Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The problem with scientists and language.

This is a topic that I touched on a few months ago, but I thought it would be good to get back to it again. (urgh.)

The topic is how scientists (and engineers) like to increase the precision and accuracy of their statements (when their statements are the written interpretation or verbalization of their painstaking scientific research). However, when these statements mix with the language of everyday life, it comes into contact with the common vernacular, and it becomes easy for the language of the scientist to be misunderstood or twisted to another end.

Even communication between disciplines this happens. One example I will draw upon is the word "diameter." In a common vernacular, most people would mean the distance from one side of a roughly circular object or area to the other ("What is the diameter of the Capitol dome?"). In mathematics, the diameter is defined as being twice the radius, which is itself described as the straight-line distance from the center of a circle to its edge. When talking about modeling hydraulics, the diameter has been used interchangeably with width, especially when talking about pipes or culverts. However, there is another definition of "diameter" which has apparently nothing to do with any of these definitions (which all refer to a specific type of width measurement). This is the use of "diameter" in network theory. Here, the diameter refers to the minimum distance between two nodes. While it may still talk about a specialized idea of "length," it divorced from the idea of "circularity" to which most definitions of "diameter" refer. Without an understanding of this specialized definition of diameter, a discussion of its use in modeling river networks makes for a confusing ride, since one does not know whether the person is initially talking about the width of the river, or its "branchiness".

This example in mind, it becomes even more muddied when talking to people in the "real world." Take, for example, the two differing understandings of the word "THEORY." Conducting a definition search of the work on WordNet Search provides the following three definitions:
  1. a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena
  2. a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena
  3. a belief that can guide behavior
The first definition is the one used primarily in science as the definition of "theory", but in the common vernacular is thought of as scientific "laws". The second is normally termed a "hypothesis" in science, but in the common vernacular it is this term that is most often called a theory. The last definition is more akin (imho) to a definition of faith, and I'm going to focus this section of discussion on the implications of the first two definitions.

The first definition of "theory" is complicated by scientists who have decided to elevate certain very well explained theories to "laws". However, a scientific "law" is still a scientific theory, coined as something immutable by either the scientist after whom the law is named, or by the community of scientists that study in the discipline. To the hoi polloi, however, this distinction is filtered through a lens of social understandings of science and law to mean that there must be some sort of progression from being a "theory" to becoming a "law":

theory ==> law

This is exacerbated by textbooks parroting this viewpoint, and extended to include a progression from a lowly hypothesis into (eventually if the hypothesis is close enough to the truth) a law:

hypothesis ==> theory ==> law

However, it is not accurate: the "law of gravity" is a theory. Newton's "Laws of Motion" are actually scientific theories. True, scientific laws are different from theories in that they have withstood the vast test of time and scrutiny. However, they are not immutable.

What the average non-scientist considers a "theory" is similar to what scientists would consider a "hypothesis": the stated assumption of physical cause and effect. However, this is the same thing as a "theory" in everyday use. A police investigator makes "theories" as to how a murder occurred. A lawyer makes a "theory" as to why the defendant made the decisions he made leading up to the murder. Indeed, to be generous, people may well place "scientific theory" at a level somewhere between "everyday theory" (aka "hypothesis") and "scientific law" (aka "tried-and-tested scientific theory"), meaning that - in a science context at least - the word "theory" is something a little more than a mere guess.

However, this muddle of language becomes a major point of contention when dealing with politics in science. The detractors will point to problems with a scientific theory well understood in the scientific community and use scientific uncertainties surrounding the mechanisms around which the system works to try and tear down the original theory. This is like stating that since we do not know how sub-atomic particles work, the Big Bang Theory is incorrect. Or stating that since we do no have evidence of speciation through the process of natural selection, Darwinist evolution is wrong. Or that since winters are still cold, the predictions of global climate change are wrong. To use a non-scientific example, it would be like making the argument that the Holocaust did not happen because the scale was too vast to possibly have occurred. This is is obviously nonsensical and patently false logic: we have overwhelming documentation of the Nazi atrocity; physical evidence of it; experts who study it; and people who lived through it (and its post-War impacts).

The language of science endeavors to be precise, however, the language of society tends to be generalized, especially the English language. Trying to pin down the meanings of what a string of words with a very specific scientific meaning in the context of a social exchange brings with it the problems of language usage on both parties. On the one hand, language flows from a group that tries to conserve the meaning of language to describe a very specific instance or instances, and on the other hand language is received by a group that attempts to assess the general meaning of a phrase. It is no wonder that miscommunication occurs.

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