1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Belief and knowledge—a plea about language

  1. Jan 3, 2007 #1

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I'm putting this essay in this forum because as budding scientists, academicians, or even already established professionals, this issue has been a constant concern to me. I've seen way too many people misinterpret the writings of science, and made no effort in trying to understand the things they read.

    If you've been here long enough, you would inevitably have read some of my complaints that people misuse words and phrases in science. The word "theory" is a prime example, that people often denigrate something as "oh, that is just a theory, not a fact". It is one of the misconception in physics that I had listed before, especially in regards to the recent battle between evolution and creationism.

    If you just have ONE essay to read, this would be THE ONE. Helen Quinn, who was a past president of the APS, has written almost exactly what I've been trying to get across all these years. I am so greatful and relieved that now, I have a very convenient link to refer to each time someone makes the same misunderstanding about not only words and phrases in physics, but also how physics works.

    However, at the same time, as professionals and scientists, we need to be aware of what and how we communicate about our ideas and profession. The general public do not have the same "inside information" that we do, and often understands what we say differently than what we intend. We continue to use phrases such as 'wave-particle' duality simply to illustrate things in ways that the public would understand, but we know that in QM, there is no such "duality" of the description. We don't switch gears when a quantum system exhibits wave-like or particle-like behavior. So our continual use of such phrase propages the wrong impression that even within the description we use, such duality exists.

    Please, please read this article. You WILL benefit from it no matter if you're a scientist, engineer, or just a layperson interested in science.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2007 #2
    The English language is heavily flawed. Its hard to beleive its considered the 'language of knowledge'.
     
  4. Jan 3, 2007 #3

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    No, it's a language of communication that happens to be shared by a lot of people. If you look at other languages, you'll find other flaws. I was told in German, "velocity" and "speed" share the same word. Think of the confusion.

    It is why without mathematics being the language of physics, we would be doomed. It also means that when one doesn't understand the mathematics, then one only has a superficial knowledge of physics.

    Zz.
     
  5. Jan 3, 2007 #4
    IF everybody had a masters in mathmatical physics, explaining new things wouls be simple, but you cant go walk down the street and explain how you want your coffee to the person at the diner using math. we use language. saying you would 'prefer it creamy but with a small kick in it,' there are a billlion directions to go in
     
  6. Jan 3, 2007 #5

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    .. and thus, that article!

    It requires the awareness on BOTH sides. Scientists need to be careful of what they say as far as being aware of how things can easily be misinterpreted by the general public. The general public must also be aware that the words and phrases being used often do not have the same pedestrian meaning when used in the science context.

    It is why I said that everyone should read that article. Being aware of the possibility of such misinterpretation is the first step in trying to reduce it.

    Zz.
     
  7. Jan 3, 2007 #6

    berkeman

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Thanks for the article, Zz. Good stuff.

     
  8. Jan 3, 2007 #7

    mathwonk

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    2015 Award

    Thanks Zapper. I read Dr Quinn's essay with interest, and many questions.
    I think she has done a service by it.

    I think we also need to do more than begin using words like "I know" as opposed to "I believe".

    It seems to me we need to do more to explain why we believe certain things, why we feel strongly that we "know" some things.

    As to explaining where this certainty comes from, her article suggested to me at least, that one of her sources of this certainty is an awareness of many successes the various theories have made possible.

    Hence I suggest we need to list a few of those successes when making our arguments, and link them to the corresponding theories or models.

    She implied also the persuasive power of the consistency and coherence of many separate but interconnected theories. To strengthen that argument one needs to explain those consistencies to some extent.

    I.e. to my mind, the argument for persuasivenes can only be made by explaining some of the physical data behind the faith of the scientist in these statements.

    I think this is uncommon in teaching. In fact I cannot recall in my own textbook reading, many instances of an author clarifying for me the range of validity of the theories being explained, nor their documentation.


    The most moving and enlightening exoerience I can recall in physics writing, was reading the original account of the Michelson Morley experiment.

    As a young student, I was struck by the accuracy of description, the honesty of the statements, the lack of vague theorizing that occupied the textbooks I had read.

