Friday, March 19, 2010

Science, Metaphor, and Aristotle's Informed Citizenry

In the recent article “Trapped in a World View" [1], string theorists recognize that one factor that may be impairing their ability to express a grand unified theory is language. David Bohm, a leading quantum theorist, believes that European languages “perfectly mirror the classical world of Newtonian physics” while languages that are rich in verbs more closely reflect the process-based expressions of quantum effects [1. p. 43]. To compensate, quantum theorists are exploring the Algonquian family of languages that incorporate a wide variety of verb forms. This new power of expression “may give physics the inspiration to leap forward” [Ibid.].

This article got me thinking about Natalie Angier's [2] text and, more specifically, how do the conventions of the English language constrain the representation of the complex concepts that Angier is trying to popularize? Is this the reason that she chose to use flowery language to convey her subject?

As I consider these questions two ideas come to mind: (1) The metaphor may be powerful but inadequate means to express abstract concepts (however imprecisely), and (2) What is the responsibility of an ‘informed citizenry’ (I am thinking of Aristotle’s concept of audience [3, Rhetorica, Book 2, Chapter 1]) in response to scientific rhetoric to “adopt, modify, or reject it” [4, p. 41; fifth assumption of rhetoric]. Perhaps the central question is: What are the responsibilities of both science and citizenry in contributing to a forum that allows meaning to be most faithfully constructed?

Science seems to be burdened with the responsibility to convey meaning and inform its audience, although Angier seems to convey frustration on the part of scientists to reach a public audience. Craig Waddell describes how the audience was carefully selected and constrained to not “repeat the somewhat chaotic experience of the two public hearings sponsored by the city council the previous summer” [5, p. 385]. In fact, Waddell provides a convincing argument that pathos was effectively used, if not to convey understanding of the science, to influence how the audience decided to view the need for that scientific research.

Certainly the essays in Richard W. Grinnell's [6] text take pains to express the purpose, challenge and role of science in layman terms. However, Carl Sagan transcends the idea of methods for articulating scientific concepts to the public and calls for an informed citizenry to take responsibility in this dialectic. For Sagan, public understanding of science is central to national security and “the submediocre performance of American youngsters in science and math, and the widespread adult ignorance and apathy about science and math, should sound an urgent alarm” [6, p. 18]. This apathy is central to the discussion; how can scientists and laypeople converse if the public doesn’t want to listen?

Of course this apathy may lie in the inability of scientists to express complex concepts – even Sagan believed that most people have an interest in science (the driver) [6, p. 12]. What if this inability to express complex occulted concepts is endemic to the English language? Certainly mathematics can express the subtleties of quantum theory but how many people can speak ‘Math?’ If physics can better be understood in non-Western languages (such as the Algonquian family) should the public be expected to have some grasp of these other languages in order to engage in the dialogue with Science?

Frankly, I have no idea. I do find the notion of exploring other languages in scientific inquiry fascinating. When I consider the Thomas article (in Grinnell) on Alchemy, I wonder what role the various languages (Arabic, Latin, etc) played in formulating that discipline and the future discipline of chemistry? What would physics be like if it had been explored, in the West, in Chinese?

All this is moot, I suppose, as science in America continues to be pursued (presumably) by English-speaking scientists and conveyed to an (primarily) English-speaking public. Still, how can this open the potential cadre of metaphors available to express abstract scientific concepts? How will science be represented to an increasingly global citizenry?

-Safari Bob


[1] “Trapped in a World View.” (2008, Jan. 5-11). New Scientist Vol. 192 No. 2637.

[2] Angier, N. (2007). The Canon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 978-0-618-24295-5

[3] Aristotle. (2001). The Basic Works of of Aristotle. Richard McKeon (Ed.). NY: The Modern Library. ISBN: 0-375-75799-6

[4] Lindemann (reference to come)

[5] Waddell, C. (1990). "The Role of Pathos in the Decision-Making Process: A Study in the Rhetoric of Science Making Policy." QJS 76: 381-400.

[6] Grinnell, R., W. (Ed.) (2007). Science and Society. NY: Pearson Longman. ISBN: 0-321-31811-0

1 comment:

  1. An insightful blog there; needless to say.

    Control and deduction essentially drive most scientific methods.

    Such reductionist definitions have transpired moves to formalize a language for science. Rene Decarte and Ludwig Wiggenstein, in 17 and 20th century, respectively, are formalists of that order. In particular, Wiggenstein attempted a definite language system for science. Decarte, however, died young, before he could walk his talk. But, philosophers, eversince, have been frustrated in attempts to regulate and consent on a positivist language of science. The APA, MLA and Chicago guidelines are the best the scientific community has to offer in terms of systematic approaches to communicate scientific knowledge.

    But this is a communication problem within the scientific community. It opens up new challenges when scientific communication is aimed at wider readership. This is where, probably, Technical Communication; Philosophy of Science; and Logic, fields that could study various approaches of knowledge dissemenation, hold promise.

    But Decarte's dream of a positivist language of science appears to have been realized in the field of 20th century applied mathematics, namely, Computer Science.

    Thanks to Shannon Claude, the 20th century MIT professor, for introducing the concept of coding information into binary decimals of 0 & 1s, the promise of a language system free of frills is a reality.

    Caution though. The binary codes, leading to computer programs written in C language, and its fancy variants, are not free of Rhetoric, however

    All products of binary codes, in other words, all computer software, like scientific writing, are intentional, hence Rhetorical.

    Take for example, the concept of Object oriented programming or OOPs. Or for that matter the proprietary algorithm driving Google, which is basically a computer program with a specific objective of making sense of, seemingly, entropic digitized data in the cyber space.

    Aristotle envisioned role of Rhetoric as a civic force limited to the affairs of the Polis. The 20th century Neo-Aristotelians applied it to the realms of discourse - Rhetoric of Science.

    The next step, possibly through efforts of Techno-Rhetoricians, should extend application of Rhetoric to Computer languages, Mathematics and Digitization of information.

    Donna Haraway, Phil Mirowski, Reuben Hersh offer some starting points.

    - Paul Watson
    PhD student
    Texas Tech