Tuesday is usually a nice day at gym. Low density of educationalists and weight bouncers, science podcast episodes to listen to, and now the heat has abated a bit so my glasses don’t steam up when I walk out of the gym after my Yankee government ‘mandated’ 76 minutes of ‘moderate’ exercise. Although the glasses steaming up does give me a nice model of the “Every Child Left Behind’ program, at least in effect.
One of the things I really dislike about science, or any form of, but especially science, journalism is that journalists tend to interview each other rather than primary sources – scientists. I usually only grumble about this and mutter at the podcast episode when the journalist doing the interviewing or the journalist being interviewed make some egregious fumble of the subject matter under discussion, but this morning I got to thinking about an article I read yesterday in New Yawk Times.
This article [Link] resurrects Whorf’s theory that language shapes what we can think about and how we think about things. I emphasize the shapes here since this is an influence and not a determiner. The article goes off on a ramble discussing research on how directions are given in either body fixed or locality fixed coordinates, the sort of stuff that one gets immersed, or used to, in Freshman physics, and piled on from there but evidently its hot stuff to linguists and psychologists and ripe for mangling by journalists.
I was especially taken by one of their statements,
“Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims.”
that raised the question of who came to this conclusion – social engineering politicians? Back when I first ran into this theory, as an undergraduate, I could never find anyone, and I heard it from everyone from furrin language professors to anthropologists, who claimed it was bunk or whacked. Quite the opposite, and the more I learned about furrin language, the more valid it seemed to me.
The idea is pretty simple, language develops in an environment that is a mixture of social and natural, and the language reflects what people do in that environment and what the environment does to people. It may ignore taboo topics of the latter but that is as characteristic as inclusion. And people who grow up in the language or learn it well, think in that language and that ‘shapes’ how and what they think. The classic example of this, which I was presented in Freshman survey of anthropology, are Eskimos who have umpteen words for snow while European settlers have to make do with three or four adjectives modifying one noun. The manipulations that you can do in head are obvious, as are the differences between the two.
But what gets ignored often is variants on language. If you study a science, as in a college major or a practitioner of the discipline, you acquire language components that other people who speak (and think) the same base language don’t have, and those components make your thoughts different from their’s. So it’s not just a matter of having different languages, it’s also a matter of having different variants. And if you think different thought from other people, you are going to communicate differently as well because you have different words to use in forming information.
What struck me is that this is at the root of scientists having problems communicating with bogs (and bogs understanding scientists, assuming they even try, which is a BIG assumption these days!) It is popular these days for the social engineering progressives and other fuzzy thinkers to bash scientists for not working hard enough at communicating with bogs. Most scientists either ignore this or try harder, but the more cognate ones tend to respond that communication is a two way process and the bogs have to do their part of the process or THEY are at fault.
And Whorf’s theory substantiates that view. The fact is that when two folks who think in different languages try to communicate, both have to work hard to make the communication work. And if the languages are French and German nothing untoward is thought of this. But if the languages are (e.g.,) chemistry American English and bog American English, the burden is all on the chemist.
Unless the chemist English is being spoken – inaccurately – by a journalist and then the listener is irrelevant. Why is that?
So the next time you have to speak jargon to a bog, demand some mutual effort. Communication is not consumerist.