Qualifying Language

I used to hate reading a text when someone would write with qualifying language (this was also prevalent in how many people I looked up to spoke). Why couldn’t they just go ahead and say the thing that they wanted to say? Why did their have to be language such as “this suggests” or “I can’t say for sure”? It would drive me insane because I believed that writing that made an impact doesn’t need this extra baggage surrounding statements.

Before then, I was reading a lot of material on domains such as design, writing, and generally creating some type of art. What this meant was that the goal was to connect with the audience, and this was best done in direct language. There was no need to say things in a roundabout way. Instead, the artist could take a direct stab at the issue and touch the person viewing the piece.

This is the mindset I brought with me when I started to read more material by scientists, and that’s where I started seeing all this qualifying language. Like I said, it did not make sense. Why wouldn’t they just communicate without putting clauses on all of their statements?

Slowly, I found the answer: scientists are trying really, really hard not to fool themselves. In a nutshell, a good way to explain the scientific process is that we are trying to look for ways that we are fooling ourselves. Throughout history, we’ve seen over and over that humans can be easily fooled into thinking something is true when there is actually a much larger picture. I highly doubt our ancestors thought there was anything other than what they could see with their eyes (except for perhaps a god). Then we smashed this perception in the 19th century by discovering that light is a wave and can have wavelengths that we cannot perceive.

In particle physics, we’ve seen a complete makeover in regards to what we think the universe “truly” is like. We went from just seeing matter to thinking about the atom to breaking that apart into fundamental particles. Finally, we pushed that even further by saying that these fundamental particles are part of a wave function. In the end, we’ve gone from what we can see to having the entirety of the universe being composed of wave functions.

Obviously, this is a radical change with respect to our first thoughts about the universe. Therefore, what we’ve found is that the scientific process has shown us just how wrong we are. As such, I believe most scientists have a certain fraction of skepticism in their minds when approaching any kind of phenomenon. It’s not personal, it’s that history has shown us that it is the safe bet to make.

The truth is that a scientist should be willing to believe anything, as long as the requisite proof is supplied. If a scientist won’t believe a statement after sufficient proof is given, then there is a problem, but that tends to not happen when someone says a comment like this.

What I find fascinating is that, if the person really believed in what they said and could say that it makes sense to anyone, there shouldn’t be a problem with supplying good evidence. If not, there should be at least an explanation as to why evidence is hard to come by.

Remember, lack of evidence doesn’t mean a statement is false, but it sure won’t convince me to believe in it.

Unfortunately, I get into many situations in which those claiming extraordinary things cannot bring any proof, and then they get upset that I won’t believe them. However, I couldn’t do anything better. It’s difficult to accept a proposition on the basis of someone just telling you so. As a science student, I’ve learned that this is a terrible way to go about finding knowledge about our universe. Trusting the human senses because they feel right might seem okay intuitively, but that’s the problem. Humans don’t have an intuition that is good for some of the deepest questions about the universe, since they are happening at a realm that is basically invisible to us. Therefore, we must safeguard against any attempt to “reason things out” without actually using tests and logic and theory. Without the scientific method, we would still believe that the world is only made up of components we can see.

So what does this have to do with qualifying language?

It means that scientists are careful about what they say. It’s fun to say something with certainty, but that technically never happens with science. Science is a process in which we can give ourselves a “good idea” (and sometimes a great idea) about the world, but we can never be one hundred percent certain. This is what makes science what it is. Consequently, the responsible scientist will use qualifying language because they know it’s good to be as specific as possible about what we know. Apart from perhaps a few minutes of fame, there’s absolutely no long-term reason that would make it a good idea to oversell a scientific achievement. It will always catch up to you, and so it’s not worth it. Therefore, scientists are fond of using qualifying language in order to remind us that they don’t have all the answers.

Now, I always shake my head when I see someone write without qualifying language, particularly because it’s not completely honest. The truth is almost never absolutely declarative, and I believe we’d do much better to remember this.

Qualifying language isn’t a sign of weak communication or “not believing in one’s message”. It’s about being honest about what you know and what you don’t.

The Survivor

When a scientific topic is covered in the media or talked about extensively, words like “proven” are often used. This word is often accompanied by a grandiose claim that seeks to impress people. Either this miraculous medicine is proven to work, or this diet is proven to be more effective. Everywhere we look in science communication, the word “proven” is there.

Unfortunately, while scientists and those who are familiar with the scientific process understand what we implicitly mean by the word “proven”, it is a completely different reality for those who are merely passive receptors to scientific information from the world at large. To them, the word “proven” means certainty, as in 100% certainty. When a scientist or science communicator says that something is “proven”, the idea they get is that the scientific concept or hypothesis has been validated and will be correct forever.

This is at odds with the enterprise of science. As every student in a scientific discipline finds out during their education, science is self-correcting and always updating its beliefs through experimentation. No idea is set in stone, except for perhaps the idea of how science should be conducted (as mentioned above). Everything else is fair game for updating, improving, or renovating.

