a ludicrously simplistic, unrealistic, or one-dimensional portrayal or version ;


Part  of  Speech:      noun
Definition:     drawing, sketch of form or plan
Synonyms:     big picture, blueprint, chart, description, design, draft, figure, floor plan, game, game plan, ground plan, layout, outline, perspective, representation, rough draft

Part  of  Speech:      noun
Definition:     design
Synonyms:     architecture, arrangement, blueprint, chart, comp, composition, conception, constitution, construction, delineation, depiction, diagram, doodle, drawing, dummy, form, formation, game plan, idea, layout, makeup, map, method, model, outline, paste-up, pattern, perspective, picture, plan, project, scheme, strategy, study, tracery, tracing, treatment

Part  of  Speech:      noun
Definition:     object with design; depiction
Synonyms:     cast, composition, decoration, device, diagram, drawing, effigy, embellishment, emblem, illustration, image, model, mold, motif, motive, ornamentation, pattern, piece, portrait, representation, sketch, statue

Part  of  Speech:      noun
Definition:     drawing, artwork that assists explanation
Synonyms:     adornment, cartoon, decoration, depiction, design, engraving, etching, figure, frontispiece, halftone, image, line drawing, painting, photo, photograph, picture, plate, sketch, snapshot, tailpiece, vignette

Part  of  Speech:      noun
Definition:     funny drawing, often with dialogue or caption
Synonyms:     animation, caricature, comic strip, drawing, lampoon, parody, representation, satire, sketch, takeoff

associated to diagram
1.    chart    weak
2.    graph    weak
3.    draw    v. weak
4.    plan    v. weak
5.    block    v. weak
associated from diagram
1.    chart    medium
2.    picture    medium
3.    diaphragm    weak
4.    drawing    v. weak
5.    graph    v. weak

associated to schema
1.    scheme    strong
2.    axiom    weak
3.    concept    weak
4.    fema    weak
5.    pooh    weak
associated from schema
1.    scheme    strong
2.    database    weak
3.    diagram    weak
4.    paradigm    weak
5.    seem    weak

associated to figure
1.    stick    medium
2.    action    weak
3.    father    weak
4.    shape    weak
5.    authority    v. weak
associated from figure
1.    shape    medium
2.    eight    medium
3.    skate    weak
4.    skating    v. weak
5.    out    v. weak

associated to schematic
1.    plan    strong
2.    scheme    medium
3.    architecture    weak
4.    blueprint    weak
5.    diagram    weak
associated from schematic
1.    blueprint    strong
2.    system    strong
3.    design    medium
4.    drawing    medium
5.    love    medium

associated to illustration
1.    example    medium
2.    drawing    medium
3.    graphic    weak
4.    book    v. weak
5.    capella    v. weak
associated from illustration
1.    picture    strong
2.    drawing    medium
3.    book    weak
4.    cartoon    weak
5.    draw    weak

associated to cartoon
1.    animation    v. weak
2.    simpsons    v. weak
3.    anime    v. weak
4.    disney    v. weak
5.    character    v. weak
associated from cartoon
1.    character    medium
2.    network    weak
3.    animation    weak
4.    comic    v. weak
5.    tv    v. weak


EGP said...

Unless your scientific cartoon is like this,
you should probably call it something else.

Larry said...

The word "cartoon" is eminently appropriate. Your mistake lies in maintaining such an unrealistic association of humor with the word "cartoon."

You used the phrase "precise representation of reality." What does that mean? Where in science do we seriously use the claim "precise representation of reality" in either a realistic or precise manner? Science recognizes that the human cognition is beset with muddled processes, and by acknowledging this innate befuddlement of the human condition, we can use various tools to become less muddled. "Precise representation of reality" is akin to the perpetual motion machine and akin to claims that man has figured out all that need be figured out, within any particular realm of nature.

Cartoons are powerful, since they represent the very foundational nature of cognition. What notions in our mind are not cartoons, by their very nature? Also, the most powerful classic cartoons in human history are not humorous. Any element of humor was utilized as a deflection, an allusion that the cartoon is "not serious;" these cases of powerful cartoons are indeed serious.

The rather common run-of-the-mill humor-laden "cartoon" is a mundane knockoff of the real thing. Let's promote cartooning as one of mankind's impressive tools, to be appreciated and therefor utilized far more extensively in vast areas of human thought and creativity.

JTP said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comment. My argument is not that we shouldn't be drawing illustrations, figures, or schematics in biology, only that the word "cartoon" seems less appropriate than these others. I do, however, appreciate a different perspective, and I also agree that viewed historically, "cartoon" has more respectability than I am giving it. Perhaps if you and other scientists like the word, I can get used to it in time. :)

JTP said...

@Larry (part 2)

I'm revisiting this post, and I've reflected a bit more on your comment. I would like to respond in greater detail.

You state that the word "cartoon" is "eminently appropriate" and suggest that I am attaching an "unrealistic" association with humor. Words have meaning based on shared understanding, and the association I suggest is dead-on and not at all unrealistic. Here's how wikipedia defines cartoon: "A cartoon is a form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art. While the specific definition has changed over time, modern usage refers to a typically non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature, or humor, or to the artistic style of such works." Who is being unrealistic? Type in the word "cartoon" and do an image or web search in google. The results are clear--when you say the word "cartoon", you cannot help but evoke the primary meaning of that term and suggest that we are dealing with exaggerated or humorous depictions of reality, not merely sketches or diagrams that only simplify reality. My post acknowledges the fact that the word originally did not possess this connotation--but it certainly does now. Biologists are not ignorant of the current usage and connotations of the word. Hence, they must have some other motivation besides staunch adherence to the original, but outdated, usage. For twenty years now I've heard biologists use this word, and I stand by the speculation as to motivation which I offered in this post.

Your critique of my phrase "precise representation of reality" is over-the-top. I used the phrase tongue-in-cheek to emphasize the very point that you make--all of our representations are simplifications! Of course I am not suggesting that a particular schematic or figure can ever be a perfect one-to-one mapping onto reality. However, according to common usage, the kinds of diagrams referred to by biologists as cartoons tend to represent some relationship in *very* broad strokes (e.g., blobs of color on a page or ribbons representing protein secondary structure). The greater the precision, and the less human-intervention in the representation between the raw data being accumulated and the associated representation, the less likely it is that the figure will be referred to as a "cartoon".

Finally, rather than demeaning the noble art of cartooning (defined historically), I'm suggesting that we should use words that, according to modern usage, are more flattering to the art. By refusing to use one of many perfectly acceptable replacement words, you yourself are demeaning the art form which you would like to promote. I agree that we should promote cartooning (historical sense), and nothing in my post suggests otherwise.

Andrew Kennedy said...

I think this is a non-native English problem. For example, in Polish the word 'rysunek' means both 'cartoon' (in the humerous picture sense) as well as 'diagram' (in the scientific illustration sense) so the use of cartoon is probably just a mis-translation from the speaker/writers native language?