Thursday, September 13, 2007

Monday Rant: Undefined

There are a number of words in the English language that I do not have functional definitions for. Other people apparently either DO have functional definitions for these words, or do not but just fake it because they think other people do. Both situations frustrate me endlessly.

1. Nature

Seriously, I have no idea what you mean when you use this word or any of its derivations (natural, unnatural, etc). I first realized that I'd been faking it with "nature" when a friend-of-a-friend told me her principle objection to nuclear power (for electricity generation) was that it "seems so unnatural". WTF? Radioisotopes decay, converting a tiny fraction of their mass into energy, which can be used to generate electricity for human uses. What's unnatural about that? I DON'T UNDERSTAND. If I had a working definition of the term (either "natural" or "unnatural"; I could derive the other from one), perhaps I could choose to either agree or disagree with your objection to nuclear power. But I don't understand what you're trying to say.

2. Tradition

Again, this plus the common derivations. My main problem with "tradition" is that it seems (though I am unsure) so arbitrary. Every time someone uses this word in my presence, I immediately wonder: how old? I've seen people refer to modern, evidence-based medical practice as "traditional Western medicine", possibly (am I wrong? I don't know!) because their favoured alternative (there's always a favoured alternative) is something they themselves met in life AFTER they met the dominant form of medical attention found in certain countries (i.e. the OECD). The real confusion arises when that same person starts talking about their favoured alternative, which is most often either much older a concept than the roughly-150-years-old "let's actually look at some evidence, maybe" approach of "western medicine", and / or is referred to as "traditional", itself - for example, the much-discussed "traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)". Tell me why behaviour X gains the benefit of the label "tradition" but behaviour Y, of similar antiquity, geographic origin, or evidence-of-non-crazy-thought (or lack thereof) does not. Prime example: acupuncture is widely touted as some revolutionary form of great idea. Then, in the same breath, it's described as traditional - people did it long ago, therefore it's a tradition (never mind the contrast between "revolutionary" and "traditional"). Or something. Then, it's compared favourably to "traditional Western approaches to healing" or some such. If both things get the label "traditional", but one is good and the other is bad, how does that label contribute anything? To further pile it on, I am quite certain that some ancient (i.e. dead) practitioners of acupuncture also bound the feet of young girls, practiced sex-specific infanticide, shunned (or worse) rape victims, divorced women, and widows, and conducted other behaviour that we now consider unacceptable. I am NOT implying a correlation or causative relationship between acupuncture and overt sexual discrimination; I am questioning why one old thing is considered good because of its age and not another. Is that just how people use it? Is "traditional" just a fancy short-hand for "older than I am"?

3. Justice

I'd make a terrible lawyer, because I cannot define a core concept of their profession*. My confusion primarily arises from the, let's say "contrast" rather than "hypocrisy" or "schizophrenia", of the two main expressions of justice. On the one hand, we have people who talk about revenge for crimes and so on. So, is "justice" just a synonym for "revenge", perhaps with a hint of "allowed by authority"? No, because on the other hand we have people who talk about crime deterence and prevention, and odd psuedo-psychological concepts like "closure", and expressely distance themselves from "revenge". But, often these people are one and the same individuals expressing both, mutually-contradictory statements. And the context of such discussions is very often political, suggesting a cynical pandering to the stupid (vengeful) masses by individuals attempting to curry favour with the (stupid, vengeful) public. Does "justice" have a definition that clearly distinguishes it from other human behaviours?

4. Complex

This one is a real minefield, because I do have a functional definition for it: a system can be said to be complex in contrast to a simple system, if it demonstrates a greater number and variety of interacting parts. But, very rarely do I see "complex" used in situations where such is clearly true. The prime example comes from my own research. Many, many times I have seen discussions of genome size in the context of organismal complexity. For those unfamiliar with what I do, briefly, genome size, or the amount of DNA per cell in organisms, varies enormously between species. Some things have very small genomes, others very large. This is referred to as the genome size enigma, because it's an interesting problem (why is this variation present?) without an obvious simple answer. So, lots of people think they've solved the problem, by invoking complexity. Hey, things with big genomes must be more complex - they need more DNA to have more genes doing more things in a more complex system. OK - if that's true, and demonstrably complex things do have more DNA, then the enigma is solved. It's not true, for two reasons: first, more DNA does not mean more genes; larger genomes have more non-coding DNA but approximately the same number of protein-coding genes as smaller genomes (this is why it's the genome-size enigma and no longer the genome-size paradox) (see also the Onion test). Second, nobody advancing such an hypothesis has ever (in my opinion) clearly demonstrated a gradient of complexity between organisms. I find it highly suspicious that such schemes always seem to end up with humans on top - the old "great chain of being" that Stephen J. Gould has railed against so well in so many essays and books.
I've seen some attempts at showing this complexity gradient. The closest to convincing was one that described the number of different cell types in different organisms. Most bacteria had only one cell type, but some had two or three, depending on whether you agree that a resting cyst is functionally distinct from a normal cell (I agree). Various animals had larger numbers of cell types, culminating (of course) in mammals (including humans) with a large number of cell types. So, we're more complex than Drosophila melanogaster, possibly only by virtue of the fine parsing of cell types in our immune systems. But, D. melanogaster is an holometabolous insect - it undergoes complete metamorphosis, from larva (maggot) through pupa to adult (like butterflies). That's a huge shift in morphology and physiology, compared to humans that just get bigger, with a little allometry thrown in for interest. And I've seen descriptions of entire groups of animals as "relatively simple direct and nearly-direct developers", including arthropods! By some descriptions, even holometabolous insects are pretty direct in their development because they don't throw away nearly all their cells during metamorphosis, and occupy a similar environment and niche (things that eat things) - there are far weirder developmental modes than "eat like crazy, grow, then get sexy".

