The Language of Science and Skepticism

I describe myself as a skeptic. It is sometimes difficult to describe to others what being a skeptic means. My family and friends sometimes misunderstand my intentions as a skeptic, and I find it is because they do not regularly participate in the “skeptical culture.” I regularly listen to several skeptical podcasts, read science publications, and work in my own small way to fight the pseudoscience I encounter in my life, which is what I think of as “skeptical culture.” My most important goal is to spread the culture of good science and critical thinking to those I encounter (which will become a much bigger goal as I begin teaching). When I encounter situations that require applying skepticism, I avoid the word “skeptic” as to avoid confusion. Because it is difficult to use the word skeptic in context with non-skeptics, using it can lead to confusion.

There are plenty of examples in the English language where terms with formal meaning can be misunderstood if not used carefully in context. In physics, some of the most fundamental terms are vital for understanding, yet students tend to relate these terms to their other more generic uses. Arnold Arons wrote in his 1997 book Teaching Introductory Physics that terms such as force, mass, velocity, and acceleration are, “…metaphors drawn from everyday speech, to which we give profoundly altered scientific meaning, only vaguely connected to the meaning in everyday speech” Often, students are given an operational definition for these physics terms, but without repetition and practice in the scientific context, students will remain “illiterate” to the language of physics.

For example, the use of the word “force” in physics can easily lead to misconceptions if not used carefully. A few of the key points on force summarized from Arnold Arons  are:

  1. There is a tendency to say a force causes a body to “move.” Students can confuse the term “move” with velocity, so instead care should be used to make sure it is understood a force causes a body to accelerate.
  2. Force is often interpreted as being given to, or a property of a moving body. It is important to emphasize force as an external effect and not resident in the body.
  3. The meaning of “net,” “resultant,” or “total” force should be developed carefully. The misconception can be that students think a force has been eliminated, instead of the net effect being the vector sum of the component forces.
  4. Differentiating between an impulse and continuous force is important to avoid confusion. Each requires explicit attention to their related effects.
  5. It is advisable to avoid the word “work” in regards to a force, as in a force “working” on an object. The verb “acting” is a better choice to avoid confusion with the physics concept of “work.”

It is important to be judicious in defining the language of physics and consistently using the proper context will help students overcome their misconceptions they bring to the class.

Stephen Novella wrote in 2008 about embracing the word “skeptic:”

Rather than deny our inner skeptics, we decided to alter the public perception of “skeptics.” I think, to a limited degree, we have seen some success with this strategy. For now, I think it is the best approach. Although we aren’t putting all our eggs in the skeptical basket either. Phil (the Bad Astronomer) has built the “bad” brand very well, and has been copied by Bad Science and others. I guess “bad” can be good. Others focus on “science” or “education”.  But nothing really captures everything we do and promote in a single word like “skeptic.” So I predict that we are stuck with it, at least for now.

Dr. Novella further writes a pretty good description of a “skeptic:”

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

The lesson I take from this is: it is likely harmful to lead with the idea that I am a skeptic. However, if given the opportunity to fully discuss what it means to be a skeptic, I will happily do so. Perhaps more importantly, I can demonstrate how to properly be a skeptic before putting the formality of naming this mindset. I only hope I do the term “skeptic” proud.

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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2 Responses to The Language of Science and Skepticism

  1. Stephen Propatier says:

    The lesson I take from this is: it is likely harmful to lead with the idea that I am a skeptic. However, if given the opportunity to fully discuss what it means to be a skeptic, I will happily do so. Perhaps more importantly, I can demonstrate how to properly be a skeptic before putting the formality of naming this mindset. I only hope I do the term “skeptic” proud.
    You may be correct self identifying as a skeptic can lead you to errors and confirmation bias that you are in fact skeptical.
    Eric your thoughtful introspection lets me to confirm that you act rationally, far more so than I.

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