Words mean things

One of the sources of misunderstanding in many areas of debate is in what we mean by the words we use. This is an area scientists have had to confront in their own world. That has lead to them creating understandings of what words relating to measure and observation and ideas mean. But when they use those words with the public, a public that doesn’t pay that much attention to precision in the meanins of words, misunderstandings occur. This the topic of Helen Quinn’s essay
Belief and knowledge—a plea about language. The scientist cannot take for granted that the layman will understand what he means when he says theory or fact or hypothesis or model.

we need to articulate more precisely the state of our knowledge—its authority or uncertainty.

Any good scientist has a conscious range of knowing, from established fact to hunch. We continually reevaluate the status of ideas along that continuum. We serve science poorly when we either over- or underclaim the confidence with which we know something. One of the things that makes us scientists is our intricate examination of knowledge—our understanding of what we know, of how we know it, of what evidence supports it, and of the limits of that evidence. This conscious continuum of knowledge certainty is poorly understood by most listeners, but is taken for granted when we converse amongst ourselves.

The other side of this coin is that of education. All too often education is seen as an effort to gain skills and amass a storehouse of facts. It is not to understand the values of a field of study or how to interpret and understand what is being said.

A particular example of this is an article by Ronald F. Fox and Theodore P. Hill on An Exact Value for Avogadro’s Number – Untangling this constant from Le Gran K could provide a new definition of the gram. It is about the nuance of measuring how many molecules of a gas are in a certain mass of that gas and how it depends upon how we determine mass (as opposed to weight) and other such esoteric considerations. One the one hand, it can make your eyes glass over with such obnoxious detail but, on the other, it is an example of just what a good scientist does to understand what he really knows and how that knowledge can be refined and improved over time.

From knowing small things, the number of molecules per mass, the measure of mass or the speed of light, – we can create building blocks to know larger things. But just as an architect must know the strength of the bricks in his building, the scientist must know the strength of his facts so that he doesn’t try to build something that won’t stand but will collapse of its own size.

Comments are closed.