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.