On Language in Science and Beyond

In Physics Today last month, Helen Quinn wrote rather well about the issue of language in science and in common (non-scientific) usage, with a focus on when the two collide. I recommend the article, which you can read here.

There are cases in our own teaching where confusions arise, which mostly get resolved as the students learn the concepts associated to specific words….

A few words in elementary physics— force, work, momentum, and energy—have carefully defined physics meanings. Their much broader everyday usage causes students a great deal of confusion until they learn the precise physics concepts.

…but she’s much more interested in the cases where some words -often powerful ones, commonly invoked- contribute to “considerable public misunderstanding of science”:

belief, hypothesis, theory, and knowledge.

None of these words has a unique physics meaning, but their meanings as we use them among ourselves and as non-scientists hear them are very different. We need to be much more careful how and when we use them in talking to the public.

She goes on to discuss them in turn. I recommend reading it in full. One of the things I like most about the article is that she talks not only about the process of using those words with care when scientists are communicating to the public (or journalists and others communicating on their behalf), but also about us being more careful as scientists when talking amongst ourselves.

She emphasizes the issue of what it means to really know something in science. An extract:

I can know that if I hold out a rock and let it go, it will fall to Earth. My listeners will agree. They will even accept that I can use my knowledge of gravity to predict the way a satellite will travel. But that I can use the knowledge to infer the existence of unseen matter in a distant galaxy seems preposterous to them. Of course, at one level they are right, what I can infer is either that there is unseen matter (dark matter) or that the laws of gravity must be modified to explain the data. But my listeners seldom accept that I cannot just introduce a modification of gravity for the distant galaxies and leave the laws of gravity the same for predicting satellite motion. They have no sense that the universality and immutability of the fundamental laws is the basic postulate of all science. No matter how many tests have shown us that the laws of physics do not change with time and place in the local region around Earth, how can I assert that I know these laws apply elsewhere in the universe? Again, I must argue from a chain of inference, from self-consistency, and, if you like, from Occam’s razor—it is superfluous to introduce new laws to explain distant observations when existing laws can be used.

Yes, it is still disturbing to me the extent to which this and related issues which form the core of what we do (and what we’re about) are not understood by the general public (the nature of repeatable experiments, inference, the role of assumptions and hypotheses, interpretation of data and observations, statistics), and it’s one of the things we need to work on with ever more urgency. This process, way of life and way of approaching things may be one of the most important things we need to communicate, in view of pressing matters of debate at the cusp of where science and our everyday lives collide in new ways – and in a manner that will have repercussions for generations to come.

Have a read of the article, and come back and tell us what you think.


(Thanks Sara T.!)

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