The Language of Science 1/19/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Many years ago, a professor suggested that science is basically a language. As we learn concepts, we learn the associated terminology, and the concepts behind it. I can see the point, but I’m not sure if I agree or not.

A lot of science, at least the way it’s taught, is memorization. You learn the phrase “cumulus cloud”, and you often have to memorize the definition that goes along with it. How is a cumulus cloud different from other clouds like stratus? What is the significance of cumulus clouds, and the weather associated with them?

Personally, I never liked memorization. I’ve never asked that of my students, but I did want them to understand certain concepts. What is a metathesis reaction? How does it differ from decomposition? What can you do with the concept? I’ve never asked my students to spit out a word-for-word definition of things like this, but I do expect them to be able to identify them and explain what they are in their own words.

Yes, by gaining this knowledge, they did learn terminology, and the ability to speak of it. And, yes, it is important to be able to discuss concepts of science with these new terms and concepts. It reminds me of when I was in high school, and my friend Mitch and I would have fake “conversations” when we found ourselves in crowded areas. We would throw together nonsensical sentences using terms that we had learned, but certainly not using the terms correctly. We just had fun seeing how many people we could get to look at us. One of the last times that I saw him, we were having a conversation, using the same kind of terminology, but this time in a real conversation.

On my exams, I had a variety of types of questions. I usually had five true or false questions, five multiple guess, five short answer, and three extended calculations (where I gave partial credit for work, so even if they didn’t get the right answer, they would get most of the points if they were on the right track). The very last question was always a discussion question. I would throw out a topic in modern society, or something that I had heard in the news, and ask my students to discuss it. They didn’t have to see things the way that I did, but I insisted that they used concepts from class. So, after discussing catalysts, I would throw out a question like “ozone is being thrown out from equilibrium by catalytic action of CFC’s”. These were questions that the students hated, but it was rich in opportunity as they can discuss equilibrium, catalytic action, or many other concepts. Did they hold the same opinions that I did? It doesn’t matter, as long as they could defend their stance logically and based on science.

So maybe science is a language. I try to be sure that I can defend every opinion that I have, based on logic, history, or both. Obviously, there are some things that can’t be defended (such as most personal morals) although, honestly, many of these can also be rationalized especially when based on the good of society. But to do so means that I have to be able to properly use language and terminology to express my thoughts and opinions concisely and with precision, and I have to be sure that my audience, be it one person or a collection of people, can also understand this terminology.

It’s not just science though. I guess any discipline is the same. If I don’t know what options and bonds are, I might have a hard time following financial advisers. Today, I took my new computer that I had built myself in for service as it still won’t boot. It’s possible that I did something wrong, but as an experimentalist I believe there might be a problem with the motherboard. I hope not, because I really don’t want to swap it out, but towards the end of meeting with the tech, he asked if I’d ever successfully mounted the system.

The question caught me off guard. I had already explained that I’ve never been able to successfully boot the system, landing on either error 55 (memory) or 12 (booting error). I’m sure that I had that “deer in the headlights” look. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Did you ever put the operating system on it?” Well, no, of course not. It never booted correctly. To “mount” a system means getting the hard drive up and running, but if the system won’t boot, it won’t mount. It seemed like an odd question, but I’m sure that he was convinced that I didn’t understand the term. In reality, I didn’t understand why he would ask. He immediately assumed I had a lack of understanding of terminology. So, indeed, science can be thought of as a language. As we learn more about a subject, then maybe all we do is refine the definition of the terminology. Just something to think about.

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