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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10 Responses to On Language in Science and Beyond

  1. edward hessler says:

    Dr. Johnson: I read this before you posted your comments. I thought it was a great article and passed the link to it on to about 30 other educators. I’m pleased that you like and recommend it too.

    For some reason it reminded me of an essay I like a great deal by Dr. Wilzcek on F=ma with its mix of meanings. I smile whenever I think of him “struggling” with the ideas in this “simple” equation. I think this is because he understands so much more than I do.

    By the way, I often forward links to your photographs of flowers and they get “oohs and aahs,” rave reviews and a little envy. Thanks for these gifts, especially to some eyes that while not weary of winter are wondering when we will really beging to feel some of the heat so common this time of year. We are in the middle of a major snowstorm which promises to deliver as much snow as last week-end, i.e., many centimeters but I hope much less than a meter for it is quite heavy having been preceded by mist. Now to the wind which promises red noses and cheeks (and in my case, a runny nose).

    Cheers and thanks for your notes. They enrich my world.

  2. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    I’ve kind of a sad example where words are used very confusingly for the public. My mum (she’s a teacher) sent me a work on black holes from a group of her pupils. They close by stating that RHIC had produced a black hole. I guess what they did was making a google search, which turned up something about the ‘dual black hole’ at RHIC but they didn’t understand the details. It really scares me how fast such things can propagate. (I’ll probably write a post about it).

    I know this wasn’t really the content of your post, but it’s just circling in my mind.

    The question how we communicate science to the public with the right choice of words is definitely important. However, I am admittedly always a bit annoyed if people too easily discard the option to use the much more precise ‘language’ of mathematics. True, there are aspects of maths that are quite complicated, but I think that elementary logic, and the use of basic relations can be learned and understood by much more people than is currently the case. I don’t know where it comes from, this idea that maths is something mysterious only understandable for the few gifted. It’s a different question if one wants to ‘read’ maths, or to use it to construct something new.



  3. Clifford says:


    Thanks! I’m glad you liked the article too. I also appreciate the comments about you enjoying the other posts on the blog here. It’s been a thoroughly depressing day for me and so this was timely and nice to read…



  4. Sorry to hear you’ve had a bad day.

    This article reminded me of Florence Nightingale’s (i think) proof of the existence of God, which goes: “There are laws of nature, so there must be a law-enforcer.”


  5. Nigel says:

    It’s an existing law that if two bodies are exchanging radiation while moving apart at high speed, the radiation each receives is of much lower energy that emitted. The redshift does this. Yang Mills theory is the exchange of massless radiation, so you’d expect it to be shifted to lower frequencies by redshift, so the energy per quanta received, E = hf, will be reduced.

    This isn’t the whole story behind how you need to ‘modify’ cosmic scale gravity to include quantum effects. But is is an important problem, and […]


    [Read the rest of the comment here. -cvj]

  6. Aaron F. says:

    This sounds like a great time for me to blather about my own favorite science-language pet peeve: “the quantum theory.” It sounds like the title of a cheap drugstore thriller, right next to The DaVinci Code and The Entropy Effect. Nobody runs around yammering about “the game theory” or “the literary criticism”… why don’t people realize that “quantum theory” is also a collective noun? It’s inaccurate and insulting and I hate it.

    Okay, I’m done now. 😛

  7. Plato says:
  8. Adam says:

    I also think that we should, to some extent, seek to avoid certainty when expressing what we think science, itself, is. Many scientists of my aquaintance don’t spend much time worrying about the philosophy of science; most that do probably settle broadly into a Popperian view (I am one of those people) but it’s not as there is unanimity amongst philosophers of science, either. Furthermore, not all scientists are necessarily using words like ‘theory’ or ‘hypothesis’ in the same way or with the same tone; some scientists seem to believe that we are uncovering truth, but others, for example, just believe that we are ruling infinite sets of possible theories out whilst leaving us with infinite sets of possible theories that are allowed. Myself, I am tending to think that it doesn’t matter what ‘truth’ is, that science is just about making predictions and trying to disprove them and that’s all we can say. Even then, we may incorrectly falsify theories.

  9. Clifford says:

    Hi Adam,

    I agree that words like certainty should not be bandied about without due care, but we should still not be shy about getting across the idea of the extreme unlikelihood of a particular outcome, based on observation, theory and experiment. Some things do come as close to certainty as anything in the history of the word ever has, and the certainty is bolstered by our scientific understanding – the whole dialogue of “theory” with the real world – as opposed to blind or arbitrary faith. I speak ,for example, of the unlikelihood that the sun will not come up tomorrow, that the computer you are using right now will not fall to the floor if you swept it off its table or desk, and so forth.

    Yes, we must be careful, but we must not weaken the power of what science can do in the minds of the general public (or our own minds, for that matter). By the same token, we must of course not overstate what science can do by deploying it in areas where it has little or no teeth.



  10. spyder says:

    One of the aspects of Clifford’s immediate point above (regarding certainty), that dominated the public’s perception of how amazing science could be, was the US manned space program of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Nearly everyone (certainly excluding half the residents of Pahrump, NV–those damn flat earther’s and space deniers) felt certain the sun would always come up, and that gravity worked in fairly conventional ways. What truly excited the population was the capability, provided by the scientific communities’ joint efforts, of human beings to throw three guys in a metal pot, toss that metal pot at the moon, watch it go there, circle around, land a couple of them on the lunar surface, circle back around, and then come back to Earth, landing in the ocean. The conventionality of Newtonian physics, meeting the minds of those willing to risk the “presumed” high degrees of probably success, led to a general understanding that scientific theory could correctly and accurately predict praxis and success. Most people, for example, would not have known about the formulas for required thrusts of the intricate engine and separation systems, or the detailed work on nutritional studies, metabolic rates and O2 uptake, and waste processing. But they did know that theories led to success, and that success was amazing.

    We just don’t have that today so much. The science that is being conducted throughout the world is hidden by the “fun” of the technologies being distributed from scientific work of years ago. My baby boomer generation was taught that technological progress coming from scientific research would lead us to a future of great prosperity and wonder. We discover, as do the subsequent generations, that our science tells us that our technologies are, in fact, harming us. The ongoing climate science studies past events, and can only model and predict upcoming ones. Yet the public expects, perhaps demands, that this science force technological change to save us. The lack of scientific literacy among the general population increases the frustrations and anxieties. The failure is not, i think, that of the scientific community, but of the mass media forced, by economic entanglements, to promote feel good consumption and disregard science and scientists.