Jargon

Jargon is like the Force.  It has a light side and a dark side.  And I really hate that dark side.

Given the fact that we are living in the Age of Jargon, this may seem about as effectual as waging an earnest fight against gravity or one in defiant opposition to Newton’s Third Law.  Jargon has not only always been with us, in some form or other, it bids fair to become more and more a constant presence.

Understand.  While I find techno-jargon to be often confusing and overdone, that is not what I am talking about.  Technical jargon is both necessary and even good if it is used carefully (but more about that later).

To look at the dark side of jargon in today’s world, I would suggest that we need to see that language has (at least) two functions:  First, to communicate facts, ideas, and emotions to other people.   But a very important second purpose is to hide facts, ideas, and emotions from outsiders.  It often looks as if large parts of the human soul never grew beyond the childhood stage of creating clubs with secret words and handshakes.  To rephrase the purpose of language, it seems as if we want to communicate facts, ideas, and emotions with those in our club and hide them from everyone else.

One of the ways we do this is with jargons.

What exactly is a jargon?  Well, the O.E.D. says that the term is “Applied contemptuously to any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession.”

All that is quite true, if a bit harsh.  But it also seems a bit dated.  As technology has become our icon and driving engine, jargon has been elevated to being one of the hallmarks of our age.

As soon as some field begins to recognize itself as a separate entity, there is an inevitable rush to create special definitions (itself a bit of jargon), which come in various shapes:  First, in our time at least, there are the inevitable acronyms (e.g. DOS, LAN, WAN, etc.).  These are completely unintelligible to the non-cognoscenti.  Their only advantage is that they shout out that they are code words and you needn’t bother to try to figure them out.

Far more dangerous is the next set: redefinition of perfectly good standard words into specialist terms.  These carry the risk that you might actually think you understand what is being said when in fact you are in well over your head.  Think of what happened to words like server, or router, or the innocent hub.  You can spend long minutes listening to conversations of this kind of jargon before you realize you haven’t got a clue what anyone has been talking about.

I think that both these kinds of jargon are actually fairly benign.  They are just the inevitable result of those within the club creating a shorthand to describe what no one outside the club would be likely to care a hoot about anyway.

That’s not the kind of jargon I hate.

The dark side is a completely artificial creation of hermetic dialects of nouns, verbs, and modifiers that once were words but have now passed so far from their original meanings that they can only be understood by specialists.  Neologisms are coined and word linked together (with and without hyphens) in quite unnecessary profusion.

This is the particular realm of the academics.  They argue that only by creating a vocabulary of specialized terms can they convey their thoughts with an appropriate precision.  In fact, these dialects often really serve to hide the essential triviality of the discussions they are conducting.

Personally, I would maintain that they have long since departed from the path where the goal is communication.  Instead, their papers have become daisy chains of people performing serial acts of intellectual masturbation.  They are really engaged in an incestuous pursuit of only one thing: tenure.

Think I am being too harsh?  Too critical, perhaps?

Let me quote the following, culled from the net.  For full disclosure, let me admit that it was declared the winner in a jargon contest:

“Ontologically, I have prioritized the triunity of space, time and causality; stressed the fivefold causal chain consisting, typically, in the transfactual efficacy of the generative mechanism of structures, the rhythmic (viz., irreducibly tensed A-serial spatializing processual) exercise of their causal powers, potentially mediated by the holistic causality and intra-activity of a (in general) partial totality, dependent in the human sphere upon the embodied intentional causal agency of emergent structurata, codetermining a concretely singularized conjunctural outcome.”

I defy anyone to demonstrate to me that the author of that quote was trying to communicate anything.  It makes me just crazy to see the academic world, once the place we looked to for objective truth, being subsumed into a sea of this kind of arcane drivel.

One can argue that what I am talking about is the problem of what happens when special definitions go mad.  Abusing any tool is a dangerous thing.  But one of the risks inherent in special definition run riot is a complete breakdown of intelligible thought.  I think this is what has happened in much of academia.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.  The truth is, I’ve pretty much given up on the salvation of people like the author of the above quote.  Short of God personally working a miracle, I think they are beyond hope.

But I do want to talk about another pitfall of the special definitions that has risen to be a real problem today; one that threatens to affect every one of us.  That is the communication gap between the layman and the expert in the form of Religion and Science.

Let me take Evolution as an example.

Evolution, you see, is a Theory in the realm of Scientific Knowledge.  It is currently under siege because both Theory and Scientific Knowledge are, in fact, jargon terms.  That is, although they sound like plain English, they have special definitions in their own domain that are understood by surprisingly few, both inside and outside science itself.

