Oct 17 2005

The different use of terminology in scientific and political debates

I would like to revisit the question addressed earlier of why scientists are at a disadvantage when they try to debate in political forums, like those involving so-called intelligent design creationism. This time it deals with how terminology is introduced and used.

Scientists often need to introduce new terms into the vocabulary to accommodate a new concept, or seek to use a familiar everyday term or phrase with a more precise technical meaning.

The scientists who introduces the new concept usually has the freedom to name it and most of the time the community of scientists will go along with the name. The reasons for the name vary and can sometimes have whimsical origins. The physics term ‘quark’ for subnuclear particles for instance was named from the line “three quarks for Muster Mark” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and was invoked because it was thought at the time that there were only three subnuclear particles that made up the proton and the neutron. The proton consisted of two ‘up’ quarks and one ‘down’ quark, while the neutron consisted of one ‘up’ quark and two ‘down’ quarks. But then other particles were discovered which had unusual properties and these were dubbed to be ‘strange’ particles and so a third type of quark, the ‘strange’ quark, was postulated to explain their properties.

Later a fourth type of quark was required and this was called the ‘charm’ quark. Not all terminology sticks, however. When a fifth and a sixth type of quark came into being, initial attempts to name them ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ seemed to most physicists to have crossed the line of acceptable whimsicality, and the names of those two quarks settled to the more mundane ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ quarks.

Although there are a variety of reasons for the names scientists select for new concepts, the success or failure of the ideas that are associated with the concept does not hinge on the choice of the name. This is because science concepts are more than names, they also have ‘operational definitions,’ and it is these definitions that are important. Many non-scientists do not understand the importance that scientists attach to operational definitions.

For example, if you ask a non-physicist to define ‘mass’, you will usually get some variation of ‘it is the amount of matter present in an object.’ This intuitive definition of mass may give a serviceable understanding of the concept that is adequate for general use but it is too vague for scientific purposes. It could, after all, just as well serve as a definition of volume. A definition that is so flexible that it can apply to two distinct concepts has no scientific value.

But an operational definition of mass is much more precise and usually involves describing a series of operations that enable one to measure the quantity. For mass, it might be involve something like: “Take an equal arm balance and balance the arms with nothing on the pans. Then place the object on one pan and place standardized units of mass on the other pan until balance is achieved again. The number of standardized units required for this purpose is the mass of the object on the other pan.”

For volume, the operational definition might be: “Take a calibrated measuring cylinder with water up to a certain level and note the level. Then immerse the object in the water and measure the new level of the water. The difference in the two level readings is the volume of the object.” We thus see that, unlike the case with intuitive definitions, there is a clear difference between the operational definitions of mass and volume.

It is possible for a concept to have more than one operational definition. For example, the mass of an object could also be defined operationally as placing something on a triple beam balance, moving the weights around until balance is achieved, and then taking the reading.

It does not matter if a concept has more than one operational definition. In fact that is usually the case. The point is that consistent operational definitions of mass would enable one to show that the different definitions are functionally equivalent, so that you can use any one of these mutually consistent operational definitions. If you actually want the mass of an object, all the various operational definitions would result in the same numerical value, so that mass is an unambiguous physical concept.

Such operational definitions enable scientists to avoid confusion and quickly agree on what names like mass and volume mean. The names themselves tend to be value neutral and by themselves do not advance an argument. Scientists tend to not challenge the ways things get named because it is the underlying operational definition that is crucial to scientific arguments. Scientists are quite content to go along with whatever names others give to concepts, because they rightly see the name as irrelevant to the merits of the debate.

This is quite different from what goes on in the political arena. There what you call something can be a crucial factor in whether the argument is won or lost. Take for example, what was known as the ‘estate tax.’ This is a tax on the estates of very wealthy people who become deceased. It affects only a tiny minority of people and was very uncontroversial for a long time. The term ‘estate tax’ is fairly descriptive because we associate the word ‘estate’ with the wealth passed on by rich people.

But there were interest groups who wanted to repeal this tax and one of the ways they achieved this goal was by renaming the tax as a ‘death tax,’ which seemed to imply that you were being taxed for dying. By getting this new terminology accepted in the debate to replace the old term, they have succeeded in getting quite considerable popular support for the removal of a very egalitarian tax, even though few of the people supporting the repeal would have estates large enough to worry about paying the tax.

Similarly the Bush administration at one time tried to get the media to use the term ‘homicide bombers’ instead of ‘suicide bombers,’ Perhaps they were thinking that ‘suicide bomber’ would remind people that the people doing this were making a great personal sacrifice and that raised awkward questions about their level of determination to remove US troops from their country and the reasons behind the determination. But that effort at renaming went nowhere because the old name was an accurate description of the person, while the new name was seen as being redundant and conveying less information.

In political battles, winning the name game is half the battle because accepting the name preferred by your opponent often means tacitly conceding the high ground of the argument and playing defense. So the habit of scientists to concede the name and to work with whatever name others come up with is not a good strategy when they enter the political arena. But it is not clear that all scientists have realized this and know when to shift gears.

In the next posting, I will examine how IDC advocates have used this casual approach to names to get an edge in the public relations wars, and how scientists should fight back.

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