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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2007 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

By Any Other Name

By giving tumors their right names, scientists gain power over them

Robert L. Dorit

Pity taxonomy. When it is not being mistaken for the craft of making dead things look alive, the science of naming things seems, in this age of scientific razzle-dazzle, hopelessly old-fashioned.

Levels of gene activityClick to Enlarge Image

And yet the act of naming is, in many ways, the fundamental task of our intellect. The world, as William James suggested, appears "a blooming, buzzing confusion." As scientists, our ability to parse that confusion—to group objects into meaningful categories and give those categories names—is both the prerequisite to and the culmination of our understanding of the world. The way we name things, however, inevitably affects how we perceive those things.

Nowhere is the importance of naming more obvious than in the ways we describe breast cancer, a disease that evokes faint anxiety every time its name is uttered. Descriptions of this disease go back 3,000 years; over the past 30 years, it has become one of the most intensively studied diseases, not to mention the focus of promotional and educational campaigns. Yet despite this long history and our relentless scrutiny, we are not yet sure what "breast cancer" is, or even whether it is a single disease. The more we learn of this condition and its underlying mechanisms, the more complex and multifaceted this disease appears: We are making progress in our understanding of this disease, but sometimes the very name impedes us.





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