Tuesday pet peeve: people who don’t know what agnostic means

The increasing frequency with which I hear scientists misuse the word “agnostic” is starting to annoy me. It’s usually used to mean “I don’t have a strong preference”: for example, “I’m agnostic as to protocol – I could go either way if someone else has a strong opinion” when discussing how to conduct an experiment.

This is not what agnostic means! What it does mean is “I don’t believe it’s possible to know the right answer”. So when you say you’re agnostic as to protocol, it means you don’t think it’s possible to know how to choose the right experimental method. (This may actually be true in some cases, but I doubt it’s what most speakers mean).

A plague of protocol fundamentalism upon people who misuse the word agnostic!

(I don’t mind the South Park episode about militant agnostics, though. That was pretty damn funny).


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"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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16 Responses to Tuesday pet peeve: people who don’t know what agnostic means

  1. chall says:

    I’ve never heard people use it in that context where I live (thank goodness for that). Needless to point out though, the likelihood that people here say “I’m agnostic” is very small (slim to none) since it’s one of those things here in the South that it’s assumed you go to church and have a religious affiliation. And those who don’t, well they (we depending on what we mean) are usually trying to blend in fairly ok since it’s not always worth the “you are going to hell” and “but we don’t judge (yes we do)” attitude that goes along….

    it’s not easy being green 😉

  2. Beth says:

    I’ve heard people use the word agnostic in that way… and I’d never given it a second thought. Until now. And you make a really good point, so this is now going onto my ever growing list of pet peeves. (See also: people who say “I could care less” and people who don’t include arrows in their logic models. The latter one might be uncommon in most people’s worlds, but in mine it is an epidemic!).

  3. Scientistmother says:

    I distinctly remember you having this discussion a few years ago when discussing the meaning of ambivalent with ambivalent scientist! And you might have used protocol examples then bc I was like isn’t this the example of being ambivalent?!

  4. Silver Fox says:

    I think there are many who don’t know the true meaning of agnostic, hence the ambivalent way it’s come to be used.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Chall, I think most people here probably assume that most people have no real religious affiliation – it’s exceedingly unusual for anyone who does to ever mention it, especially at work. I guess if it’s a trade-off between people misusing the word agnosticism and people assuming everyone goes to church and judging those who don’t, I’ll take the former… sorry!

    Beth, you can console yourself by thinking “ha ha, you basically just admitted that you have no idea what to do”. p.s. I am with you on “I could care less”, and so is John Cleese!

    Scientistmother, yes! You are right. Ambivalent does NOT mean “I don’t care”.

    I think the lesson here is that scientists need to get better at just saying “I don’t really care”, but let’s face it they probably won’t because it doesn’t sound very scientific.

    Silver Fox, that’s probably true – but it’s frustrating that extremely well-educated native speakers of English don’t know this kind of thing!

    • chall says:

      Cath, I think you work in the saner work environment (i.e. the one I was used to working in before moving here….) I mainly think that the use of the word agnostic isn’t that common here, that’s all.

      I probably need to look up ambivalent (since I have it as meaning “on the fence/not sure”… all these English words 😉 )

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        “Definition of AMBIVALENCE: simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action”

        i.e. “I can see both the positives and the negatives of each option”, not “I don’t care which option we choose”

  6. Would you example be on of I don’t care or I can go either way.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:


      • sorry I apparently can neither type nor proofread. Was wondering if you would consider your example of one saying “I don’t care” vs ‘I can see value in doing either protocol A or B”

        one would be an example of ambivalance, one wouldn’t.

  7. rclr says:

    My cringe-inducing word is “instantiate”. It means “to provide an actual example”, but is used in place of “implement” in sentences like, “This process should be instantiated throughout the organization”, or in place of “initiate”, as in, “We should instantiate a trial to study that phenomenon”. It’s right up there with “irregardless” in the words-that-make-me-shiver category.

    Myself, I am guilty of misuse of “agnostic” and “ambivalent”. Is there an a-word that means, “I don’t care which way we go”?

    • Silver Fox says:

      Middle of the road?

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Apathetic? (kidding! Although I’d love to hear someone try that in a meeting. That or “meh”).

      I promise I’ve never misused “instantiate”, but only because I’ve never heard it before. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon predicts that I will very soon start hearing it everywhere I go.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    I am religiously agnostic.

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