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.

Changing One Block

If I ask many people, I can probably get one person to admit that they believe in something that isn’t strictly speaking scientific. It could be large parts of our universe, such as the existence of an afterlife or a soul, or it could be smaller things such as our horoscopes actually telling us information about ourselves. There are many beliefs that humans have, and it isn’t uncommon to find someone harbouring at least one of these beliefs.

That said, I find it interesting how these people respond when being prodded about their beliefs. What I usually find is that people tend to not think about the logical consequences of their beliefs. Instead, when confronted with these inconsistencies, they will simply respond with: “I didn’t say that would happen. I’m only talking about this specific thing being true.”

As Sean Carroll explains in his book, The Big Picture, people don’t want to think about the physical laws that will be violated because of their beliefs. For example, the soul is a particularly enduring belief that doesn’t get shaken easily. People will say we have a soul because each person has this certain “essence”. Unfortunately, they don’t think about the consequences a soul would have. We can probably agree that a soul interacts with the physical world through our bodies, yet there is no way our laboratory tests can detect them. This seems to be as much of an inconsistency as claiming telekinesis is possible.

Then of course, the reason people believe in a soul usually has to do with the afterlife. Therefore, the soul is supposed to exit a body when a person dies and moves (floats?) somewhere else. Once again, this is a logical inconsistency, because we cannot detect any such “particles” a soul would be made of. As Sean Carroll writes in the book, you’re perfectly capable of making the claim that we just don’t fully understand the situation. However, to say that you need to also explain how our current theories of physics that are so successful at investigating are also wrong, and how your ideas work better. Then, scientists will jump onboard with you.

As it stands, though, including any kind of particle that is supposed to encapsulate a soul would ruin many of our physical theories. And once again, that is not a bad thing. But you can’t say that a theory which predicts many phenomena about the world perfectly right is incorrect and have no other solution. You will just be ignored. You can’t change one piece of an interconnected puzzle because it doesn’t suit you, and ignore the rest. One claim affects the next, so modification must build on what has already proven successful.

This is a very important point to make. If we consider the classic example of Newton’s law of gravitation, we know that it is not as “correct” as it could be. However, the equation isn’t wrong in the sense that it doesn’t work. It does work, albeit in certain conditions (which also happens to be most conditions humans find themselves in). Therefore, Newton’s law of gravitation will always work in these settings. Carroll also points this out in his book: the law will work just as well in a millennium as it does today.

When Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity, he didn’t look at Newton’s work and toss it all out. Instead, he built upon it. Said differently, one can use general relativity in a certain domain and recover what Newton found. Even though the equations were different at the outset, the latter got back to the former, and this is a very important point in science and mathematics. You can’t break logical relationships by a whim that something doesn’t “feel” right.

Let’s take a simpler example. Imagine I were to give you the points (1,5) and (2,8). I know that the line going through these two points is $y=3x+2$, which means the y-intercept is 2. However, what if someone argued with you and said that the y-intercept is actually 4, and didn’t want to listen to anyone saying otherwise?

This is an example where it is obvious that they are making a logical mistake. In mathematics, there is no wiggle room, so the inevitable conclusion when creating a line that goes through those two points is one that also goes through (0,2). You cannot argue it.

In science, it’s a bit easier to argue a proposition, but you cannot destroy a theory without recovering what has worked in it. At the very least, you have to be able to explain why what was achieved before isn’t valid.

The problem, of course, is that people aren’t directly challenging these laws. Instead, they are talking about seemingly innocent concepts, like a soul. Unfortunately, the presence of a soul would have cascading affects through physics, eventually creating the situation of our best theories being wrong.

This is why you cannot take a block out of a “building” of scientific knowledge. Every piece is important, and changing one thing can have enormous consequences on different aspects that most people won’t think about. That’s why it’s always important to question the concept someone is proposing, because often the logical implications have not been fully though through.

When a person tells you their ideas about the world, there is no need to disregard with them. If they are as misguided as you think they are, then simply interacting with the ideas will expose their weaknesses, making it unnecessary to get into a heated shouting match.

Questioning

Imagine you lived in a place where you couldn’t say anything to contradict the person who somehow gained power in that region. What if you couldn’t even question something that they said which was plainly wrong? What if the consequence of questioning resulted in you being punished, either physically or mentally?

I have a good guess about what might happen: you’d slowly learn to not question what was said. At first, you’d probably think about your objections in your head, mulling over them as the person says ridiculous things, but after a while you’ll begin to not think about it as much. Sooner or later, you won’t even question what is being said.

