Sunday, May 14, 2006

A defining moment

Definitions are wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because carefully chosen definitions bring thought into focus. But terrible because conflicting definitions are the source of endless misunderstandings. Try to define something carefully and it won't be long before someone suggests that "it's just semantics!" Translation: you're wasting your time on words instead of what really matters.

While I agree that it's invalid "to draw conclusions about what is true about the world based on what is true about a word" (I'm quoting from the Wikipedia page on semantics), that hardly makes semantics irrelevant! Semantics is, after all, the study of meaning. I don't imagine anyone has ever objected that "it's just meaning!"

The trouble is, some words carry around a lot of baggage. As I've just indicated, an unfortunate example is semantics itself! Lately, I've been thinking a lot about evidence. Not easy to define, but everybody seems to think it's a good thing. Similarly comments apply to science and research, both of which are favorites of advertisers—a sure sign that these words evoke powerful responses.

A couple of naive approaches to definitions deserve mention. One is simply to resort to a dictionary. This raises the (oddly recursive) question of whether dictionaries are or should be descriptive or normative. The fact that multiple definitions are often given for a word suggests a descriptive role. But I think that at the same time they try to be authoritative. The fact that different dictionaries sometimes offer strikingly different definitions suggests that this is an impossible task. Language is fluid in part because thought is fluid. Evolving concepts that are abstract and controversial don't submit to anyone's putative authority. So while dictionary definitions do provide grist for the mill, they're hardly definitive the last word beyond criticism.

In my most recent post on evidence, I cited the Oxford English Dictionary, focusing not only on the definitions offered, but also on the etymology of the word. Word origins can inform a definition, but it's naive to rely on them exclusively. Science, for example, derives from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge. Yet science surely means something different from simply knowledge.

For example, I know a number of quotes from Shakespeare's plays, but that kind of knowledge isn't science. The Wikipedia entry on science notes that science is often used informally to mean "any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it". For the sake of clarity let's call "the knowledge gained from it" scientific knowledge. But when we say science, do we really mean "any systematic field of study"? I would prefer to use the word research for that purpose. For example, I don't consider theology to be a science, but have no problem with the term "theological research".

Science, as I understand it, is fundamentally observational. I've made the same point about evidence, and I think the two are clearly related (but more of that in another post). An interesting test case is "computer science", sometimes known as "computing science" since its focus is really on computing more so than computers ("Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." - Edsger Dijkstra). But is it a science? Well, the scientific method can be applied in computing science, in the design and analysis of empirical studies, but most of computing science is about mathematics.

And mathematics, while strongly associated with science, isn't a science. I believe that science is a good thing, but not all good things are science. I also believe that science gets at truth (and that's a challenging notion), but it's not the only thing that gets at truth. That the Earth revolves around the Sun is a truth established scientifically. Pythagoras' theorem in Euclidean geometry is a truth established mathematically. Both are objective truths in that anyone can, in principle, verify them. I suspect that there are also subjective truths that may be established using entirely different methods. The relationships between these different truths and the methods used to establish them strike me as profoundly interesting.

I still haven't offered a definition of science, and in fact I suspect that ultimately what may be most important is the pursuit of a definition rather than a definition per se. I would provisionally define science as the practice of the scientific method—clearly a bit of a dodge! The Wikipedia entries on science, the scientific method, and the philosophy of science provide useful background, but no clear consensus. I find myself in agreement of much of what is written in those entries, but not all of it. (For example, Karl Popper's perspective on science is prominent, but I have my doubts.)

