Fact and Fiction

Thoughts about a funny old world, and what is real, and what is not. Comments are welcome, but please keep them on topic.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Mind your scientific language

Lawrence Krauss writes an article entitled Mind your scientific language in the Comment and analysis section of this week's New Scientist, where he highlights various differences in the scientific and common lay use of words that have led to unfortunate misunderstandings.

For instance Krauss writes:

A scientific theory is a logically coherent and predictive system that has been tested against experiment or observation. It explains observable phenomena and makes falsifiable predictions about them.

and later on adds:

A key part of the argument made by those who wish to introduce religion into science classes is that evolution is "just a theory". By "theory" these individuals are referring to the common lay usage of the word, meaning a hunch or a guess, and not the more restrictive sense in which the term is normally discussed in science.

It is a fundamental requirement of meaningful communication that the participants have to agree on their use of terminology prior to engaging in any discussion. I have found that virtually all arguments that I have ever had can be traced to unfortunate differences in the use of terminology. When you have hot-headed combatants it is very tempting for them to go straight to all-out warfare, without going through the diplomatic preliminaries of checking whether they are actually in disagreement about anything.

Of course, the illusion that religion (read "intelligent design") is somehow to be put into the same category as evolution is caused entirely by a category error, which is traceable to the conflict between two different meanings of the word "theory". Evolution is a scientific theory, and is not a hunch or a guess.

Because the scientific and common lay meanings of words are frequently different, scientists have to be very careful to "put on the appropriate hat" (or "change gear", or any other of countless metaphors) according to whom they are speaking. This is a talent that needs a lot of practice, so if you are the sort of dedicated scientist who mainly communicates with like-minded people, then prepare yourself for arguments when you discuss science with non-scientists. At the very least you have to be able to think like the person you are talking to, no matter how crazy their worldview seems to you. If you can do that, then their different use of terminology is much easier to understand.

Krauss goes on to write:

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, a US organisation that defends the teaching of evolution in schools, has argued that we should train ourselves to not use the term "believe" in a scientific context because it blurs the distinction between science and religion.

I couldn't agree more. The word "believe" has been used by many people in conversations with me as a linguistic device to trap me into making errors. The first time someone did this they "won" the argument, because although they had introduced the word, I foolishly did not request that it was replaced by another word such as "know", or "experimentally measure", or whatever. Of course, this use of the word "believe" worked only once on me, because my conversational countermeasures quickly evolved to include anti-"believe" clauses.

Like I said earlier, if you want to engage in meaningful communication, you have to put yourself firmly in the mind of whoever you are talking to. And I don't mean just passive nodding in sympathy with whatever they are saying, I mean making lots of effort to engage with their thought processes. Most conversations I have with scientists about non-scientists show that scientists look down on non-scientists, so no wonder they don't bother to understand how non-scientists think. News groups and blogs have many extreme examples of this phenomenon, though I would expect such sources to be a biassed sample.

So, mind your scientific language.


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