11. Words and Meaning

Words can have multiple meanings. And that's fine. The word shell can mean an egg shell, or a seashell (mollusc shells), or even exoskeletons. Really anything hard that contains something soft (and we could have a whole conversation about the meanings of the word hard at the colloquial and technical levels). Silk can mean any sort of fibrous proteinaceous material that is produced by various organisms that have independently evolved the genes and apparati needed to produce it. But it also can mean a specific type of textile made from a specific silk. What do we call a carbonated sugary drink? Soda pop? Just soda? Just pop? Coke? Soft drinks? Fountain drinks? Depending on where you are, who you are, when you are, what you are, and with whom you are, meaning can change within a word, and words can lose all meaning to other words. 

Think about that for a moment. What is communication? Communication is an attempt to convey an idea, out the head of one person, through the air, or the wires, or the paper, and into another person's head, with the hope, the goal, the dream, that they'll understand what you intend enough that you both are in agreement on the meaning you put out into the world. It's a very complicated business! So when you are in a relationship with someone, whether it be a positive or negative relationship, there is the constant barriers that form as the thing you see, or feel, or think, must be filtered through your own lips, through your own fingers, through your own pen, and with any luck reach the other side unscathed, or at least, fairly intact.

The where, who, when, the context, that is, of why you are saying something, in conjunction with why someone is listening, can be in opposition. Each person has a mind/mental model, how they perceive things to be, and how they perceive others behavior. And this is the source of conflict in many cases. So if a scientist wants to tell a nonscientist about the latest scientific finding, or the latest publication they wrote, or the general state of a particular field, there is a conflict lurking in wait. When the scientist says a word, they say it with confidence, with conviction. Why? Why because of course they say words with precise meanings. They do not throw around words like critter or goop, or shell, or bees, unless they want to use it in a very specific context, or are being intentionally general. If they say bees, they're talking about a specific grouping of hymenoptera, excluding groups outside of it. They do not mean wasps they do not mean hornets, they are not talking precisely about a honeybee or a mason bee. They are talking about bees. But the nonscientist, or, more critically, any nonexpert in the relevant field in which the terminology belongs, may use a number of discrete (in the context of scientific discourse) terms interchangeably. Bees, wasps, hornets, stingy buzz buzzes, they're all the same from most people's perspective. 

So if a scientist says bees, and the lay person hears stingy buzz buzzes, misunderstanding and misconceptions can follow, and the slow accumulation of these sorts of subtle breakdowns in understanding, combined with a a plethora of psychological biases that affect every individual, can lead to an invisible fracturing of understanding, of trust, and of communication. And no one is to blame. The scientist is in no position to recall the lack of background of the lay, and the lay lacks the understanding of the entrenched position of in depth knowledge the expert has worked to. And so unless efforts are taken, ideally on both sides, to work through this shared gap, the problem continues.

But here is the challenge. Does the scientist lower themselves to a level of unprecise language? Do they try and pull the lay up closer to their level? Does the lay rise up? Pull down? Do they meet somewhere in the nebulous middle? There is no right answer, and each individual may feel that their answer to the question is correct. So suddenly we're lost in yet another set of communication breakdown. And so it goes.

So, I've just run around in circles for a few paragraphs about words and meaning. And when we look at biodiversity, meaning becomes crucial. What is an animal? What is a plant? What is life? Look it up in a book please. Hopefully a book published in the past two years. So for someone like myself, someone who aspires to be an expert, if not a master, if not a wizard (Princess Bride, the Good Parts edition) in regards to biodiversity, I need to be able to distinguish organisms at any given level, from any given shared common ancestor, from a shared ancestral trait, to a new trait that's important for their success. And so when someone says that they saw a neat bug, and they're talking about anything other than a Hemipteran insect, my teeth grind and the white flame rises up. And they don't even know that there is a problem, and if someone such as myself expresses a clarifying statement, they have a wonderfully confoundingly sound argument: words mean what they mean, that's how language works. And they're right. Language is constantly changing, it's evolving just as life does, and so the usage of a word, like I said, can be ever changing, not just through time, but through place and context. 

But science doesn't follow those rules. If a word has a new meaning, it's because common consensus, specifically among scientists, has changed. And those changes usually have to do with changes in a bulk mental model, a shared common space where language stays stable, if not over time, then over place. And is that is so important. It is the absence of understanding that among experts in any field they share a consistent language, and that that language can, will, does fall out of sync with the common parlance, is in many ways the problem I see. There is no way for the individual to take the hive consensus on what terms mean, and drag it down to a middle ground; and it's so easy for attempts to bring up the lay to simply create another standard. When there are a number of different standards, an attempt to create a new one to replace all the old ones will merely produce yet another standard in the mix, and achieves very little productive. In the context of language, we see the vast diversity of human language, and the utter failure of constructed languages to replace them (most notably Esperanto, which has itself changed so much since it's inception that it is now notably, if somewhat insignificantly, different than it's original form), and anywhere there is a standard of measure, or safety, or production, or education, it will eventually be supplemented and supplanted by many newer, better, or just straight up simpler versions.

It is a challenge of meaning, it is the challenge not to achieve agreement, but fewer, better disagreements.

12. A House-Painter, a Globe, and a Radio

12. A House-Painter, a Globe, and a Radio

10. Comps, or, The Dread of the Weary