Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wait Until She Tells Them About Buridan's Talking Ass!

Today, I want to talk about words and their meanings.

A fourth-grade teacher is reading the story of “Sleeping Beauty” to her class. She comes to the section in which the villainess decides to poison a spindle with a sleeping potion.

The teacher reads:

Ha. Ha,” said the evil witch. “The princess will fall into a deep sleep with just the tiniest prick.”
The class, naturally, erupts in laughter. You and I would, too.

The teacher goes to great pains to explain to her students that, in old-fashioned English, “prick” means a small puncture by a needle. The students nod their heads, seemingly in understanding, so the teacher continues reading until she comes to:
And sure enough, the poisoned needle did its work. Sleeping Beauty didn’t even feel the small prick.
The next day, the teacher is called into the principal’s office because of a parent’s complaint that she used inappropriate language in class.

At that point, a practical teacher would think long and hard about her precious "prick," and emend the text. She’d change the word to “puncture.” End of story.

But a teacher who was stubborn would say: “Look, this is perfectly acceptable English. In order to be educated, the students have to understand that common words can have different meanings in different contexts. That story has always said ‘prick,’ and I’m going to continue to use it.”

Not a good strategy, right?

So, scientists: Find another fucking word for “theory.”

(H/T to Evo and SI)


Spanish Inquisitor said...

How about the Evolution Explanatory Fact? EEF.

That's better than "guess", or "hunch".

bullet said...

What about all the asses and cocks in the Bible? Not to mention the dirty words.

Anonymous said...

The colloquial use of the word "theory" is so ingrained - and the creationists and IDiots have muddied the waters so thoroughly - that scientists would serve everyone better by coining a new word. That would only solve one problem, though. The IDiots would then come back with something along the lines of, "It doesn't matter what new name you give it, a rose is still a rose by any other name, and a theory is still a theory by any other term."

Anonymous said...

Actually I think the teachers strategy of continuing to use the word 'prick' is the exact right thing to do.

The author wrote 'prick' so 'prick' should be used!

Changing words just to appease a few people can sometimes go too far. There is enough political correctness and 'weasel words' these days it waters down and perverts many a discussion.

And as 'the chaplain' said it wouldn't matter if the word 'theory' was changed, the IDiots would still use it (incorrectly as usual).

I see what you are trying to get at, I just don't think it was a very good example.


Franco said...

Words mean different things. This is a very basic fact of language and it's not going to change.

If someone is too lazy, ignorant or stupid to acknowledge that, I'm not going to waste my time pandering to them.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Anyone remember the guy that got fired for using the word niggardly? Maybe he wasn't fired, maybe he was just reprimanded, but some ignorant asshole above him was offended.

Anonymous said...

Dammit, I got all the way to the last line, then fell off my chair laughing. They frown on that sort of thing where I work.

Why can't we make the creationists find another word for "theory", though? Seems to me that there's no reason we should jack in the scientific definition just because a bunch of numbnuts in Texas can't deal with words that have multiple meanings.

PhillyChief said...

Nice idea, but at this point it's too late. I can just see the IDiots...

Oh those eggheads with their labcoats and their fancy degrees might think they can pull the wool over the eyes of good, honest folk like you and me with their big words confusing us and escaping the issue but make no mistake, a theory is still just a theory no matter WHAT you call it.

Anyway, that Sleeping Beauty story sure does take on a whole new meaning now. I mean, she probably wouldn't be getting much sleep if she got a big prick, and they'd have to change her name to something like Happily Satisfied Beauty, or Mrs. Chief. ;)

The Exterminator said...

I don't like "fact" because it's too ... ummmm ... small. A "theory" encompasses many facts.

"Asses" and "cocks" are OK in the bible because, as everyone knows, god wrote those words. However, I do believe that the newest editions of that book have removed the word "fucketh."

Well, you're right, of course, about the ID-ers. But changing terms would go a long way toward pulling the rug out from under them on this particular useless point.

There's probably no one who recognizes the value of "original" text more than I do. But I'm not talking about Shakespeare here; I'm talking about a retelling of a fairy tale for kids. Only a stubborn pedagogue with a tin ear would insist on keeping "prick" under the circumstances. What's to be gained by not changing the word?

While you're correct that many words have multiple meanings, there's no point in banging our heads against the wall, over and over and over. Those people who are "too lazy, ignorant or stupid" are influencing our schoolboards. Why dig one's heels in on the meaning of a word that can so easily be twisted? A practical person would find another word. There's nothing particularly scientific about the combination of phonemes that makes up "theory."

I don't think the guy should have been fired for using "niggardly," but I do think that he was tone-deaf. People should listen to the words they use.

