A Defense Of Jargon

Rhett Allain calls for science to stop using three words: hypothesis, theory, and law.  The crux of his argument for removing these words is because the common people think they know what those words mean, and the common conceptions of those meanings is inconsistent with science's use of them.

He's wrong -- and in fact, I think his arguments are potent when arguing for more jargon in science rather than less.

Mr. Allain's issues problems with modern language are as follows:
  • The real world is very complex
  • There are only so many words
  • Therefore, context is important; and implied context king.
Let me give you an example.  Consider the word "bridge".  Now to a mechanical engineer, dentist, and computer scientist, that word means three completely different things.  Yet if you asked the common person what a "bridge" was, they'd go with the device to permit transport of something over some other obstacle.

There's no context embedded in the word, so you have to waste more imprecise words to build a context around the word which conveys the meaning that you wish to convey.  And in today's world of the five second soundbite, there's no time to build that context.

The legal profession is brutal in this respect, because the vast majority of the words and grammatical constructions that they use in their communications are identical to those found in common English   The problem is that in the legal world those words and grammatical constructs have precise meanings without the ambiguity that common English has.  But a legal commoner like me can read a legal document, understand all of the words, and come out at the end with a completely different meaning that a lawyer would.

The medical profession gets this right in a lot of ways, because they draw from latin words to describe precise parts of the body.  There's no ambiguity about what "thyroid" means or what procedure a "phlebotomy" is.  The words have single meanings in common use, which means they have their own context more or less embedded in them.  And better: since this context is embedded in the words, it acts as a signal to the common user that there is specific knowledge required that they may or may not have.

There is a collision here, between the media-fueled short attention span, and the increasingly complex concepts in the wider world that can't be fit into shorter and short sound bites.  Inevitably people will get left behind in certain areas -- I may be well versed in systems networking, but I am incapable of reading a legal document, or understanding in depths the medical subtleties that arise from specific treatment options.  I am forced to accept my specializations and follow advice from lawyers and doctors, or put aside my expertise and begin studying these other areas on my own*.

I think that rather than trying to soft-pedal this complexity in the modern world, we need to be shoving it more up the noses of the uninformed, telling them that they should either educate themselves and participate as a proper member of the community, or get out of the way of those who are.

And bending language to being more precise by embedding context into soundbites is a good first step.


*: And I think this is the difference between accepting advice from a scientist, doctor, or lawyer, as compared to a spiritual leader.  With time and effort, I could educate myself and become a scientist, doctor, or lawyer. That knowledge can be freely gained, all you need is time and effort. (Complaining that you don't have either of those does nothing to change this fact.) The problem with spiritual leadership is that there is no impartial mechanism you can use to come to same conclusions.  You can't test the first principles for yourself.