Thursday, December 08, 2011

Words in Science

A pretty convinced article on "climate change" in the October Physics Today makes an excellent point about the unusual way scientists use words (and how this keeps them from communicating effectively to the public). They provide this marvelous table of examples.

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public
Scientific termPublic meaning Better choice
enhanceimproveintensify, increase
aerosolspray cantiny atmospheric particle
positive trendgood trendupward trend
positive feedbackgood response, praisevicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theoryhunch, speculationscientific understanding
uncertaintyignorancerange
errormistake, wrong, incorrectdifference from exact true number
biasdistortion, political motiveoffset from an observation
signindication, astrological signplus or minus sign
valuesethics, monetary valuenumbers, quantity
manipulationillicit tamperingscientific data processing
schemedevious plotsystematic plan
anomalyabnormal occurrencechange from long-term average

In light of these ambiguities, perhaps all parties can agree on this formulation:

The theories of climate-change scientists have bias and the data themselves have been manipulated as part of a scheme growing from deficient values. Everyone is doubtful that recent actions of climate change scientists are anomalous. The Earth has witnessed a positive trend toward enhanced temperatures. The unanimity of climate-change scientists comes from an excess of positive feedback within that community.

The larger point that the article misses is that scientists, including physicists, use words with a specialized meaning all the time. Missed meanings help journalists to sensationalize and sell science to a public that's been hyperstimulated to the point of insensibility. Often this suits the scientists very well, because selling science to the public ensures government support. For example, "dimension" as in "time is the fourth dimension" is a surefire way to sex up an article. It conjures images of walking in time the way we walk down the street, whereas a dimension is really nothing more extraordinary than a parameter in a mathematical expression, and time by nature is really quite different from space.

Other times these words invade our vocabulary to such an extent that we don't even realize how they have changed our conception of the world. This is true especially in physics. Some examples follow.

Science – used to mean any sort of knowledge, now it's restricted to the modern empirical study of the natural world, especially those objects that succumb most readily to quantitative treatment and prediction and control.

Physics – from phusis, the Greek for "nature" – used to refer to all natural philosophy, now it is restricted to the mathematical principles of mechanics as proposed most forcefully in Newton's Principia, whose full title is The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (As an expression of the mechanical philosophy, it really tries to do away with nature.)

Force – usually means an external cause or power, but in physics something insidiously dissimilar. In modern physics, there is in reality no inside or outside, and forces are not really causes in the full sense. One of our most fundamental experiences of ourselves is as causes, e.g., we are the causes of our locomotion, as in walking. But since in Newtonian mechanics, self-motion is not allowed, we need to invoke "reaction forces" to "explain" animal locomotion. So the sidewalk is what pushes you along. Thus, forces are not causes in any simple sense.

Causality – in physics this word typically refers to the idea that cause must precede effect, so that two phenomenon that succeed each other in less time than it takes light to travel between them cannot have a cause-effect relationship.


Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, "Communicating the science of climate change," Physics Today 64:10 (October 2011), p. 48.


Note: Been really busy trying (fruitlessly it turns out) to save my job this semester, but figured I should post this in at least the same calendar year as the article it refers to.

2 comments:

Alan Robuck said...

Regarding the previous pseudo-comment:


I call on Mr. Gage to remove this mindless verbal excrement or, if the comment is to remain, I call on any other posters not to attempt to engage the author in conversation. Based on his words, he appears to be, um, unstable.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I've read your blog and it's nice to see what you have to say once again.

I hope your job situation improves.

Great post, as always!

Jennifer