Anyway, I seem to have wandered off on a tangent, so I'll stop here. I'll probably encounter and rant about other words sooner or later.

* Insert lawyer joke here. Then express sympathy for the statement "let's kill all the lawyers, kill them tonight". Then go fucking read and understand the Shakespear play that first published that statement.


King Aardvark said...

I tried watching a little Law and Order: SVU the other day when I had nothing better to do. I simply couldn't, though: the amount of lawyeriness was hurting my brain.

I think engineers have an inbred hatred of lawyers and politicians.

As for nature, I occasionally have to remind some of my gullible inlaws that things aren't healthier for you because they are from nature - there are poisonous mushrooms, venomous snakes, and harmful bacteria in nature. It gets to the point where I want to start screaming at them, nut kicking, etc.

I took an environmental history course in 2nd year that touched upon the "nature" question. Unfortunately, even in a course such as that, no concensus was reached. Legitimate views ranged from "everything is part of the universe so it's all natural" to "anything that hasn't been influenced by humans is natural" (though this is problematic because, at least indirectly, every organism impacts the rest of the environment somehow). I guess the problem is, these are nebulous concepts that mean different things to different people.

I guess my advice is to not worry too much about it, even though I know that, as Pedantic Man, it's hard for you to do. But, after all, they're just words.

Anyway, the complexity discussion is a good one. Maybe another post going into more detail is in order.

TheBrummell said...

Anyway, the complexity discussion is a good one. Maybe another post going into more detail is in order.

Hmmm... that sounds like something I could do (I need to get the posting frequency up a bit around here, anyway). But I can't think of other examples from my own work right now. But, complexity must be something that comes up in engineering pretty regularly. Do people abuse the term there, too?

Necator said...

Monday Rant? It's Thursday...Mr. Pedantic!


But seriously, I think that most of us cannot define most of the words we use daily. Usually we defer to an example of something in lieu of a definition. However, that said, most of us know the 'ground rules' when we discuss something as natural vs. manufactured. That said, as scientists we all subscribe to scientific naturalism and believe that even manufactured human artefacts are indeed "natural" (vs. supernatural).

But this is all context dependent. Take the word 'evolution'. As biologists we use it to describe a certain pheneomenon of descent with modification first formalized by Darwin. However, he co-opted the word. According to the OED, the earliest record of the word 'evolution' goes back to 1647 and is defined as:

“The process of unrolling, opening out, or disengaging from an envelope”

Astronomers of course talk about stellar evolutions, which is of course also completely different.

And lot's not even talk about the word organic (chemistry) vs. organic (biological) vs. organic (grown without pesticides and while wearing Birkenstocks).

That said, it becomes impractical to define everything all the time and we adopt certain conventions.

I do in general however, get annoyed by these things as much as you.

Ruth said...

Um...ever thought of investing in a dictionary?

Necator said...

@ Ruth

There is only one English dictionary, and that's the OED. There is no 'a' dictionary!


TheBrummell said...

I have a dictionary at home (OED, I think, but not sure). It's these "ground rules" that bug me - they're another group of "unwritten rules" which means undefined which means uncritique-able.

"Organic" falls into the same category of abused words as "energy" and "quantum" - words that have good scientific definitions that lots of people (called woos) have ignored.

Carlo said...

But seriously, I think that most of us cannot define most of the words we use daily. Usually we defer to an example of something in lieu of a definition.

Oh Crick, there was an entire episode of Star Trek: TNG about a culture that communicated entirely by metaphors and examples. Didn't make any sense...

