The scientists dilemma of language

 Our TEDx Speaker Philipp, is a scientist that is faced with an interesting yet exciting delimma.

Our TEDx Speaker Philipp, is a scientist that is faced with an interesting yet exciting delimma.

As many scientists, I was first motivated to pursue a career in science out of idealism, motivated to change the world for the better. I am using scientific methods, language and formulas to make sense of the world. Well, at least of this little pocket of knowledge that is my research, shooting Lasers at Nanoparticles and trying to understand the amazing properties of very small things. But I am faced with a dilemma: Only a tiny fraction of people actually understand what I say and argue in my work. To generate any impact on the world – that is not enough. I believe, if people had a clearer idea what science is and how scientists think, we could make some real progress…

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To start with, it is always good to keep in mind that scientific models rarely prove anything – some models work very well, of course, but on a conceptual level it only means the symbolism we use to describe that certain thing works well. Models that describe natural, observable phenomena exceptionally well are, for example, found in simple physics (such as mechanics). When it comes to theories about the “Big Bang” or the origin of life, it is much less cut and dry. Complex systems, such as the human body, are much more difficult to grasp. Berkeley University has an interesting list of common misconceptions for anyone who is interested in this idea.

Scientists should (and usually do) work in models, transcribing observations into mathematical formulas and scientific language. Through experimentation we test the predictions gained by applying these models.  We can, of course, rate the quality of the predictions made and if results from experiments consistently match the predictions, we will accept and use that specific model – until we come up with a better one. All this is communicated using an adapted version of English with a whole range of new words as well as mathematics, the language of logical connections - the language of science.

Being a scientist who likes to venture outside of my community of fellow scientists, I have noticed subtle differences between “us” and the broader population, even if we all speak English:  The narratives that scientists put out, the language that science is communicated in, can easily be misunderstood. Energy, for example, is measured in joule and scientists would naturally understand it as electrical energy, heat energy, chemical energy, or potential energy. We know how to calculate it and we know formulas that contain energy. Many non-scientists talk about energy as well, but that would often be in terms of people or places: “There was such a good energy in the room”. And every now and again I cringe, when someone uses concepts from quantum mechanics and applies them to argue in the realm of spirituality, with no regard that the energy that quantum mechanics talks about has a fixed unit and a fixed definition. Language matters! And language is tricky, if the same words mean different things. It matters which definition of energy is the basis of a certain argument.


Unfortunately, when scientific results reach the public perception, things can get very blurry and language gets mixed up. This is so important, that I would like to take a step back and think about language for a moment. Scientists experimenting with language identified some remarkable correlations between language and how we make sense of the world as individuals. All of us have languages that we grew up with, the languages that we speak in every-day life, as well as a specific jargon that we use in our professional lives, in our subcultures and in specific environments. When we don’t speak the same language, all we can do is guess. We are never really sure what is communicated, we lose subtleties first. Many will agree that humor, which plays with subtleties of language, is incredibly hard to understand in any language that is not your own. But the nature of our mother-tongue has even more severe effects. Language shapes how we perceive the world around us, an idea most of us are not aware of. It seems somewhat abstract. There is exciting research conducted at Stanford University and at MIT, asking people who grew up speaking different languages, to lay out cards on a table. Most Europeans or Americans would lay them out, left to right, no big deal. In contrast, Hebrew speaking people would lay them out right to left, the way Hebrew is written. Aboriginal people consistently lay them out east to west, the way the sun travels across the sky – no matter how their orientation in a room. I find that fascinating! This seemingly simple experiment is just one of many that serves to highlight just how much our first language affects our decision making, our thinking and our perception. Our brains are better at distinguishing colors if our languages have more words for specific shades. Russian people are better at distinguishing shades of blue, because Russian language has dedicated words for lighter and darker blue. Himba people of Namibia, just like the old Greek or Japanese people, do not discriminate between green and blue in their language. Experiments show that they also have bigger trouble discriminating between these colors, when presented with color wheels where one section has a slightly different shade.

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In one study, after watching a video clip of people accidentally breaking things, Spanish people will have much more trouble than British people trying to remember who broke what – probably because in Spanish you would not name the subject. You would say “The vase broke” instead of “Philipp broke the vase”. Just like in Spanish, the same is true for Japanese speakers.

As a good metaphor, we can understand language as our operating system. The voice in our heads explaining and rationalizing our experiences uses language – and that language imposes structures, metaphors and even determines the interpretation of sensory data coming in. I believe we could severely improve our communication, if we were aware just how much our language shapes our thinking. We could empathize when people from different places have different ideas. We seem to be quite hopeless creatures stumbling through the world, unaware of how and why we rationalize the world around us in the way we do. If we can identify and conceptualize our operating system, I believe we can get closer to understanding each other.

If we are honest, even for 99% of us scientists, the Big Bang could be as good as any creation story – we are not experts in the field (I, for example, work on fuel cells), most of us don’t really understand the formulas used to describe the Big Bang and I certainly haven’t read any of the papers on it. Scientists (and many people from the West) just tend to choose this particular story over the other creation stories, because of who tells it and because of the language and the symbolism used to tell it. It is part of our own identity, our own language, so it just feels more right to me than the alternatives. If I am strictly scientific in the sense of a healthy scepticism, can I really be sure? The answer is no.

Of course, each of us will have our own “truth” with regard to this matter and I am very interested in how we get to this personal truth. Why do certain narratives just feel right, why do others not. If we all are intelligent human beings, we should all get to the same conclusions, should we not? But we do not. And I think that is a beautiful thing, something that can help us to unlock, what is truly human and what is learned. Scientific language is a part of that – but it is just a part. We can only learn about the true potential of the human brain, if we step as far away from our own operating system, our own language, as possible. We will not experience the full potential of our brand new computer, if we only run the same old Windows 95 we did 23 years ago.