[T]here's no reason we should jack in the scientific definition just because a bunch of numbnuts in Texas can't deal with words that have multiple meanings.
But why must we worship the scientific definition? As I said above, the word itself isn't science; it's merely used to describe an important concept. Scientists should strive to make themselves clear, and find another fucking word.

I agree with you that it's probably too late now to do anything. But my little parable is aimed at scientists who don't think about the varied interpretations of the words they use. When using language, they should always be thinking about clarity and unambiguousness. I don't think "theory" does that. It's a scientifically invalid word for that concept because it lends itself to too many interpretations.

John Evo said...

First, to SI -

"Washington, DC's black Mayor, Anthony Williams, gladly accepted the resignation of his white staff member, David Howard, because Mr. Howard uttered the word 'niggardly' in a private staff meeting". Google it if you want to know more.

To Ex's post - I'm kind of torn. Steven Pinker has talked about the problem of words changing meaning with different genrations and that it is inevitable that our accepted versions of words will change over time. Language evolves (in a manner of speaking).

That said, I think there is a differnet between a word that has become taboo and a word that is misunderstood. And I really don't think science is GOING TO take your suggestion, so we might as well live with it. It's annoying to constantly have to tell people what "theory" means, but we will have to.

The Exterminator said...

It's very unscientific of you not to want to explore my reasonable hypothesis.

Look, scientists have their areas of expertise, which are the sciences. But lots of them don't have a clue about using the language in the most elegant, clear, and unambiguous way. They're not authorities in that field, and shouldn't necessarily be deferred to. I don't claim to be an authority in that field either, but I do know a little something about writing -- and I can recognize when a person's word-choice is not effective. "Theory" is no longer an effective term, because -- evidence shows -- it has been misconstrued time and time again.

PhillyChief said...

And of course if they did change the word to something else, we'd still have to explain to the IDiots what that word means, along with how science works, what exactly Evolution is, how it has nothing to do with abiogenesis, that carbon is not the only isotope used in radiometric dating, that there's no such thing as macro and micro distinctions for Evolution, that "goddidit" is not an answer, what DNA is and what it tells us, etc

The Exterminator said...

Everything you say is obviously true. Changing the word "theory" won't change people's minds, particularly if they're determined to be ignorant.

But why not remove one minuscule obstacle that impedes the message? If scientists choose to address themselves to a non-scientific public -- as I think they should and must under current circumstances -- they should go out of their way to make their presentations as lucid as possible, even for the most ignorant listeners.

There's a stubborness, an ivory tower attitude, that sometimes keeps them from doing that.

Anonymous said...

I'm comfortable with theory. Just make sure you define the word.

As for the story (and the word 'prick'), in my line of work we have something we call an 'interpretive moment.' If an interpreter is explaining the relationship between deer and the ecosystem, and the deer everyone is looking at shits, seize the interpretive moment and explain the relationship between dung, insects and plants! If (and this actually happened on a tour I was on when I was a kid) the ranger is pointing out the Uintah Ground Squirrels and a hawk swoops down, slams into one hard enough to send viscera flying five feet, sieze the interpretive moment and explain predator/prey relationships. If a train derails, seize the interpretive moment and explain the crews railroads have on call 'round the clock to handle train wrecks, derailments, washouts and any other disaster to which railroads are subject. If, as a VIP (Volunteer In Parks) helps a family find the elk in the meadow, and then a bull mounts a cow, seize the interpretive moment and explain that, unlike mommy and daddy, one bull elk gets to have ten, twenty, even thirty cows (as many as he can defend).

The teacher did a fantastic job of 'seizing the interpretive moment' (though for her, it would be seizing the educational moment) and using the misunderstanding as a way to explore the different meanings of words and how meanings change over time. There was a time when 'gay' meant happy, when prick meant an needle stick, and when President garnered respect. Times, and language, change.

Sorry for the long post. Occupational hazard.

the blogger formerly known as yinyang said...

Not that I necessarily agree with you, but I do understand where you're coming from. So, I would suggest model, or system.

Let's see: model of evolution; system of evolution. Model of gravity; system of gravity. The Big Bang model; the Big Bang system. The model of plate tectonics; the system of plate tectonics.

I think model wins in my mind. But, "system of evolution" has such a nice ring to it.

Anonymous said...

I rather like the term, "model." Good suggestion, Yinni.

Of course, the cretinists and IDiots will come back with, "It's just a model, one person's rendition of how evolution could work" or some similar nonsense.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I like paradigm. Hypothesis is good one, too. This, though, I do believe hypothesis is more preliminary in nature; the means one uses to build toward a theory.

GDad said...

My mom is an elementary school teacher. She got pulled into the principal's office for using the word "asinine".

For pete's sake.