Posted by: Jeremy Fox | May 17, 2012

Must-read: on ordinary language vs. scientific understanding

One of my pet themes on the Oikos blog is how subtle scientific errors can arise from using ordinary words to describe technical concepts (e.g., see here, here [especially the comments], and the last item on this list). Here’s a lovely passage on this, from physicist N. David Mermin. The context is a discussion of how difficult it is to teach relativity, not just because it conflicts with our intuitions about time and space, but because those intuitions are built into the grammar of our language:

Language evolved under an implicit set of assumptions about the nature of time that was beautifully and explicitly articulated by Newton: “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external… ” Lovely as it sounds, this is complete nonsense. Because, however, the Newtonian view of time is implicit in everyday language where it can corrupt apparently atemporal statements, to deal with relativity one must either critically reexamine ordinary language, or abandon it altogether.

Physicists traditionally take the latter course, replacing talk about space and time by a mathematical formalism that gets it right by producing a state of compact nonverbal comprehension. Good physicists figure out how to modify everyday language to bring it into correspondence with that abstract structure. The rest of them never take that important step and, I would argue that like the professor I substituted for in 1964, they never really do understand what they are talking about.

The most fascinating part of writing relativity is searching for ways to go directly to the necessary modifications of ordinary language, without passing through the intermediate nonverbal mathematical structure. This is essential if you want to have any hope of explaining relativity to nonspecialists. And my own view, not shared by all my colleagues, is that it’s essential if you want to understand the subject yourself.

Go here to read the whole thing. It’s wonderful.

It isn’t just in physics where our ordinary language and everyday experience get in the way of our understanding of the non-everyday. The same thing happens in economics (see, e.g., much of Paul Krugman’s writing, such as this). The same thing happens in evolutionary biology (famously, Darwin’s use of the word “selection” was widely misunderstood as attributing willful agency and goals to nature). And the same thing happens in ecology. I just wish I could articulate it as well as Mermin! Like an ugly duckling who hopes to grow into a swan, I dream of growing out of my natural snark-and-zombie-joke-based writing style into something like the above.

In particular, I’m still searching for a way of explaining the effects of disturbance by modifying ordinary language, without obliging readers (and my undergraduate students) to pass through the intermediate step of understanding math. But as I indicated by my recent post on another topic, I vacillate on whether that’s even possible, or whether the problem is just that I haven’t found the right words.

HT Robin Synder, a wonderful scientist and a better friend. And a FOOB.

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  1. To me the much bigger problem is the unnecessary use of technical lingo when simpler words will do just fine in explaining the concept at hand, and reach a broader group of people. Scientism if you will.

    • Sorry Jim, have to disagree with you there. The feeling that “simple, ordinary English words will do just fine” is a big reason why the diversity-stability literature is rife with confusion and a big reason why the zombie idea of the IDH is still hanging on. And that’s just for starters. I’m not saying jargon is the answer, obviously, if for no other reason than that jargon ultimately has to be defined with more familiar words. But I am saying that explaining these sorts of ideas properly, using ordinary, non-jargony language, is MUCH harder than most people (including most ecologists) think it is. Especially if you insist on trying to do so without mathematics.

      In my experience, what’s often lurking behind the urge to use simple, ordinary words is math phobia combined with the feeling that the math isn’t “real” and so has nothing to teach us about the real world. Believe me, I have zero interest in math for its own sake. But so far as an ecologist I’ve found math absolutely indispensible for developing an understanding of the world. I can verbalize that understanding in simple words, or at least I try–but only after I’ve done the math. In my experience, the urge to use simple words usually goes hand-in-hand with the urge to skip over the math entirely, so that you end up using simple words to explain *bad* intuitions, rather than the *good* intuitions that you’d have if you had first understood the math.

      • I’m certainly willing to agree with you that there are concepts that are difficult to explain with ordinary language. However, this depends to a great degree on one’s skill as a communicator. I agree that mathematics is the most precise, and therefore better, way of doing so, assuming one’s audience can follow it.

        However, my point has to do more with which problem is the greater one. And I submit that for every paper discussing a concept that is difficult to explain in “ordinary language”, there are 100 such that use unnecessarily jargony and obtuse and stilted language, often for no other reason than it sounds nice and sciency, not because those words actually help describe the subject matter in question with greater clarity to the reader. Yes, 100:1. Or greater.

      • Fair enough. But I’m not really worried about which problem is bigger, because I don’t think solving one problem is mutually exclusive with solving the other.

      • Yes, good point.

  2. What are your thoughts on metaphor? In conveying new concepts, I feel like the use of metaphor greatly enhances and audience’s ability to understand. Although they must be used with caution, as we don’t want the concept to become integrated with metaphor, such as adaptive landscapes (curiously, when typing this, an email advertising Peter Schuster arrived describing a talk he will be giving on “realistic” landscapes: Further, most maters of scientific communication (e.g., Steve Strogatz, Niel deGrasse Tyson, Gould) use language that is rich with metaphor.

