Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#9 - The Language of Science

American Heathen:  aired: 25 February 2012

No, this essay isn’t about mathematics, which some people have claimed to be the language of science.  Instead, think back to when you first were introduced to science in school - a big issue arose:  scientists seem to speak a different language from the rest of society.  There are all sorts of strange words, some of them in Latin or sounding like Latin, some of them very unfamiliar and esoteric, some of them familiar words but used in a very strange way, and all of it wrapped in what seems to be very dry and awkward prose.

I admit freely that at times, understanding what a scientist is trying to say in a scientific journal article can be quite challenging, indeed.  It’s rather ironic that the very process of seeking clarity can make the language of science so difficult to understand!  I’ve had the experience of trying to understand the message coming from a scientist via the written word in a formal paper.  If it’s challenging for me, then I can just imagine how it would come across to a layperson!  In the case of some scientists I’ve known personally, when they speak to me face-to-face, I can follow their ideas with relative ease, but their formal papers remain challenging to decipher.  For the good scientists, this exercise in struggling to understand their written prose is well worth the effort because of the deep insight to be gained.  In other instances, after translating a challenging paper, it sometimes seems as if it just wasn’t worth the effort!  So I can relate to folks who find the language of science opaque and uninviting.

We scientists often insert what are called “caveats” in our scientific prose – these amount to qualifying remarks.  Scientists strive to be careful not to seem excessively confident, so if there exist issues about our work that are problematic (and there almost always are!), we’re duty bound to talk frankly and openly about those issues and how they affect any interpretation of the results we’re presenting.  This can seem to the layperson as qualifying our comments to an excessive degree.  Can’t we just state our results in simple black and white terms?  Well … actually … no.  Anyone doing research is required to acknowledge the limitations inherent in their studies.  To fail to include the caveats would be intellectual dishonesty that’s simply forbidden in science.  Scientific research almost never produces unambiguous results!  Our interpretation of those results might apply to most of our data, but there usually are some things that don’t quite match the interpretations we provide.  Or there are limitations on the generality of our results – they may not apply to every conceivable situation.  The data we collect in our experiments and during our testing of hypotheses have many possible limitations.  To be absolutely confident in our interpretations is simply not possible … ever!  The best we can hope for in such terms is that our experimental data aren’t inconsistent with the interpretations we provide.  If they’re systematically inconsistent, then our original ideas have been demonstrated to be invalid, and we have to resume the search for understanding.  At least we will have provided a reasonably convincing negative result – our ideas just don’t match the data we collected.

Another frustrating issue associated with the language of science is jargon.  Many scientific ideas are not described well by ordinary words, so we invent new words for them (like vorticity or baroclinic).  We also recycle old words, giving them new meanings.  The hope is that fellow scientists will accept a proposed precise definition for such terms, and all scientists then will understand what those new words imply.  An example of a new scientific meaning for an old word is the word “chaos” – dictionary.com defines chaos (a noun) as:

1. a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order.
2. any confused, disorderly mass: a chaos of meaningless phrases.

But recent research into the dynamics of nonlinear systems – it’s not important to know just what this phrase means – has given a precisely defined new meaning to this word:

Chaos: the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions

Therefore, a physicist talking about “chaos” has a very precise meaning associated with this word that likely doesn’t match the meaning assigned to this word by a layperson.

The jargon of science in one field may differ significantly from that in another field, even though the same (or similar) words can be involved.  Each subfield in science has its own unique jargon and part of the challenge of participating in that field is that you’re expected to learn and use the jargon properly.  If we don’t agree on what terms mean, how can we communicate?  We end up with the legendary Tower of Babel, where no one can understand anyone else because they’re speaking different languages!  Interdisciplinary science often is plagued with the Tower of Babel syndrome for this reason. 

If we’re to communicate, then, we simply must agree on the meanings of the words we use in the process.  In ordinary conversation, scientific precision of speech is uncommon.  This can be especially apparent in arguments that are purported to be logical – human language isn’t always effective at communication, and the absence of clear definitions makes it much worse.  All of us, not just scientists, struggle with this challenge.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.