Science, technology, and evidence-based medicine

Notably, discussions of science often focus exclusively on natural science. But the essence of science is careful observation and reasoning from observation, which clearly can be applied to any observable phenomena. This obviously includes human behaviour, notwithstanding the formidable obstacles that arise. The scientific method can also be applied in evaluating technology. Evidence-based medicine is an example of this. While natural science is of central importance in guiding the development of healthcare technologies—be they drugs, devices, surgical techniques, what have you—the evaluation of their performance is not a matter of natural science. The application of good science may lead to a technology that turns out not to work, or to have unanticipated adverse effects that preclude its adoption. Conversely, useful technology need not result from the application of science. Many drugs, for example, have come to us by non-scientific routes. Ultimately, regardless of their origins, healthcare technologies need to be evaluated to determine how well they work, and what adverse effects they may have. Why they work the way they do is of secondary importance.
Bookmark and Share


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Nick, that is pretty deep. I have to agree that words are a powerful thing, and are often de-sensitised due to over-use, or wrong use. THanks for giving me more to thing about!

9:17 AM, May 18, 2006  
Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...


Nick, yes these are pretty deep issues. I also hold the view that without systematic use of language, good communication is impossible. May be words should be no different than numbers – reflect uniform and precise thought or quantum of it. But, unfortunately, that’s not how it is – it is the non-science (perhaps nonsense), careless, dishonest, and casual behaviour that evolves the loose, ambiguous language of ours. Perhaps, one way to minimise this adulteration of language, besides being honest in choosing the best words that reflect ones thoughts, is to go back into the etymology of a particular word. If in this exercise it manifests that the word has lost its original virginity and precision, and is being wrongly and variably broadened and made imprecise, then perhaps this calls for a search for, or may be even birth of, another word. That is actually why I thought the word "witness" (an honest testimony, marker, reflection of reality) is more appropriate than the word “
"evidence" in a search for the truth – because (may be?) it is the mysterious truth that actually is both the evidence and the reality!

Just a bit of digression:

Being a bit inclined towards religions, I have realised that the similarity of thought in them, just like the dissimilarity between, arises in how words are understood. In fact, the smaller religions (sects?) within a larger religion are nothing but outcomes of variable interpretation of words. And only very lately I am also beginning to appreciate this for the heterogeneity found between the larger religions themselves. In some vague sense, I can now appreciate the oneness of the several scriptures – and I know for me it’s just the beginning. I conclude, may be a bit prematurely, that most extant religions are merely specific "readings" of specific scriptures based on ones understanding of words employed. To me, the "noise" in thought, is a creation of imprecise language.


I tend to hold a broader view of the domain of science and not restrict it to verifiable observations only. Science to me is the knowledge of Truth, which can only be acquired by being honest, systematic, and transparent. It reveals and/or establishes ORDER, through which comes understanding. This could be pursued by systematically, honestly, and transparently: observing and interacting with nature (epidemiology, geology, physics etc.), building concepts (mathematics, logic, and philosophy etc), understanding personal and collective experiences and their outcomes (morality and values), formulating working methodologies (economics, political science, governance, law, etc.), so on and so forth. However, I don’t mean to say all of the known contents of science are true, because sometimes they may not have been acquired quite so systematically, honestly and transparently. But then whatever in science is not true is actually not science!

10:06 AM, May 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I like to say when someone claims "that's just a semantic argument!" is:
"Thank you. I agree that my argument is meaningful." ;)

5:38 PM, December 01, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Well said!

7:17 AM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

"Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he or she has been born - the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people's experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things." - The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley

Try some books and not wikipedia - experience their thoughts first hand, rather than taking the "definition" or concept of their scientific pursuits and insights.....

8:41 AM, December 23, 2016  
Blogger zsxd02 said...

Thank you for reading this.

ทางเข้า maxbet



11:51 PM, January 15, 2018  
Blogger Jane Wembli said...

