Supposedly an early attempt at using a computer to translate from English into Russian almost caused an international incident by translating “or of sight, out of mind” as “blind crazy” and “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as “the booze is good but the meat stinks.” I am pretty sure the story is apocryphal, but it does point up some of the problems we have communicating our thoughts  to one another. 

The purpose of language is communication. When we communicate we are attempting to take a concept that exists in our own mind, often not in verbal form, and recreate the exact same concept in the mind of the person(s) we are communicating with. We are bound to fail in this attempt. The very best we can hope to achieve is some very imperfect approximation of what we had in mind. First we have to find words to express our thought, then arrange those words in as comprehensible a fashion as possible. Then the recipient must interpret those words according to their own understanding of their meaning. Already we are in deep trouble. We have countless opportunities for error. We might not agree on the meaning of a word. We may have inadvertently used a word or phrase capable of multiple meanings. The recipient might mishear or misread a word that changes the meaning, or may have an emotional reaction to a particular word that has nothing to do with its present use.

This problem is compounded by social considerations. Some words are considered so “loaded” that they simply cannot be used in some contexts (though, confusingly, they may be perfectly acceptable on others) and their accidental use by one who is unaware of this can cause communication to come to a screeching halt. The popular song “My Old Kentucky Home”, written in 1851, contains the phrase “the darkies are gay.” At the time nobody remarked on this, and in fact the song, far from insulting black people, was protesting the institution of slavery. Today, of course, referring to “darkies” would be quite out of the question, and “gay” would have a completely different connotation. 

This is particularly problematic in at least two fields: science and the law. In both cases for somewhat different reasons it is essential that meanings be as clear as possible. A system of laws is useless if those bound by it cannot agree on the meaning of each law. Scientists must clearly understand each others’ ideas to be able to check them for accuracy. Because of the need for precision in these and other fields, many branches of science use “terms of art.” These are words and phrases that used in that particular field have a special meaning, almost always narrower than the commonly accepted meaning of the term. This gives rise to the accusations by laypeople that scientists deliberately use language in a confusing way, calling it jargon and claiming that its purpose is to make science seem more complex and hard to understand than it really is, so that we need “authorities” to explain it to us. 

Sometimes these accusations are justifiable. There is no doubt that some scientists are guilty of overcomplexification in order to exclude outsiders from their field; like all pursuits, science is populated with a whole range of people. There is a similar spectrum as in the general population, of dishonesty, honest delusion, unscrupulousness, criminality and the like. As in the world, these are the minority, perhaps more so in science which is devoted to the attempt to find reliable truth and has tools to weed out error. More often the topics are genuinely complex, and the need for specialized language to describe them is real. 

This is especially true when dealing with the further reaches of physics, for instance. To the layman it seems that scientists are constantly proving wrong those who went before, but this is often a mistaken impression. Einstein did not prove Newton wrong, but rather discovered that Newtonian physics no longer applied under certain circumstances, and that when examining the behavior of subatomic particles an entirety different set of rules pertained. Newton was correct as far as he went, and the calculations required to land a spaceship on Mars within minutes of the predicted time and within a few hundred feet of the projected location (an astounding feat of accuracy) relied almost entirely on Newton (though of course without Einstein we would not have electronics and therefore no computers to perform calculations that would have taken lifetimes for an unaided mathematician). 

Many scientists are impatient with the need to explain themselves and their work to the general public, and unskilled at doing so, compounding the communication problem. There is a natural human tendency to regard whatever one is familiar with as easy to understand. Because we ourselves understand something, we assume others should also understand it. One might say the definition of easy is “I can do it!” This leads to experts explaining complex topics as though they were instructing rather dense seven year olds, which naturally does not endear them to their listeners.

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