Intelligent Design Science

Vague words in science: Vague or plague?

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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.

Winners: atom,

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,

4 Replies to “Vague words in science: Vague or plague?

  1. 1
    asauber says:

    “words without precise definitions”

    This enables you to pound the table over poetry.

    Doesn’t make for good science, though.


  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Well, I don’t think most of those are semantic problems. Dark matter, dark energy, and multiverses are fiction no matter what you call them. They have no utility and don’t solve any real problems. Atoms are a useful concept no matter how you define them. Ether is a highly useful *concept* for dealing with wave propagation, even though the original *math* of ether turned out to be wrong.

  3. 3
    jawa says:

    “As we move further into the twenty-first century, humankind is presented with an existential paradox: man’s destiny is irrevocably tied to science, and yet knowledge of nature increasingly lies not only outside ordinary language but also outside the foundational epistemology of science itself.“

    Cited in:

  4. 4
    kwirth says:

    Related to the vagueness of words is a closely related concept where words salads are intended to convey meaning but actually do not. This is a sleight of hand often utilized in science to confer meaning where none actually exists. Take for example the notion that fossils demonstrate evolution. The evidence of the fossil record is predominantly one of stasis, i.e., no change. Yet in an effort to support the idea of evolution, every effort is made by leading paleontologists and others to strongly support an evolutionary story through the use of verbiage that is heavily skewed in favor of evolution, even when there is no evidence to confirm it. This is accomplished through the use of words such as “experts agree,” “it is widely believed that,” “almost certainly indicates,” “we presume that,” “the probable areas of origin,” “may have occurred,” “may have solved,” “most likely indicates,” and even admissions like “we have difficulty establishing,” and on ad nauseum.

    Such verbiage functions as a standard filler for evidence where none exists and since it is ubiquitously used, is often misunderstood as actual evidence or at least nearly confirming it.

    See “Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution” by Robert Carroll, for example. This verbiage is found on nearly every single page.

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