Hello” thank God for the wonderful healing spell power which Dr Camala render to my life which oracle support, i was been diagnosed with HIV-AIDS over 7years now which has lead me to unemployment and loosing my relationship with my fiance after he heard that i am suffering from the VIRUS, i tried begging him to allow me stays with him, but he still insist on letting me out of his home, until a friend of mine on Facebook from SOUTH AFRICA told me more about Dr Camala the great healer, that he is going to help restore and healed my diseased with his powerful healing spell, she send me of Dr Camala email address and i quickly contacted him, and he replied to after 30mins of my message that my disease is a little and minor disease, that he will solved the disease immediately only if i can accept all he requested from, i told him yes, because truly i know that ” HIV-AIDS IS A WICKED AND DEADLY DISEASE I EVER KNOWS “. so i did all he want from me and surprisingly on Friday last week Dr Camala called me that my problems is solved that i should hurry up to the hospital for a checkup, which i truly really did, i confirm from my doctor that i am now NEGATIVE AND NOT LONG +, I jump up and was crying heavily because truly the disease drive alot of things away from my life, my friends, my cousin, my fiance and relatives, but now since i was confirm NEGATIVE- my lost friends and fiance has been back to me begging for forgiveness, i have forgiven them and now we are now best of friend. again i will say to Dr Camala that he is blessed and may the almighty God which i serve raise him and his family to the higher level in life. Thank and god bless. Please email Dr Camala for healing and solution now at = or whatspp him +2349055637784

10:06 AM, February 26, 2018  
Blogger Unknown said...

My husband left me for a good 3 years now, and i love him so much, i have been looking for a way to get him back since then. i have tried many options but he did not come back, until i met a friend that darted me to Dr.Paul a spell caster, who helped me to bring back my husband after 2 weeks. Me and my husband are living happily together today, That man is great, you can contact him via email l gbojiespiritualtemple@gmailcom Now i will advice any serious persons that found themselves in this kind of problem to contact him now a fast solution without steress.. He always hello, now i call him my him now he is always online email ( or or contact him ons his website: ) or contact him on his whatsapp mobile line +2349066410185

1:26 PM, May 17, 2018  
Blogger Crystal said...

Henderson Elizabeth
Dr joy is a trust worthy spell caster and he will be of great help to you. I never believed in spell casting but After 4 years of marriage my husband left me because I lost my womb, and i was unable to give birth to children. I felt like my life has come to an end, and i almost committed suicide, i was emotionally down for a very long time, but thanks to this spell caster called Dr joy whom i met online after my friend Becky Ross told me how he also helped her to bring back her husband in less than 2 days. I believed her and decided to give Dr joy a try and i contacted him on his email and explained my problems to him. He laughed and told me that In less than 2 days, my Husband will come back to me again, and that he will restore my womb and i will give birth to children. At first i thought it was a joke but i took courage and believed as Dr joy has said and it did happen just as this Great spell caster said, My husband called me and was crying, begging for forgiveness. I forgive him and today i am so glad that all worries and problems has gone away, and we are even happier than before, another good news is that i am pregnant now, and very soon we will have our baby. Dr joy is really a gifted and a powerful spiritual man and i will not stop publishing him because he is a wonderful man. I advice you all If you have a problem and you are looking for a real and genuine spell caster to solve all your problems just Contact Dr joy on his email on because he will always help you to solve all problems. Once again thank you Dr joy. Thank you, thank you.
you can also call him or add him on Whats-app: +2348100452479.

7:28 PM, June 26, 2018  
Blogger vivia said...

I'm Olivia Megan from United State,I'm happy that my husband is back into my life after 2 years of divorce, Dr.AKHERE brought my husband back today and i am so excited. I got DR AKHERE email online when a lady was testifying about the strong spell caster who restored her marriage then I said to myself since he helped her, he can also help me,so i emailed him and told him the pain that I was going through,and he told me what to do and i did it,Then he did an urgent Love spell for me. 48 hours later, my husband came back home and with lots of love and joy,and he apologized for his mistake,and for the pain he caused me. Then from that day,our marriage was now stronger than how it were before, All thanks to DR AKHERE. Our family is complete again. If you are going through Divorce/Broke-up since DR AKHERE helped me, he can also help him at: ,Thank you DR AKHERE for saving my broken Marriage and brought my husband back to me.
Email him:

10:28 PM, July 26, 2018  
Blogger กวิน ฮา said...

thank for good sharing,....

golden slot
ทางเข้า goldenslot
goldenslot online

2:58 AM, August 29, 2018  

Post a Comment

<< Home