Smearing the vocabulary hides many things

Two items posted this morning discuss communications, the meanings of words, and how we describe our own feelings about ourselves in what we say: Torture? Racism? Genocide? When It Means Everything, It Means Nothing by Dan Miller and Science, truth, and language: Communicating with non-science and public audiences at PhysOrg.

Dan Miller describes how the real world isn’t just a matter of simple well defined concepts and how this fact provides an opportunity to broaden definitions so as to avoid confronting unpleasantness.

Using the word “torture” indiscriminately in the contexts of interrogation and other activities misses the point, confuses the subject, and leads to worse than silly conclusions.

we stain far more darkly such squeamish souls as we may have by being so much in love with them that we are prepared to put our agents and others at mortal risk while refusing to permit them to do what is necessary to shield themselves, us, and others from avoidable and horrific consequences — as they go about the duties we sent them to perform on our behalf. If we are are willing to accept far darker stains such as these, then we had best treat the rest of the wor[l]d as too unpleasant for us and retreat; to where I don’t know, because the unpleasantness may follow us even at home, as has happened in the not far distant past. When this bloody war is over? It may be a very long time. Running and trying to hide are not always good survival strategies.

Then there’s the problem one faces when distortions and deceit don’t achieve the desired result. That is often the underlying problem when the topic of trying to get the public to understand science is put on the table. It is the process of ignoring the message and blaming the messenger. “The problem, described by McMaster University astronomer William Harris at this week’s CASCA 2011 meeting in Ontario, Canada, boils down to a misunderstanding about the way science really works.”

Perhaps, but maybe not. It may be that people do have a fairly good understanding of science but when science is put up as something apart from a layman’s experience and expertise and then its practitioners assigned a special status communications are distorted. That is compounded when that view is used to try to foist something on the layman that just doesn’t fit reality. The message is not what is intended.

A recent and vivid example of this problem is the ongoing argument in the popular media about global warming. Do we need to be absolutely certain before we take action?

This question is loaded. As noted, science is never “absolutely certain” and engineering is even less so. That means all actions we take and decisions we make do not have absolute certainty behind them which implies that the question is absurd on its face. The question does highlight, though, that the uncertainty observed by the “public” is much higher than that espoused by some who set themselves apart as experts and authorities. The disagreement isn’t about communicating science, it is that there are some, who think themselves better than others, who value the certainty of the measure and the need for action differently than others.

In both cases, torture and science, these items by Miller and at PhysOrg describe those who are trying to foist their values and perceptions on others. They do not use clarification, education, and persuasion but rather distortion, misdirection, hubris, and obfuscation as their tools. Such methods do not achieve desired results and that creates frustration.

Rather than sit back and take an honest look at their methods, their values, and their perceptions, frustration drives them to ever more extreme rhetoric or even, sometimes, uncivil behavior. That is confrontational and everyone loses.

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