Citizen Science Musings: Finding the Words

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By Sheldon Greaves

Ernst Cassirer

A long time ago I was doing research on ancient beliefs about words and what the ancients believed one could accomplish with them. It got me into some pretty weird stuff regarding magical practices and so forth. But one truly interesting tangent came about when I ran across the work of a philosopher named Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). Cassirer's work spanned an immense range of topics; the philosophy of natural science, mathematics, aesthetics, and other humanistic disciplines. More than just about any other twentieth century philosopher, Cassirer managed to speak to both sides of the "two cultures" of the sciences and the humanities.

In one of his essays he talks about the problem of why the "two cultures" (after E. P. Snow) had such difficulty communicating with each other. Cassirer suggested that language itself might be the problem, as it developed out of a decidedly non-scientific cultural background and remains today laden with features such as non-empirical metaphors, etc. that render it too imprecise to reliably communicate scientific truths.

Of course, recent research has demonstrated that there are a number of factors that make it hard for our left-brain and right-brain societies to talk to each other, such as hard-wired intuitions at odds with physical reality. Another example is that studies of very archaic societies show that even things like counting beyond three or four is not at all obvious. Many such cultures count, "one", "two", "three", "lots" and use external aids like counting stones or tokens to handle larger quantities. Communicating science is not easy.

Alan Alda's recent "flame challenge" was a wonderful exercise in the problems facing those who would communicate science precisely and in detail to the non-scientist. The video below on the challenge explains very well some of the problems in crossing that verbal chasm.

The reason why I'm bringing this up, even though the flame challenge is definitely old news, is because I'm exploring how CSL might become more effective at communicating not just our work as individuals or our group projects (once we have some), but our passion for science. I've come to recognize that while science has a reputation for dispassionate, objective reason, what really, really hooks people into science is emotion; wonder, surprise, delight, awe. I suspect that once you have those covered, the rest of the task becomes much easier.

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3 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: Finding the Words

  1. Dave says:

    Sounds like you’re making an argument for learning/speaking Loglan:

    which is a constructed language:

    I’m not sure how well that would go over. Then, again, some technical professionals have learned Latin, although that’s almost wholly unsuitable for most technical discussions.

    I think the basic problem, though, is that most people don’t know how to correctly speak/write English, even native English speakers. Then, again, English is probably one of the worse possible languages for international communications. However, it does have the advantage of being easily modified.


    • Sheldon says:

      I’ve heard of Loglan, but little more than that. Can you describe it for the rest of us? As a long-time language buff, I’m genuinely curious.

      No argument on the difficulties of getting people to speak or write English well. I’ve met quite a few foreigners whose English is far, far better than many native speakers I know.

  2. mommy-ruthie says:

    “The difference between finding the right word and the almost-right word can be compared to the difference between a firefly and the sun.” Mark Twain

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