On the Naming of Terms in Several Disciplines

Astronomy

Recently I watched an entertaining talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he poked fun at the confounding complexity of biological and chemical terms, in contrast to the elegant simplicity of terms in astrophysics. The segment starts at 14:34 of the talk and goes till about 17:00.

[15:01] What do you call spots on the Sun? [Pause] Sunspots!

sunspots

Indeed, terms like sunspot, red giant, supergiant, nova, supernova, ring, moon, black hole, pulsar, dark matter, dwarf planet, spiral galaxy, singularity, solar flare—it is immediately obvious what these things describe. Even terms like neutron star or Trans-Neptunian object are clear if one is familiar with neutrons or Neptune. Let us see what term sound like in other disciplines.

Biochemistry

What do you call the most important molecule in your body that contains all your genetic information? Deoxyribonucleic acid. What do you call the energy molecule that your body runs on? Adenosine triphosphate. What do you call the most common liquid you drink (if you aren’t a college student)? Dihydrogen monoxide.

Water

Things like these are what Tyson was getting at, where, without even going into the ideas or concepts, a student may be already confounded by the sheer terminology.

Granted, at the core all these names make sense and are very systematically denominated. For instance, “dihydrogen monoxide” describes exactly what the constituents of the molecule are: 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. And “deoxyribonucleic acid” is really just a nucleic acid (a nucleotide chain) with deoxyribose as the sugar component. Even the term “deoxyribose” is well named, as it is the sugar obtained by removal (de-) of an oxygen atom (oxy) from a ribose sugar.

In this respect, I don’t think biochemical terms are really as confounding to a scientifically literate population as Dr. Tyson makes them out to be; however, I do see his point in that they would confuse the hell out of someone who is not scientifically literate. Even then, these terms would not cause an illiterate person to gain a wrong understanding.

I claim that while biochemical terms are quite abstract, at least they are not misleading.

Economics

“This allocation of resources is Pareto efficient.”

This term might have a positive connotation, as efficiency is associated with good, and so the masses may support a policy having anything having to do with it. However, it is possible that an allocation where the top 1% controls 99% of the resources is Pareto efficient. Indeed, an allocation where one person controls 100% of the resources is Pareto efficient, as the term only concerns whether the allocation could be changed such that one could benefit without harming any one else. Given the misleading connotation, it would be disastrous if this term were ever uttered by an economist—or worse yet, a politician—in public discourse.

Economic-surpluses

It is especially misleading as economics generally has very simple, intuitive terms: supply, demand, goods, depression, inflation, market, labor force, bubble, money, wage, etc. These are all good terms. But sometimes, a term is just plain misleading: for instance, the fiscal cliff.

Medicine and Psychology

The terms disease and disorder are pretty misleading. A disease does not have to be infectious, and someone with a disorder could behave just as normally, whatever that means, as a “normal” person. Even sane and insane are notoriously difficult to tell apart.

one flew over the cuckoos nest scene

And what does it mean to cure someone?

A-Clockwork-Orange-lodovico-technique

That said, most psychology terms are pretty self-explantory, albeit sometimes difficult to test accurately.

Sociology

A field like astrophysics in which the terms are extremely clear. The only term I find troubling is postmodern, which seems to imply something that it is not.

Physics

This is a very technical field, where speed and velocity mean different things, and if you are describing a scenario, you must use words like force, momentum, and energy very carefully. Technicality aside though, it is very obvious what the terms are about.

Linguistics

Given that linguistics should have something to do with this point, you might expect linguistics to have very intuitive terms. Depending on the subfield, however, there are some very non-obvious terms. What is a morpheme?

Computer Science

Like math, it is very unintuitive at times. For instance, computer scientists have no idea what a tree is supposed to look like.

Mathematics

Singularity

Math terms are both super-technical and very non-obvious, given that half the terms are named after a person. Even for the half that are words in English, there are some issues. In topology, for instance, you might think that open is the opposite of closed, but in reality a set can be open, closed, neither open or closed, or both open and closed (in which case it is called clopen). What about injectionsurjection, and bijection—what is a “jection”?

The term rational numbers for fractions makes sense as fractions are ratios, but who came up with real, imaginary, or complex? It becomes worse in abstract algebra, where you have things like groups, rings, and fields. At least the word object is what you think it means: just anything. And measure theory makes a lot of sense. A measure is pretty much what you think it means, and almost means almost what you think it means.

I think math is the only subject where two renowned experts can have a discussion, each not having a clue what the other is talking about. In this respect, I think mathematics beats biochemistry in confusion of terminology.

Orwell, Chomsky, and the Power of Twisting Language

Choosing the right word is very important, but I’ve recently found it to be far more important than I previously thought. Influences: George Orwell, Noam Chomsky.

An Experiment

Consider the 1974 Loftus and Palmer experiment [1][2][3]. Participants were shown identical short videos of car crashes, and were then asked one of the questions:

  1. About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?
  2. About how fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?
  3. About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?
  4. About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  5. About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?

The only difference is the wording. Yet it was able to produce a statistically significant result:

People will believe what they hear.

Framing the Question: Politics and Religion

There are many issues today in America that suffer similar biases from wording.

Take immigration for example. Most people would probably be against illegal aliens, but would probably be more sympathetic towards undocumented workers. With this phrasing, the same person might support giving rights to undocumented workers, yet might vote the opposite way when the media or a political party calls them illegal aliens. Even though they are referring to the same people, one term focuses to the illegality, while the other focuses on their work. Of course when you call them illegal aliens, you’re going to have a biased discussion.

Abortion falls to the same bias. It is the termination of pregnancy, yet those who are opposed label it as bad as killing babies.