    Perhaps wrongly, I came away with a sense of how questionable are the statements that I had read in textbooks, how much less certainty they convey than do mathematical proofs.

    Now I begin to see behind Dr Quinn's writings, the depth of knowledge she has that I do not, that convince her of the extremely reliable, almost certain validity of a family of models that have become standard.

    But to say that a given model is now standard among physicists, and is very unlikely to ever be discarded, needs some bolstering for me. Her article is the first to convey to me the need for a broad acquaintance with physics, in order to grasp the real foundation for strong belief in its precepts.

    Ignorant people, even professional people like myself, ignorant of physics, will be slow to accept the validity of statements which are standardly accepted by physicists, unless we know to some degree their reasons for belieiving them.

    From what I gleaned out of the article above, the reasons are primarily a long string of successes, but ones which were not much listed for the ignorant. Of course she was writing for physicists. Nonetheless her statement made me picture a rocket ship successully docking in space as a darn good success.

    Another reason mentioned there, was an awareness that certain theories have meshed well with many other theiories and facts, and have had both predictive and explanatory power.

    To appreciate these I think one needs some education in physics, but it helped me that she at least made this remark. Still a sceptical person like myself continues to want the data, in order to gauge for myself how well these various theories do in fact mesh, predict, and explain.

    Mathematicians are somewhat surprized by the amount of argumentation that goes on among physicists, when matehmaticians almost never argue about their results. By our standards, physics may seem highly speculative and apparently subject to change.

    And yet we admire the ability of physicists to function in an atmosphere of less than total certainty. This is why physics is often the source of problems, which we are not imaginative enough to generate.

    Now I am beginning to see that physicists speculate essentially when mathematicians do, about the unknown. There is similarly a large body of accepted material in both fields, if for different reasons.

    This essay makes an important contribution to communication, and I enjoyed it. Thanks for pointing it out. Communication sometimes seems the hardest thing we try to do.
     
  9. Jan 3, 2007 #8

    mathwonk

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    2015 Award

    it has dawned on me that physics must be very relevant to the treatment of disease, such as radiation treatments for cancer, and many members of the public should be open to such an argument in favor of research.
     
  10. Jan 3, 2007 #9

    verty

    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I don't see how one can say that one knows there are 11 (or is it 10?) dimensions, or knows that there are virtual particles or whatever. Perhaps one knew that neutrinos were massless, but now knows they aren't. If you start talking as though you know, it can backfire when your opinion changes.

    I'm reminded of an advert which was on when I was young, an advert for washing powder. One 'housewife' in the advert said of the washing powder: "I'll never use another, how can one improve on perfection?". Then a few months later a new microparticle version was released, and there she was saying "well, I used to use <productX>, so I shall certainly use <productX^2>".

    Perhaps there is a subset of theory for which one can confidently say that one knows it is true, but I think one should be watchful not to overstate the case for political reasons.
     
  11. Jan 3, 2007 #10

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Did you miss this passage from Quinn's essay?

    Now, if you can find me someone who actually claimed to know about all of these dimensions....

    And the fact that we continue to study the properties of neutrinos until we found its oscillation means that while we have certain definite properties about it, there are others that we don't know about or don't know enough! The same can be said about everything ranging from the electrons in your conductors to the magnet that you play with as a kid. There ARE things that we DO know, and know extremely well. And there are things that we do not know that well, and often these two are on the same object!

    Zz.
     
  12. Jan 4, 2007 #11
    Natural language is inherently ambiguous. Although some natural languages (such as Arabic) are worse than others (say Spanish or Greek). That is why we have formal languages such as mathematics. All science and engineering need to be described in such a formal manner inorder to remove the inherent ambiguities. It is a hard thing for many people to accept this since formal languages tend to be difficult to learn and to understand, but we have no choice since otherwise the ambiguities in natural language would quickly eat us alive. I frankly find most mathless science writing hard to follow. Give me a good equation, that is worth 1000 words in English.

    The problem in communications we have is that average person doesn't have access to the equations so they have to try to muck along with the natural language. Unfortunately, Science is described by the math and not the natural language for the reasons I mentioned above. This means that we are talking in a strange language that most people don't understand. A language whose beauty and power is lost on the average person .