However, it’s inconvenient for scientists to talk with all these uncertainties surrounding their experiments. Therefore, the more colloquial language of hypotheses being “proven” is used, simply because it’s easier. Make no mistake though: the implicit assumption is always there. Science as a principle cannot know that something is 100% true. We can be very, very, very certain of it, but never fully.

The reason?

If you were fully certain something had been proved, then there would be no way to change your mind about the topic. Therefore, no more experimentation would be needed, and the information would never be updated. Your view on this particular topic would be static, never changing. As such, the scientific process would be useless. Incidentally, the information you believe would basically become the stuff of religious beliefs.

This is why I dislike the term “proven”. Despite what some people may believe, science is not the same thing as mathematics, and only the latter can definitively prove something. The former always has a certain degree of uncertainty surrounding it.

Consequently, I favour a different way of looking at which scientific theories are accepted and beat out competing ones. Instead of thinking about a scientific hypothesis as the best fit for the data, I like to think of it as a game of survivor. There are a bunch of candidates looking to explain a certain phenomenon, and the first thing that occurs is that the data invalidates certain hypotheses. As the data is analyzed further, more hypotheses are crossed off the list because they don’t adhere to the data until only one remains. This final hypothesis isn’t necessarily proven. Instead, it simply hasn’t been disproven. Therefore, it becomes the survivor and the accepted theory.

This process much better illustrates the process of science. It’s about constantly pruning out hypotheses that don’t fit the data, and keeping the one that survives the trimming. By thinking about the process in this way, we can get a better idea of what a scientist really means when they say an idea is “proven”.

A Sense of Play

In mathematics, there’s a sense of play that must be achieved if one wants to really understand what is going on in mathematics. Contrary to what people might think, this sense of play and “just getting” mathematics is not some sort of genetic feature (or at the very least, not only genetic). It’s the result of immersing oneself in mathematics and freely playing with the concepts. After a long time, this play translates into what people call “intuition”.

Have you ever opened up a graphing calculator program and tried out different functions? Have you looked at their features and thought, “this is interesting”? Have you ever opened up your mathematics book and simply read it of your own accord to see if there were cool things you had missed?

That is what it means to have a sense of play.

Having a knack for mathematics is not so different from being good at a sport, or a musical instrument. Sure, having the right technical skills is important, but being really good at something requires one to experiment and refine one’s process. In this sense, trying new things and playing with numbers, functions, and other mathematical concepts is key to improving one’s “skill” in mathematics.

This sort of aptitude doesn’t necessarily translate to solving more complex problems or suddenly learning new concepts faster. What it does do is give one a better way to “see” a concept, making it more approachable and familiar instead of challenging because one does not know how to proceed.

Develop a sense of play in mathematics and test things. Take out a piece of paper and try some equations out just for the fun of it, and you may surprise yourself by the relationships and patterns you find.

Finishing Sentences

One of the classic methods of teaching I’ve witnessed in a science classroom is the “finish the sentence” method. Essentially, it involves the teacher saying a sentence and trailing off at the end while raising their voice in order to make it sound like a question, which prompts the students to answer. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad strategy. It engages students and makes them participate in a class discussion instead of having a teacher lecture the entire class time.

However, there is a fundamental issue with the strategy: the teacher wants this interaction to go smoothly. Said another way, the teacher wants the students to be right the first time they answer. Consequently, I’ve witnessed teachers unconsciously bias this process by giving cues to the students about the answer they are expecting. This is not ideal, because it takes away the sense of reflection that the student is supposed to take. It encourages efficiency over deliberation, which can lead to stupid mistakes. Worse, these cues can end up giving the students the answer the teacher seeks, allowing the students to faithfully reiterate it back and satisfy the teacher’s expectation.

Personally, the most nefarious cue I’ve seen is when a teacher basically finishes the sentence that they were planning to allow their student to answer. It will usually take the form of answer, followed by the question, “Right?” As a result, the student will most likely say that they understand, even though they might have no clue. With the answer being supplied for them, they grasp onto it, even if they have no clue what’s happening. I know this because I’ve seen it happen to other students, and I’ve done it myself too. The end result is an interaction that looks like the student is engaging with the content, but really the teacher is just supplying the information.

On the other side of the equation, I’ve found myself guilty of committing this error in teaching as well. When I tutor students and ask them questions to make sure they understand what I’m talking about, I’ll often nod my head or finish a thought for them that seems easy to me but what very well may have been a struggle for them (something I unfortunately tend to notice only when it is too late). I’ll then hit myself mentally, because I know giving my students the answer will only make things easier in the short run.

Therefore, I try to avoid asking the “Right?” question, and instead try to give more substance to the question so that the student has to actually think about the question. Furthermore, I do my best to not make students finish my sentences, because it puts them on the spot and makes them embarrassed if they don’t happen to know the perfect answer I am looking for when I ask. I know this happens because I’ve experienced it myself when a teacher asks a question and I can tell they expect me to know it. Worse, I may actually know what they are asking, but I can’t answer because the wording of their question may be strange to me. That’s why I believe trying to “guide” students along the right path while they are learning something new is not something to be done by making them finish my sentences.