Scientists sometimes use vague words to hide their ignorance

Language can hinder – or advance – our understanding of truth

It is common knowledge that you cannot kill a virus because viruses do not survive.

However, some viruses act as if they are alive. In fact, there are biologists and philosophers who insist that viruses deserve a branch of the tree of life. Yet many other experts refuse to give viruses a life status to viruses.

Debates about viruses as living (or not) species have raged for decades. However, while there is ample data on the accumulated viral vitality, the disagreements do not abate. Probably because the controversy is not really about the nature of viruses. It is more about the meaning of life. Scientists may not agree with that either.

The inability of science to define life reveals not only a lack of lexicographical dexterity, but a larger problem – the particular way in which the relation of science to reality relates to the relation of science to words.
Obviously, words are important for scientists to talk to each other and relate their findings to the rest of civilization. Even in most mathematical sciences, words have to be added to symbols to relate mathematical relationships to real phenomena. Words such as energy or tenor force describe a physical unit that corresponds to a symbol in an equation.

However, many scientific ideas are not limited to a clean mathematical expression, so the words stand alone. And sometimes ideas come from words. Throughout history, scientists have often created a word before fully forming the underlying idea. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his poetry Faust, words can be saved without ideas. “The mind conceives the words”, one reads in a translation. (Or in another version, “When your definition is threatening to stagnate, words come to save the day.”)

Therefore, scientists sometimes use a term and use it widely, even though no precise definition of the term is widely accepted. Life is an obvious example. It’s a word that most people understand naturally, but no one can define it to the satisfaction of others.

“We all believe that we can recognize a living organism when we see one,” wrote biochemists Athel Cornish-Bowden and María Luz Cárdenas in the February issue of BioSystems, “but it’s not so easy to give a meaning to “life.” all the entities that we believe to exist and exclude those that we do not exist.

For example, some proposed meanings of life include the ability to reproduce from Cornish-Bowden and Cárdenas from the University of Aix-Marseille in France. Sounds good, but what about those from? They can’t reproduce, but most people would agree that the sick are alive, say biochemists. “The minority view that patients cannot be considered alive does not solve the problem, as many people, including many respected biologists, are past the age at which they can give birth, but will reject any claim that they cannot live.

Life is one of the many scientific words used which cannot be precisely defined. And scientists often use vague terms, usually as proxies for the first misconception – some have gone wrong, others have gone completely wrong.

For example, the ancient Greeks coined the word atom to describe the smallest piece of “indestructible” matter. But no Greek really knows what an atom really is (and of course, they have no proof that there are still atoms, like Aristotle’s atom-denier power argument). However, the concept was about right. However, 18th century chemists claimed that fire depended on a substance called phlogiston. But phlogiston is just a word linked to an idea that has gone completely wrong. Likewise, the impulse, a popular term in the Middle Ages for discussing Aristotle’s views on how things moved, lost momentum when Galileo and Newton exposed Aristotle.
In recent times, the word gen, like the atom, was the first to describe an invention that was not yet fully developed. (The gene, which refers to an element of heredity, was created in 1909 by Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen, decades before anyone knew how DNA works.) Over the past century, the definition of the gene has evolved, although it is still not strictly defined. is like any other scientist would like.

Part of the scientific problem with associating words and meaning is (as linguists remind us) that there is always a gap between a word and the reality it represents. “The word is incorrect,” stresses semanticist S. I. Hayakawa in his popular book “Language in Thought and Action”, like a map that is not identical in the area it represents. Some scientific terms serve as fairly reliable maps of reality, while others have become dead ends bait. An important part of scientific progress is to reduce the gap between words and objects and to make vague labels of symbols more specific.

It’s easy to find timely examples of scientific terms that mimic knowledge while hiding misunderstandings. “Dark matter” and “dark energy” are essential, stress the physicists, while admitting that nothing has been said yet. Other in-depth puzzles that bathe today’s best science sleuths also reflect the inability to bring words and things closer. Consciousness is a prime example of mental processes that prevent anything from approaching a coherent physical description. Intelligence comes a little closer to understandable meaning, but not enough to avoid all sorts of arguments in favor of artificial reproduction.

Another problematic word popular with physicists, time, poses various puzzles. On the one hand, it has many meanings – the time of day is not the same as the length of time is not the same as time travel. Physicists are still debating why the arrow of time points only to the future, and whether the flow of time is an objective physical reality or an illusion in a “block universe” where all events occur. are already there. just waiting for a conscious observer to see them. Of course, the secrets of time can be more linguistic than physical problems. “We face puzzles around the concept of time, and then we say, Oh, what a horrible thing,” physicist John Archibald Wheeler once said. “We didn’t know we were the source of the puzzle because we made up the word.”

Only time (another meaning) will tell if words like time and consciousness express ideas deeper than the scientific understanding achieved. Perhaps consciousness and time will emerge as prophetic terms such as the atom awaiting the emergence of reliable scientific concepts. Or maybe time and conscience (and who knows what the other words are) are not good! like phlogiston.

In any case, it should be noted how often obscure words as ideas can lead to successful scientific endeavors. Whole fields of scientific research have developed from the seeds of the word coined without great ideas – the atom and the gene are the best examples. As Goethe told Faust:

“Good arguments can be weighed by words, whole systems can be created by words.”

But it may be a good idea to note that the person speaking these lines is Mephistopheles, the very representative of Goethe’s devil.

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