Let’s look at the term Science.  What, one may ask, do we mean when we say Science or Scientific Knowledge?

If you remember your high school science textbook, there was probably a sentence early on that said something like, “Scientia is the Latin word for knowledge.”  This, at least, has the benefit of being pretty clear.  Science is just another word for knowledge.  Therefore, if you know something to be a physical fact, a truth in the world, it must fall under the scope of Science.

Horse-pucky!

The logical conclusion of that sort of impossibly wide definition goes like this: If you know for a fact that God created the world in six days, then that, too, is a scientific truth as valid as any other.  Hence Scientific Creationism has every bit as much of a right to be taught in science class as anything else.  Or, setting religious faith aside for a moment, if you look around the world and see such interrelated complexity that you consider it to be obviously impossible that it happened by mere chance, then that leads to the idea of there being a guiding plan.  Certainly that conclusion, arising naturally from the data around you, and having nothing to do with creationism, deserves to be taught in science class as Intelligent Design.

What’s wrong with that logic?  After all, a very large number of scientists would still agree with the original definition of Science that they learned in high school.  Sadly, few colleges bother to teach a real definition of Science and fewer still point out that the high school definition is simply false.

Okay.  I’ve led you along far enough.  What exactly is the specialist’s definitions of Science and Scientific Knowledge?

Answer: Science is a method of obtaining a subset of truths (facts/data) using the Scientific Method.  Scientific Knowledge is that set of truths (facts/data) obtainable and confirmable using the Scientific Method.

Now those are a pair of unexciting and unilluminating definitions!  No wonder nobody bothers to teach them.  And yet they were the fruits of a profound revolution in human thought.  And human revolutions are neither pretty nor easy.  In fact, we usually change only when given no other choice.

Along about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people looking for hard truths came face to face with the conclusion that the intuitive and logical methods in use since the Greeks simply weren’t giving answers that matched the world they were discovering.  The planets didn’t circle around the earth.  And they didn’t move in perfect circular paths as they were supposed to.  Mariners were sailing out and finding new lands, new animals, and new peoples not predicted by the Bible.  Light could be split up into colors and objects of different weights fell at the same rate.  Blood endlessly circulated through the body and the humours were nowhere to be found.  Somehow the earth held more elements than earth, air, fire, and water.

Out of all that came some new rules that came to be called the Scientific Method.  If you look that up you will find a bunch of stuff about hypotheses and phenomena.  True enough, but hardly concrete.  But underlying is a set of assumptions and methods that are the real nitty-gritty of science as it is practiced:

1) You have to be able to measure.  If you can’t measure it, it isn’t science.

2) Physical laws are invariant.  If your results vary, there is an error somewhere.

3) The key indicator of your understanding is prediction.  If you predict it and it happens, it goes a long way to proving your theory right.

4) Your results have to be duplicatable.  If your results can’t be reproduced by anyone else, they are probably wrong.

5) A scientific theory is an explanation that covers all observable facts.  It has predictions that can be confirmed.

6)  Once a theory has been confirmed, it stands as the truth until something is observed which contradicts it.

Now let’s go back to those two ideas that so conveniently slipped past Science = Scientia.

How about Creationism?

Well, first, it is based on a miracle.  A miracle violates rule 2), above. And, since God can violate the rules whenever God wants, obviously reliable prediction is impossible.   Hence, while it may be the truth that God created the world in six days, it falls outside the scope of science.  Not because it is false, but because it violates the assumptions that underlie science.

How about Intelligent Design?

The problem here is it can’t be proven or disproven by observation.  Nor does it make any predictions.  By definition it encompasses all of the data possible and says it all matches some plan.  Anything that fails to match the plan must, by definition, merely point out our misunderstanding of the plan.

Point here is that God may have created the world.  Or there may be an intelligent design behind it.  Both, however, inherently violate the scientific method.  They may be true, but they fall outside that family of truths that we call Science.  Therefore they have no business in the science classroom.

This may seem the crusade of someone who cares passionately about something no sane person would ever care that much about.  Surely, having grown up in the Age of Science, we all have a decent respect for it even if we aren’t up on all the technicalities.

Think so?  Well, to show just how big the understanding gap really is, an informed scientist tried to explain to the Kansas school board that both Creationism and Intelligent Design fall outside the scope of Science and why.

Their response?  They placed a motion on the table to simply redefine Science for the state of Kansas.

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