7/13/2007

POP GOES THE 'WEASEL' (WORDS, THAT IS)!

Vox Day, who has commited himself to an indepth exchange of views next month on evolution, has a revealing little piece on his blog called "Talk Origins, talk fast". He raises an interesting little muddle when he remarks that:

"But I have to say, the more I read on the pro-evolution side, the weaker their case looks. I mean, economists know that they don't understand everything about how the economy works, even though we have a pretty good understanding of certain processes. We have no problem admitting some of the things that we don't know... but I've never read more weasel phrases like "may be caused" and "might explain" and "could be attributed to" than in my recent perusal of various evolutionary papers."

I left a little response for Vox in the comments section that I thought might provide some badly-needed context, and I thought I would share that here as well:

With respect to the term 'weasel phrases', I'm afraid these are pretty typical of science writing, especially parts which discuss the merits of a hypothesis. Scientific generalizations are always held tentatively----even a statement previously regarded as a 'law' (such as, say, Mendel's principle of segregation) may be modified or rejected in the light of new data.

A failure to appreciate the tentative nature of scientific claims invariably leads non-scientists (including journalists) to make all sorts of errors in evaluating scientific claims. But here's some striking examples of that tentativeness, from one of the most important scientific papers ever written,
the original Nature article by Watson and Crick. Key expressions of that tentativeness are highlighted by yours truly.

The article begins with: "We wish to suggest
a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.)."

A bit later, it remarks: "The previously published X-ray data on deoxyribose nucleic acid are insufficient for a rigorous test of our structure. So far as we can tell, it is roughly
compatible with the experimental data, but it must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked against more exact results."

Finally, in the well-known conclusion: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated
immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Wow, look at all the 'weasel words'! Let me suggest
that some posters here might have habitually misread such statements, possibly due to a lack of understanding of the nature of science.

3 comments:

nicole said...

I don't get why he's making the comparison to economists. All scholarly papers are like this, not just ones in the hard sciences - the social sciences are the exact same way. I suppose I've read some papers in the humanities (say, in cultural studies) that don't use that type of tentative language, but I know that in my field (linguistics) it is exactly the same way, and every paper I've ever read in economics, political science, library science, etc etc etc has used such "weasel words" as well.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

I suspect that, despite claims to the contrary, Vox really doesn't operate like a scientist. He's an intellectual, a bright guy who has read some science and (I bet) a lot of technology, and he confuses the application of those things with doing science. You find this attitude with a lot of Web-savvy creationists: they are convinced that because they can read and write programs that this somehow qualifies them as a scientist, which of course it doesn't.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

I probably should add that Vox Day does not appear to be one of the latter type of creationists. Like I said, he's pretty bright and appears to be well read.