To me, this entire rant is just a symptom of something that routinely pisses me off: People defining something in their own heads, then expecting everyone else to hold the same definition.

I don't know how many times I've said things like, "That's not actually what that means" to people, only to get a response like, "Well that's how I use the word".

I'm trying to think of a suitable example but the only one I can think of is Organic. Ask people what Organic means and you'll get 50 different answers. It's stupid. In fact, I've heard of companies that define 'Organic' as crops that don't have pesticides or fertilizers that aren't found in 'nature'. However, if a chemical company extracts a 'natural' fertilizer from a transgenic plant, purifies it and sells it so a farmer to spray on their corn, it's still 'organic'!

Necator said...

It is important to be precise when discusing science for example, but I'm seroius when I mean that most of us propbably can't define most of the words we know. Supposedly, the typical vocabulary of a university graduate is ~60,000 words. Can you precisely define all of them, especially the abstract ones?

TheBrummell said...

Supposedly, the typical vocabulary of a university graduate is ~60,000 words.

I'd heard 100,000, but whatever. Correct within an order of magnitude, as they say. Either way, most people probably know and use on a regular basis a large number of words, some of which have rather slippery definitions.

Can you precisely define all of them, especially the abstract ones?

No, and that is of course your point. My point is that for some of them, forget about a precise definition, I want ANY definition that is both internally consistent and firm. In other words, I'd like a definition for "justice" that both addresses its apparent similarity with "revenge" and provides a framework for further discussion about such things as criminal law or the status of the profession of lawyers, or other relevant things. A word that means all things to everyone (or different things to everyone) is not useful for comprehensible communication.

Necator said...


About vocabularies, apparently its very hard to quantify and the estimate ranges from 50,000-100,000. I read somewhere that is was 60,000 active words (ie used) and another 40,000 passive (ie understood, but not regularly used). I mean who says schizothemia or epicaricacy? But I digress...

I think we can agree in principle that most of these ey words require defintion. But does justice not have a definition in law? It must, if "teacher", "teaching" and "education" have definitions in pedagogy. It is difficult to do in practice. There was a post on Sandwalk a while back where Larry Moran was trying to come up with a concise definition for evolution (the way biolgists know it) - because apparantly, there is still some debate as to it's precise definition. Not surprising since science itself always changes.

That said, you're right. I think that the general vocabulary of the typical person is decreasing and more words are being "depreciated" by being used out of context or conflated with other words.

One such word is 'literally'. Let us go back to a time in Necator’s undergrad:

Necator's roommate: "We laughed so hard my head literally fell off!"
Necator: "Um...did they sew it back on?"
Necator's roommate: "What?"
Necator: "Did they sew our head back on after it fell off?"
Necator's roommate: "What? No! It's just a figure of speech!"
Necator's: "So what you meant is that your head figuratively fell off."

Another such annoyance is the placement of prepositions such as ‘at’ or ‘for’ at the end of sentences unnecessarily. For example, how many times have your read/heard someone write/say, “We just wanted to know where they were at.” Rather than the proper, “We just wanted to know where they were.” Also, “Why did you do that for?” in lieu of the proper “Why did you do that?”

OK…I just got myself all agitated now. BTW, good rant…I’m just being captain Pedantic. Maybe we should have a Photoshop contest…Pedantic Man vs. Captain Pedantic.

TheBrummell said...

Necator, feel your hate... turn to the dark side... strike me down!

Mwa-ha-hahahahaha! er... who forgot to put safety railings around the reactor-pit? aieeee....

Anyway, yes, good points. As for "literally", you may find a certain blog entertaining:

As for "evolution", I still don't know what's wrong with:
"Change in allele frequency through time".

I'm not including "evolution" in my rant because I do have a good working definition. And Darwin didn't use the word "evolution" - that was somebody else (not sure who); this topic is discussed in great detail in one of S.J. Gould's books, possibly The Flamingo's Smile.

Necator said...

And Darwin didn't use the word "evolution"

I stand corrected. Nevertheless, the word was in use hundreds of years before in a different context from evolution by natural election.

Interestingly, Carlo and I have had a similar discussion about the word 'determinism'. He usually uses it in the context of genetioc determinism, whereas I usually use it in the context of philosophical determinism, a concept which precedes genetic determinsim by several centuries.

Necator said...

I just read a few of the blog entries on I think I'm going to be sick - literally.

TheBrummell said...

Necator, the examples you cite ("evolution"; "determinism") are both excellent. They fall into yet another category in my vocabulary, of words with multiple legitimate definitions, choice of which depends on context. I don't (yet) have a rant brewing on those... let me tackle "complexity" again, first.

TheBrummell said...

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