Consider the question of whether viruses are or are not a life form. At ScienceNews, Tom Siegfried thinks it comes down to a lack of fit between concepts and the words available:
Part of science’s problem in linking words to meanings is (as experts in language repeatedly remind us) that there’s always a gap between a word and the reality it represents. “The word is not the thing,” the semanticist S.I. Hayakawa emphasized in his famous book Language in Thought and Action, just as a map is not identical to the territory it depicts. Some scientific terms serve as pretty reliable maps of reality, while others turn out to be decoys leading to dead ends. A major part of scientific progress is narrowing the gap between word and thing — transforming vague labels into more specific symbols.
It’s easy to find many current examples of scientific terms that mimic knowledge while actually disguising a lack of understanding. “Dark matter” and “dark energy” must exist, physicists insist, while admitting nobody yet can say what they actually are. Other deep mysteries baffling today’s best scientific detectives also reflect an inability to bring words closer to things. Consciousness is a prime example, referring to mental processes that have eluded anything approaching a coherent physical description. Intelligence comes a little closer to intelligible meaning, but not sufficiently to avoid all sorts of arguments about reproducing it artificially.Tom Siegfried, “Scientists sometimes conceal a lack of knowledge with vague words” at ScienceNews
Of course, a pot-stirrer promptly wrote to us to suggest other examples of such words:
Among the initially vague words there have been some winners and some losers.
Losers: Phlogiston, ether, impetus,
Still waiting for the jury: life, consciousness, dark matter, dark energy, gene, evolution
The worst part of witch hunts in science is that they so often involve controversies over words without precise definitions,