August 06, 2005

Science vs. semantics

A letter in the New York Times of 8/6/05 (p. A26) opposes science and semantics in a way that will strike linguists (who are already sufficiently annoyed by people who say "but that's all just semantics", as if the meanings of words and constructions weren't important) as very odd.  It turns out that there is an important distinction here, between (to use technical language) technical language and ordinary language, which in ordinary language is sometimes referred to as a distinction between science and semantics.  This is confusing, but I'm not sure what linguists can do about it, any more than I know how to untangle the thicket of meanings and uses surrounding the word gender.

Here's the letter, from Richard P. Binzel, a professor of planetary science at M.I.T., about whether the newly discovered celestial body orbiting the sun, beyond Pluto and somewhat larger than it, should be counted as a tenth planet (or whether Pluto should be demoted from planetary status):

    Re "Too Many Planets Numb the Mind" (editorial, Aug. 2 [suggesting the demotion of Pluto]):
    There is great difficulty in reaching a scientific consensus on defining a "planet" because this is not a scientific question.  It is a question of semantics.
    A semantic solution is best reached using a historical context.  Pluto as the "ninth planet" for eight decades sets the historical precedent for what size should serve as the dividing line for planetary status.
    You imply that Pluto's planetary status is a mistake.  Modern trends toward inclusiveness across society argue differently.  To exclude Pluto as a planet would be a mistake.
    Ten planets or more is a terrifically exciting and inspiring prospect worthy of expanding the mind.

What we see here is a privileging of science -- and scientific language -- over ordinary language, which for non-linguists is just "language", "language" having "semantics" for its words.  On this view, the terminology of scientific (and other technical) disciplines gets its meaning from the categories of nature; science "carves nature at its/the/her joints", as they say.  (I'm having some trouble finding out who first put it this way.  Philosophers regularly put the expression in quotation marks, but they also regularly fail to cite a source.)  Meanwhile, in plain-ol' "language", what words mean -- their "semantics" -- is a matter of convention, mostly arrived at through common practice, so that historical precedent is a relevant consideration.  (I am reporting on this view, not necessarily advocating it.)

[E-mail has now rushed in with sources for the carving-nature image: Plato's Phaedrus 265d-266a (of course it goes back to Plato!).  Thanks to, so far, Aaron Boyden and Jamie Dreier; and to John Lawler, who supplied an echo from Chuang Tzu.]

But in fact, both in technical language and in ordinary language, we have words and meanings.  The meanings of technical terms are also matters of convention -- explicit convention, rather than implicit as in ordinary language.  We also think, or hope, that we've fixed on the "right" set of scientific concepts, so that, in combination with a set of hypotheses about their relationships, they will allow us to explain and predict phenomena.

What's at issue for Binzel -- correctly, I think, no matter how much I cavil at his wording -- is whether the CONCEPT of a planet (referred to by a technical term planet) plays a role in scientific theories, or whether planet is only a word of ordinary language.  (It could, of course, in some sense be both.  That is, the same phonology and orthography could be used differently in the two domains -- usually because ordinary-language words were borrowed as technical terms, with different meanings: fruit, herb, bug, force, mass, element, class, group, and so on.)  Binzel in effect claims that there's no scientific theory in which planets play a role; nothing of scientific significance would follow from the classification of the new celestial object as a planet, or from its classification as something else, for that matter.  He's saying that planet is, nevertheless, a useful word of ordinary language, and we can discuss whether older conventions of ordinary language should take in this new object. 

On this question, there are arguments on all sides: for conservatism (many object to abandoning material memorized in school) or for generosity (Binzel's option, with its out-of-left-field appeal to a wider notion of social inclusiveness as well as to the unsurprising size criterion) or for retrenchment (the NYT's suggestion, using the chemical composition of celestial bodies and the nature of their orbit, as well as their size, as criterial).  In the end, the people who write textbooks will probably tip the scales in favor of one usage or another.  Remember, these are the folks who gave you indigo as one of the "colors of the rainbow", not to mention the label violet for purple.  (They didn't originate these usages, but they sure did make them the coin of the realm.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 6, 2005 03:44 PM