    Also keep in mind that some people have political agendas when talking about science and will try to pick at the inherent ambiguities in natural language (hence the talk about something being "Only a Theory"). Those people tend to be impossible to talk with anyway since their minds are already made up and are interested only in twisting your words.
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2007
  13. Jan 4, 2007 #12

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    BTW, this is the very reason why I always warn people to be very careful when reading pop-science books. Some are good because they choose their words very carefully, and are aware of this very problem of misinterpretation (it will still happen because that can't be helped). However, other books are just simply careless or even outright irresponsible, especially when the books tend to deal more in the metaphysical aspect (don't get me started).

    If people can get it through their heads that the words and phrases COULD have a different connotation when used in Science, then stupid arguments such as "Evolution is only a theory" would never happen. Yet, I'll bet you dinner at my favorite Japanese restaurant that you will continue to see such an argument used the next time evolution is challenged in our schools, or even on here.

    On a related note, the fact that mathematics is the starting point of the description of quantum mechanics is the reason why I argued that made quantum mechanics so difficult to understand for layperson. Without the mathematics, you end up having to literally TELL people various QM "weirdness" without any connection to what people have already understood and can relate to. To me, this is the source of crackpottery, because people seems to think they can make up anything they wish since QM appears to be doing the same thing. The underlying mathematical formalism is hidden to them.

    Zz.
     
  14. Nov 29, 2007 #13

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I'm resurrecting this thread because of two different issues.

    1. The constant bickering over the idea that there is an element of "faith" in science that is being discussed in the Philosophy sub-forum, and

    2. The pie-in-the-face on Lawrence Krauss after his careless remarks made during a New Scientist interview.

    Even one of the most prominent physicist can make such a mistake if he or she is careless with his choice of words and description. He should have paid attention to Helen Quinn's essay. I strongly, STRONGLY recommend those who haven't read it to do so.

    It is also why I don't read New Scientist.

    Zz.
     
  15. Nov 29, 2007 #14

    JasonRox

    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    With french, we wouldn't have that problem.
     
  16. Nov 29, 2007 #15

    JasonRox

    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    I really liked the essay!
     
  17. Nov 29, 2007 #16
    Nice article.

    I wonder if it's just these sorts of words "belief," "knowledge" and "theory" that aren't well understood. I think that you could also say that few people fail to understand the word "faith."
     
  18. Nov 29, 2007 #17

    Astronuc

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I think it's a matter of semantics. One persons understanding of a word will differ than anothers depending upon education and experience. As Quinn points out:
    The communities being scientific and non-scientific. The differences in meaning lead to misunderstanding as well as miscommunication.
     
  19. Nov 29, 2007 #18

    Astronuc

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I'd like to know what Krauss actually said, as opposed to what was reported. I've been misquoted and misinterpreted in the media, such that what I said and what was reported were completely different.

    I agree with Quinn that we have to be careful about how we say things in the public domain.

    It's bad enough that there are unintentional misunderstandings, but it's much worse that there are folks who will deliberately or recklessly misinform the public.
     
  20. Nov 29, 2007 #19

    symbolipoint

    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    An example of serious misunderstandings occurred a few years ago in linguistic discussions about Ebonics because of how different fields use words such as "genetic" and "biological". The particular word, "genetic", means something in linguistics different than what it means in Biology/Molecular Biology. Various many educators and social leaders and other officials were not aware of this difference in meanings between the two fields and interpreted the discussion as strongly racist - absolutely not intended in the linguistic discussion.
     
  21. Nov 29, 2007 #20
    If I become a president of USA, I will make symbolic logic be the required courses through out the entire 12-k schools. I say this because I personally believe that this is what hinders my failure to defend evolution theory to my beloved Christian roommate. A good example of such kind would be the different usage of 'OR'.

    Correct usage of well defined words + agreement in logical system and its usage = effective communication

    I found above as everyday problem.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2007
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?



Similar Discussions: Belief and knowledge—a plea about language
  1. Looking for knowledge. (Replies: 6)

  2. GPA or Knowledge (Replies: 11)

  3. Physic knowledge (Replies: 9)

  4. Practical knowledge (Replies: 1)

Loading...