Our perceptions and experience define meaning

Scientists talk about things differently than normal people. I don’t think it’s intentional. Maybe the same sort of thing happens in other disciplines. After a while, language simply starts to mean different things to different people based upon their shared experiences. 

The reason we are able to communicate at all is because we share some similar experiences. We think the sky is blue because we were told it is blue. If someone had told you as a toddler that the sky was red, like someone told me, growing up normal like I have would be a miracle. When I say that a destination is a block away, most of us have some shared experience with what a block means.

However, when we make the decision to delve deeply into any subject, the experiences we have compared to the experience of others can be different. At that point language can start to have different meaning from that of normal people. (I am assuming here that only abnormal people delve deeply into subjects.) A good example of this is watching ESPN. What are those guys talking about? 

This column is a good example of the strange use of language. I maintain that I am normal despite harboring earlier beliefs that the sky is red. I then say that only abnormal people delve deeply into subjects, which I have sometimes done. My saving grace, as far as being normal is concerned, (assuming I have any saving graces) is that I think I might have ADD and seldom delve deeply into anything before I get distracted. 

Now, what was I saying? Oh yes, scientific language. It goes beyond just the use of weird Latin terms like “Macrocanthorhynchus hirudinaceous,” or chemical jargon like “six hydroscopic ambaphascient tetra halide.”

Sometimes understood concepts in science become obscured in everyday usage. 

For example, most people know that when they speak about “neutrality” they are talking about something in the middle between two extremes. In fact, that may not be what “neutral” means at all for scientists.

For example, in chemistry, a neutral solution is a solution that is neither acid nor base. Neutrality is sometimes achieved by mixing acids and bases in such a manner that they cancel each other out. However, it can also be achieved in a solution that simply does not ionize.  In other words, a neutral solution is not in a state of being acid or base. 

In physics, neutral refers to the lack of any electrical charge. Neutral is not half positive and half negative. It is non-electric, at least at the moment. In the physical world, a car in neutral is not halfway between fast and slow, or forward and back. A car in neutral isn’t in any gear at all. 

I guess most of the time these little differences don’t matter. If I don’t know that the “five hole” is the gap between the goalie’s knees in hockey, it doesn’t make much difference. I don’t watch hockey. But sometimes the nuances of language can be worth examining. 

When we use the word neutral to mean something or someone in the middle, it may be very misleading. What did it mean to not take sides in World War II? Switzerland was neutral. Did that mean they were in the middle between good and evil, that they aren’t in either condition, or that they don’t know the difference? Since good and evil depend upon a standard, like gears or electrical currents, does that mean Switzerland had no standards of good and evil?

What does it mean when people maintain that government has to be neutral when it comes to standards of behavior such as are found in religion, ethics, or morality? Does that mean government must take no stand, or does that mean there are no standards for government? What if the sky really is red and we’ve all been told wrong?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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