Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Prescriptivism and scientists

Back in high school, my physics teacher once told us that people who touched an ordinary strip of metal and called it "cold", as almost everyone would, were making a big mistake. In reality, that strip was at room temperature; it only feels cold because, since metal is a good heat conductor, it conducts heat away from our fingers when we touch it. I was already enough of a linguist (or pedant) to retort that this was fallacious: if everyone except physicists uses the word "cold" in reference to things that feel cold when you touch them, then that's what "cold" means. Undaunted, he responded that such people would also expect a thermometer to show a lower temperature when placed on the metal than when placed on, say, an adjacent piece of wood – which it would not.

The latter mistake has nothing to do with language. In general, things that feel cold have lower temperatures, and things that feel hot have higher ones; unless you carry a thermometer around everywhere, it's easy to assume that the correlation is perfect, and anything that feels colder has a lower temperature. But in the former, prescriptivist fallacy, language plays a crucial role. This fallacy consists of redefining a well-known popular term for scientific purposes and then declaring its original meaning wrong, forgetting that its original meaning was based on quite different principles. A similar example which I came across recently is the notion that the Bible was mistaken in listing the bat as a bird, or rather the ʕǎṭallēp as a ʕôp (via); it should be obvious that if everyone was calling bats birds, then "bird" (or rather ʕôp) did not mean "member of the clade Avialae" at the time! In this case, however, the new meaning has gained enough popular acceptance in English to have driven out the old one almost entirely, thereby making Bible translators' lives harder but biology teachers' lives easier. (I covered a similar Qur'ānic misunderstanding involving "atom" a while back.)

Usually, prescriptivism involves declaring that a new (or allegedly new) meaning or usage is wrong. Scientists' prescriptivism is rather the inverse, in that it consists of declaring an old, previously generally accepted meaning or usage wrong. At its best, this can be an effort to popularise knowledge: everyone ought to know that bats are more closely related to humans than to sparrows, and if we can just persuade them to stop calling bats birds, they'll remember. But, fundamentally, this is also a power grab: we're the experts on this field, so we're the ones who get to say what the word means, not you. Giving old terms new definitions can be useful, but we should never forget that that's what we're doing.

Have you come across any examples of the scientists' prescriptivist fallacy lately?


John Cowan said...

Here's a comment I wrote on Language Hat last year:

The first rule of Fish Club is that whales are not fish.

The second rule of Fish Club is that lungfish are not fish either, and sharks may or may not be, depending on what you think fish means. In the evolutionary tree consisting of trout, lungfish, and cows, the lungfish and cows are on one side of the top-level split and trout on the other. Indeed, the swim bladder (the homologous organ in most fish to the lung) did not evolve into the lung; the lung evolved into the swim bladder. Sharks and rays have neither (it is literally sink or swim with them), and so they stand on one side of a higher-level split with both trout and cows/lungfish on the other!

By similar reasoning, humans stand within the evolutionary tree of the great apes, and Dungan (a Sinitic language spoken in the former Soviet Union and written in the Cyrillic alphabet) stands within the family tree of Mandarin varieties, though sociolinguistically it is a separate language from any kind of Chinese.

David Marjanović said...

Obligatory anecdote of my colleague's friend who ordered "fish" in a restaurant, got ray wing (y'know, fibrous and slimy at the same time), and was surprised and disappointed. Colleague: "That wouldn't have happened if you'd ordered teleost!"

And yes, I hope that "fish" will come to mean "actinopterygian" at some point. In German, Haifisch "shark" turned into Hai around the same time Walfisch turned into Wal (those were cran morphemes anyway). Nothing remotely biology-related makes sense without tree-thinking.

John Cowan said...

So, is the Haifisch that has Zähne that he keeps in his Gesicht merely poetic, or did the transition happen after 1928? The English version "And the shark has pretty teeth, dear" is pretty padded.

David Marjanović said...

Decidedly after 1928. We're talking about the 60s to 80s here, maybe.