    If not, I am afraid that I would contend that if your audience is uninterested in the mathematics, then you are out of luck. New ideas, about on killing IDH or otherwise, must be within the intellectual reach of the audience. Take Eugene Munroe or Lynn Margulis, for instance, as they both proposed ideas that the scientific community was not ready for. But as a shred of hope, I am under the impression that the field of ecology is becoming more mathematically inclined, which means that we will hopefully have more quantitative discussions in the future. Of the three universities that I have attended and when discussing undergraduate curricula with colleagues, we have experienced few or no math courses for our BS. One really tangible way of moving forward is requiring more math for biology undergraduates. (Disclaimer, this is partially biased by my physics-ophilia.) Also, I have sent this paper to more colleagues than maybe any other (, that argues the importance of mathematics in biology.

    Lastly, I am having a lot of trouble trying to lend suggestion as to how you can grapple with conveying disturbance to a more technical audience. I would argue to simplify. Looking to more mature fields and ideas, in physics, the laws of thermodynamics are simple; in evolutionary biology, one of the most common reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was “why didn’t I think of that.” I believe that ecology and its subfields, like other complex systems, will eventually be broken down into simple rules–perhaps a periodic table–to be understood.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I have no objection in principle to metaphors and analogies as one means of scientific communication. As you say, much depends on how good the metaphor or analogy is, and on recognizing and making explicit the limits of the metaphor or analogy. “Adaptive landscape” is a good example of a metaphor that’s useful in some ways but misleading in others.

      I do think metaphors and analogies need to have a firm technical foundation. When they function as a substitute for that (as in much of Gould’s thought), problems arise.

      I don’t think my criticisms of the IDH are out of reach of my audience, which is my fellow academic ecologists and their students. At least I hope not!

      I’m not familiar with Eugene Monroe. The scientific community eventually came around to those ideas of Lynn Margulis’ that were true (endosymbiotic origin of certain eukaryotic organelles), and correctly ignored or pushed back against those that were false (“synbiogenesis” as the main driver of all important aspects of evolution including adaptation and speciation, with natural selection of no importance except in bacteria, as Margulis explicitly claimed at the seminar of hers I attended as a grad student).

      Yes, ecology curricula can and are becoming more quantitative, reflecting trends in the field as a whole. This does indeed give me hope. Although in many respects I think these trends are more to do with increasing statistical sophistication, and not as much to do with increasing familiarity with, say, dynamical systems theory.

      Community ecology actually has a quite simple, general, and elegant theoretical framework for thinking about coexistence (including coexistence in disturbed environments): Chessonian niche theory. And you could even put it’s major elements in a sort of “periodic table” if you wanted to. But sadly, that doesn’t make it intuitive to most ecologists. Or at least it has yet to be explained in a way that many people find intuitive. It’s not for lack of trying. Peter Chesson has written some very fine papers which are intended to be broadly accessible (Chesson and Huntly 1997, Chesson 2000). And his disciples have written some which are even more broadly accessible (e.g., Adler et al.’s “a niche for neutrality” paper in Ecol. Lett., for instance). That these papers haven’t already killed off the IDH shows just how difficult it is to explain these ideas in a way that everyone finds compelling. It perhaps also shows that part of the difficulty is just getting a broad audience to pay attention. One common reaction to my post on the “zombie IDH” was for people to say, “Yeah, I was taught that as an undergrad and it seemed reasonable, but I never really thought hard about it until I read your post.” So I have been able to change some minds and help some folks see the light–once I’ve been able to get their attention!

      • Eugene Munroe developed a mathematically rigorous theory of island biogeography 15 years before MacArthur and Wilson. Jim Brown and Mark Lomolino brought it to attention in 1989 (Ecology, 70: 1054-1957). Although Munroe turned out to be a prolific entomologist, the scientific community cared little about his discovery. In my opinion, Brown and Lomolino place a disproportionate blame on the then Ph.D. student for not “selling” his idea better. But it was also noted that ecologists were not yet ready for the mathematized ecology.

        I am very interested in your IDH criticisms and will read them soon! That is a hypothesis that, without too much scrutiny, I have felt has lingered around untenability land, with many other biological hypotheses. So I certainly conform to the last quote you typed.

        I had never actually had a chance to meet Margulis, although I was in contact with her to come speak at our university when she unfortunately passed last fall. As a quick note on symbiogenesis, I think that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists are so quick to reject it, like any group does of anything threatening, because it will likely become an important part of evolutionary theory. Of now, evolutionary theory is in disarray. With our revolution of molecular techniques, this is no surprise. Epigenetics and genomics, just as examples, are respectively marginalizing the DNA dogma and–surprise–finding that population-genetics of a locus or a few loci do not scale up to the genome (I don’t think that any serious biologist would think that, just as any quantum physicist would say that sub-atomic particles behave identically to planets). But as we better understand molecular evolution, we are really moving towards a symbiogenetic view. For example, Lenski just co-published The Black Queen Hypothesis ( describing symbiotic genomic co-dependencies last month, and several days ago another group shed some important light on endosymbiotic gene transfer that skips RNA transfer (i.e., nucleus to nucleus: I mean, who would have thought that the mammalian placenta was a product of viral horizontal gene transfer? How is that explained in evolutionary theory? Or any horizontal gene transfer for that matter? One statement that was a game-changer for me that I used to think was really radical and now is part of my foundation for the understanding of biological systems is: “every act of sex is an act of reticulation.” Genetic, endosymbiotic, cooperative, and ecological symbioses are aspects of biology that are in dire need of better integration towards a more inclusive general theory. I just think that we need to not throw the symbiogenetic baby out with the bathwater. But if we do, let us do it to all the overbearing personalities, starting with Richard Dawkins :)

