Friday, December 24, 2010

Thoughts on language and "the environment"

The hard sciences are characterized by the fact that they are used to study, describe, and predict the physical world - the mundane world - in a way that is (supposedly) divorced from social constructs that may introduce bias. It is one reason why the use of the language of mathematics - supposedly devoid of social constructs and the ultimate objective language - is so prized in the hard sciences. (It is arguably one reason why the use of numbers is so desirable among both researchers and the larger public is because numbers carry with them a high level of perceived objectivity... and therefore - perhaps - 'truth'.)

I would argue that mathematics is, itself, its own language. Even when learning of mathematics in other spoken languages, the concepts - as taught through mathematics - are consistent, and (for most concepts of mathematics) they don't intersect with social constructs present in the wider social culture of each mathematician. Since mathematics effectively requires the learning and use of a language other than the mathematician's own mother tongue, one might argue that - by and large - it is not difficult for mathematicians across social cultures to understand the meanings behind each others' research.

In a similar way, the work done by many of the hard sciences (e.g., physics and chemistry) relies on the specialized language of mathematics in addition to the specialized language of each discipline. Furthermore, the concepts that many of these disciplines describe are similarly non-intersecting with that of the societies from which each scientist comes. Therefore, it is possible to teach the same concepts of (for example) kinematics and electromagnetism (two major subjects of 1st year university-level physics in the US) in English in the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand; Spanish in the various Spanish-speaking countries around the world; or even Mandarin and still provide a standard test that can test these theories that don't intersect with most modern-day social constructs and receive the same correct answers from these groups of people who may well hold very different social constructions of how the wider world (which includes social sciences, history, etc.) works.

Biology is different from the hard sciences in many ways. One of these was is that the boundaries of biology have constantly grown, and now but up against so many other physical and social areas of study, such as biochemistry, biophysics, animal behavior, neurology, biological anthropology, and ecological history. However, this point is for a different conversation. The one that I wish to focus on is that some areas of biology are derived from very distinct social constructions of how the world works. Medicine and ecology are two that come most sharply into mind, while systematics (the science of labeling all biological species and showing how they are related) also has suffered from this, but I will not speak of it further. (By the way, the controversies of evolution vs. religious teaching is, I believe, a different kettle of fish, although I am open to counter-arguments.)

Both ecology and medicine - in their widest senses - deal with things of which people have some level of intimate knowledge and may also intersect with social construction. Medicine - which deals with the concepts of "health" and "sickness" - is a field that tries to describe and treat that which every person feel they have an intimate connection with: the human body.

... more later. I've got to get something to eat.

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