Correspondence

Nature 440, 1112 (27 April 2006) | doi:10.1038/4401112b

It's incredible how often we're surprised by findings

Michal Jasienski1

  1. Nowy Sacz Business School – National-Louis University, Zielona 27, 33-300 Nowy Sacz, Poland

Sir:

How often do natural scientists admit surprise at their findings? More frequently than social scientists or non-scientists? I searched for words indicating surprise among 30,133,141 abstracts of English-language scientific papers indexed in the Science Citation Index (SCI) and 8,151,087 English-language academic articles in the Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities citation indices. I compared the frequencies of words appearing in the SCI with their frequencies in the other indices and, separately, with their occurrence in general writing, as recorded in the Brown Corpus of Standard American English (edict.com.hk/lexiconindex), by testing the significance of log-odds ratios (all were found to be significant at P < 0.001).

The study of nature does indeed seem to surprise us. The odds of finding in abstracts of scientific research papers a result or conclusion described as 'surprising', 'unexpected', or 'unusual' are an order of magnitude greater than in standard language and several times greater than in non-science academic abstracts.

The word 'surprising' appears 12 times more frequently in the natural sciences than in standard English and 1.3 times more frequently than in social sciences, arts and humanities. The word 'unexpected' appears 39 times and 2.2 times more frequently in the natural sciences than, respectively, in standard English and in non-science academic writing.

In contrast, words such as 'happy', 'unhappy' or 'ugly' occur with frequencies that are expectedly lower in the natural sciences than elsewhere (further details of this research are available on request from jasienski@post.harvard.edu).

Although natural phenomena can indeed sometimes be surprising if they are against our expectations, being 'surprising' is not an inherent quality of nature. Does scientists' use of this term in their publications truly represent genuine surprise at their results? One might think that academic machismo or realism would cause scientists to downplay their surprise, but, on the other hand, overstating the level of astonishment may occur when striving for media attention.

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