        I do agree that ecologists’ knowledge is expanding in the statistical realm. We should really highlight, too, that the most important people who have advanced the study of ecology were mathematically oriented. MacArthur had an MS in mathematics from Brown before going to Princeton, and, in my opinion, Baron Robert May of Oxford has been more integral to our field than anybody else. It is amazing to me that Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems is still so pertinent and is nearly 30 years old!

        I have read, but veered away from Chesson and niche theory in general. Not because I don’t think that it is important, but I feel like there is so much more to ecology that we have not exploited to the same extent. Take thermodynamical ecology, for instance: Arto Annila has some AMAZING papers describing WHY we see the patterns we do (quick answer: energy dispersal:, and Hubbell finds patterns without evoking niche. Maybe it is because I am searching for my niche that my eyes and brain are searching for unexploited resources for my career. Who knows? I will certainly revisit Chesson soon because I have been really excited about trying to come up with a periodic table for a couple of years. Thanks!

        I am glad that you have influenced some people here through this blog. I must say (type) that I just found out about it and REALLY like what is being presented. I also am grateful that you took the time to respond. I have actually never investigated your work, but it looks REALLY interesting, so I will probably be reading a bunch of your papers over summer!

      • Thanks for your further thoughts, I enjoy hearing from folks with so much enthusiasm for scientific ideas.

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on Margulis and symbiogenesis. People didn’t ignore symbiogenesis (it actually got a lot of attention, relative to the evidence for it), but they pushed back against it because the claims were exaggerated. Nobody threw the baby out with the bathwater on symbiogenesis. The radical, unorthodox claims for which there was evidence–the symbiotic origins of the mitochondria and chloroplasts–were accepted. The radical, unorthodox claims for which there was no evidence–all organelles are of symbiotic origin, natural selection is unimportant, etc.–were not accepted.

        If you are concerned about the influence of overbearing personalities on the direction of science, then you should be very worried about me, and this blog. ;-)

        Re: genomics, I’m unclear why you think that the population genetics of individual loci doesn’t “scale up” or that no serious evolutionary biologist would say that. See Michael Lynch’s work on population genomics, all of which is standard population genetics of individual loci, scaled up to whole genomes. Lynch is the past president of several scientific societies of genetics and evolutionary biology, so he’s the very definition of “serious”. ;-)

        Re: searching for an “unexploited resources” for your career, that’s a difficult thing everyone goes through early on. Afraid I don’t have any advice beyond the standard sort of stuff. Read and think widely (which you’re clearly doing!), and then bounce your ideas off of friendly-but-critical colleagues who know more than you.

        Glad you like the blog. My papers aren’t really anything like the blog (not that they’re bad, they’re just regular scientific papers). Hope you don’t find them too disappointing. ;-)

      • As you work your way through the blog archives, I suggest you might be particularly interested in this old post, which talks about big ideas in ecology and whether there’s such a thing as an idea that’s too big. Just food for thought for someone interested in big ideas. ;-)

  3. I loved the paper, particularly that Mermin believes explaining phenomena in ordinary language is integral to understanding them. At some point for me, though, it is tempting to draw a border and say that phenomena outside them are not understandable. I’m starting to wonder about the limits of our comprehension, especially our ability to make sense of quantum mechanics, which, if I understand the paper, means that sometimes yes means no. Also extremely interesting from a philosophical point of view is the passage beginning “the challenge of expressing…” that seems to imply natural phenomena have a more natural or less natural mode of expression. Should this lead us to conclude that certain phenomena are inherently mathematical and some are inherently verbal? Is that something I can no longer take for granted as I prepare to begin a Master’s thesis project?

    • I think I can safely say that your MSc committee won’t push you on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. ;-)

      As to whether certain phenomena are inherently mathematical, that’s a good question to which I don’t know that we’ll ever have an answer. One could always argue that we just haven’t found the right words yet. Mermin certainly hopes that we’ll find the right words eventually, and I share that sentiment. Lee Smolin’s polemic, The Trouble with Physics, is a warning about how entire fields of science, like fundamental physics, can go off the rails when everyone stops caring about what the math means and adopts a “just shut up and do the calculations” ethos.

      • Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I was introduced to hypothesis testing and ANOVA in my introductory ecology class that I felt biology was something beyond knowing the names of organisms, organelles, biomes, and body parts. Oh, I guess I had a vague idea about recombinant genetics as well, from Jurassic Park. It was like the stats legitimized the experimental method for me.

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