Or if you are not a Muslim, you are a non-Muslim; however, Islamist extremists label you as an infidel.

And don’t think Christianity gets off the hook here. A non-Christian is similarly labeled by extremists as a blasphemer (or infidel or heretic as well). And since one can’t be both Muslim and Christian at the same time, every person on Earth is an infidel or a blasphemer. That’s just the logical truth.

Framing the Question: Science and Religion

The power of twisting language is nowhere more important than in the evolution vs creationism “debate.” The reason I put the word “debate” in quotes is that it’s really not a debate where both sides use logic, reason, and facts. Yet, as long as the creationists manage to convince people there is still “debate” by labeling the whole thing as a “debate,” then they are winning their “debate.”

So far, every debate I’ve seen between evolution and creationism, and between logic and religion in general, is more of a lecture to a stubborn adolescent who still believes in fairy tales. The power of language is so strong that in labeling the conflict as a “debate” in the first place, the creationists are creating the false presumption that there even is a debate.

They use completely wrong and misleading words to describe the theory of evolution. Even calling it a theory or hypothesis in the first place is misleading, because the word theory in everyday speech strongly focuses on the possibility of being uncertain or wrong (if I said “My theory about why the grades were lower on this test…”), whereas the word theory in science implies strong logical mechanisms and the possibility to confirm or deny through evidence (such as the theory of gravity).

To adapt this “debate” to everyday speech, we should really call it the fact of evolution. One is of course allowed to call it a theory, but only seriously if one actually understands it scientifically. Most of those who claim “it’s just a theory” don’t actually understand it at all.

A debate would imply both sides are using reason. That is hardly the case. It is really more of a clearing of misunderstandings than the use of any higher cognitive skills.

The following words are extremely well misunderstood: random, chance, selection, adapt, and purpose. Consider the following dialog, which more or less actually happened (I am putting quotes around the word “Evolutionist” as it is really just a label that shouldn’t have to exist, just as you don’t have to call people who believe the world is round “Round-Earthers”):

Creationist: It’s hard to believe that the eye happened by accident.

“Evolutionist”: Evolution doesn’t say it happened by accident.

Creationist: Then it has to have a purpose.

What’s going on here is not a debate at all, but an abuse of language. The eye does not have any intrinsic purpose, but it is also not an accident. Creationists often create this false dichotomy of purpose vs accident. And when they show it is preposterous for life to have developed by accident, they think they have shown it must have been done on purpose.

Randomness does not imply either purpose or accident. Why is a cheetah fast? Because in a larger pool of animals in an ecosystem, if it were slower, it wouldn’t be able to catch its prey, and it would die off, and that would have happened millions of years ago, so we wouldn’t see it today. That’s the simple logic. No accident or purpose is implied.

So many other words—good, evil, salvation, sin, faith, and I’m sure I’m missing a ton more—are all heavily loaded, ill-defined, ambiguous concepts that are twisted around by religion to suit its needs depending on the situation. This is Orwellian Doublespeak at its strongest.

Words and the Future

It is imperative that the American public understand how loaded words are affecting its choices and decisions. The election process should be dependent on the rational discussion of real issues, not by a massive popularity contest shrouded by mutual insults and loaded words oversimplifying the situation and vilifying the other party. News should be news, not political indoctrination. Language should be the way we voice our concerns to the government, not the way political parties usher us like pawns to certain death.

In addition to math and science education, which should most certainly be improved, we really do need to keep our English and history classes in able hands. But, in English classes, instead of teaching only books written long in the past, they should occasionally make students read current news articles and critically think about them. Then maybe people will realize that English is not all pointless. And once this happens, the government will be afraid, and it will be forced to listen to the educated American people, as history perhaps once intended.

Two Important Principles

There are many principles that guide our philosophies, our thought, our reason, and even our morality. Two of the most important ones for me are the Cosmological Principle and the Anthropic Principle. Despite their opposite-sounding names, they are not mutually exclusive!

The Cosmological Principle

It can be phrased many ways, with many different connotations. The essence of the principle is that, when viewed from a larger perspective, Earth is not special within the universe. More specifically, it states that the laws of physics govern equally and universally, with no preference for any particular region within it.

To believe such a thing in ancient times was considered heretical. After all, almost all old religion positioned the Earth as the center of the universe, at least metaphorically if not physically. But the more we learned about the universe, the more we learned the fact that we are not at the center of the universe, the perhaps painful fact that we are not special. A frightening fact indeed.

In 2006, the Cassini spacecraft took a picture where Saturn eclipsed the Sun. There was a little dot in one area. At first you might think it is just one of Saturn’s moons, or perhaps a stray asteroid. Surely that can’t be anything we call special, right?

That dot turns out to be the Earth entire.

Now, on to the second rule.

The Anthropic Principle

Only those universes with the conditions to have life would be observed by such life from within. Therefore, given that we are observing our own universe from within, our universe must have sufficient conditions for life. That is to say, just for having life, our universe is not special.

With a multiverse, there may be billions, trillions, and possibly even infinitely many universes. Even if only a tiny fraction of universes support life, the anthropic principle shows that given we can observe our own universe, we are automatically in that tiny fraction.

After all, if our universe could not support life, then we cannot exist within it. So, there would be nobody in that universe to realize it cannot support life. Someone who has studied conditional probability should be able to understand this. While the chance that a universe supports life might only be 0.01% (i.e., our universe is “fine-tuned”), the chance that our universe supports life is 100% regardless, because we are already here to make the observation in the first place.

The anthropic principle says that our universe is not special, while the cosmological principle says that Earth is not special within the universe. As humans, we cannot afford to satisfy ourselves with Earth, merely one of the billions of billions of rocks in the universe. Rather, it is imperative to explore the universe and understand its mysteries.