This is the potential scenario that I find extremely dire for our civilization (and we used to live in one such as this, of sorts). When someone cannot ask a question about an assertion that is made, we have lost the ability to improve our knowledge of the universe. When we tell ourselves that we know everything there is to know, we blind ourselves to the potential of finding out more.

The reason I feel so strongly about this is because I believe questioning is the bedrock of science. Without a question, there is nothing to investigate. Without asking, “Could I be wrong about this?”, we turn our backs on the reality that our human senses are extremely fallible. Our senses tell us things that are wrong all the time. Trying to look at something at about the location of our nose tells us such.

Therefore, the quality that I want to promote in any student I meet is curiosity. I want them to ask questions, and to always be reevaluating the situation. I want them to try and ask questions about concepts they don’t understand, but I also want them to question the established authority. After all, new scientific advances don’t only come from improving our measurements. They come from questioning the established scientific knowledge and saying, “What if it actually worked like this?”

Asking questions is essential to the scientific enterprise. By asking questions, we dig deeper into the mysteries of the universe, and I have difficulty in seeing a scenario in which more knowledge is not a good thing (except, I suppose, for the person who is ruling others).

Unfortunately, there seems to be a sort of reflex to those who want to question things that just “feel” right. For example, many people will get very uncomfortable if you tell them that free will is just a construct that we make for ourselves, and we are in no more control of our atoms than we are of other atoms. When someone questions this implicit assumption, people don’t like it. Similarly, people don’t like when others question truths in their favourite holy text. In essence, it’s a taboo subject.

But the only reasonable reaction to confronting two conflicted ideas (such as free will and determinism, or a holy text and modern science) is to ask which one is correct. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential to be able to figure out which one makes the most sense in our world.

That is why questions are so important. They pierce issues straight in the heart, exposing their weaknesses in explaining the world for all to see. Questions serve as reference guides to figuring out what the heck is truly going on in our universe.

Yes, it would be nice to simply go to a certain person and ask about anything concerning our world, but this is simply a pipe dream. If we want students to think about the deeper workings of our universe, we need to educate them in science, and a great way to do this is to ask questions.

A skeptical outlook on things doesn’t mean you don’t trust anyone. It means you acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to figure out things about our universe without asking questions.

Portrayals

If I were to describe you in one word, there’s a fair chance that you would take issue with what I say. It’s not that I’m inherently mean or that I’ll offend you. Instead, the problem is that one word is not enough. One paragraph or even one page isn’t enough. In reality, it would take a lot of words to describe you as a person in a way that you would be satisfied with. Likewise, I’m sure that you’d notice if someone were to describe you with a term that you feel doesn’t fully capture you as a person.

Obviously, we are biased to notice these things when they are about us or other aspects of life that we are intimately familiar with. For myself, this is what I frequently see with the domain of science and mathematics.

What happens is that the people inside these domains are often seen as brainiacs that think on a level above the general population. They think that those who do science are cold and analytical, not wanting to feel the emotions from art and literature like those who pursue the liberal arts. You can tell that this sort of thing happens when it permeates culture as the stereotypes we employ.

Obviously, stereotypes only show one portion of truth (and that’s being optimistic). For science and scientists, the stereotype of a really smart person (and specifically, a white male) is one that is damaging to the scientific community as a whole and needs to be rectified. I fit squarely in that stereotype (well, maybe not the smart part), but I still want to have a more inclusive environment for scientists.

I’ve written about it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re curious about the universe we live in and want to find the best explanations that we can find about, you have the qualities of a scientist. It’s as simple as that. Notice that there’s nothing in there about the “kind” of person you should be, except for the curious part. You can be male or female, land anywhere on the spectrum for skin pigments or sexual orientation. Diversity is there, and science (ideally) has the capacity to accommodate everyone.

It saddens me when the stereotype of scientists is in full force, because it takes away from the brilliant work those who don’t fit the stereotype do. They are an integral part of the science community, and this should be clear.

Therefore, we have a responsibility in how we present the scientific community. If the people who do outreach and public communication are only of the stereotype, the truth is that it will continue. I know that puts me in an awkward position, but I trust that I can work at showing the diversity that is present (or could be) in science.

Science is an idea, a mindset, and a process. It’s a framework to view the world, and that has nothing to do with the physical properties of those that do it. Science is for everyone. You don’t have to be amazingly smart (trust me, I’ve met my fair share of both smart and less smart people), and you shouldn’t have to be of a particular demographic. There’s still work to be done, but I know that we can restore the public perception of diversity in science if we work hard at it.

Let’s get to work.