Contextual connotations

18 July 2007

For modern readers of Jane Austen, changes in word usage can sometimes confuse the subtleties of her language. In particular, it took me a couple of tries to figure out what she means by ‘unexceptional,’ when used to describe personal conduct. I understand it as a compliment, implying that conformity is overwhelmingly common, and deviation from the status quo is by nature a bad thing.

Two similar examples from Patrick O’Brian (a great fan of Austen, by the by) are ‘sophistication,’ used in regard to food or medicine and seemingly equivalent to modern ‘contamination’; and ‘enthusiasm,’ which seems to invite the modern reader to add ‘over-‘ when they read it. A digression into the comparative mindsets that produce such usages would have been brilliant from John Ciardi, but such subtleties remind me of some examples from Chris Mooney‘s The Republican War on Science, which I just finished and found very informative, though it produced less outrage than I expected.

I’m interested to know who the target audience for the book was, because the level of information provided about the scientific topics and the political machinations seemed about the same. It definitely seems to have been written to be read by, if not “secular-progressive” partisans, then at least left-leaners, though. One reason I say that is Mooney’s use of what I’ll naively call a rhetorical device, specific instances of which I’ll provide page numbers for soon, I promise.

The point of language that jumped out at me first was the stress on cherry-picking of data and indeed whole studies and journal articles that Mooney (I believe rightly) calls Republican politicians out on. In contrast, when describing what he considers a laudable review process by strict scientists, he cites winnowing proposed changes to a document down from over a hundred by the decisions to “take into account . . . those deemed relevant.”

For anybody with my limited knowledge about the individual cases Mooney chose as examples, to say nothing of the bureaucratic process of funding and publishing science in general, it can be pretty tough to tell the difference between inappropriately cherry picking and acceptably deeming relevant. Some kind of literacy in scientific methods is required to even know that one may be okay and one not in a given situation. And literacy in scientific methods is a knowledge base that isn’t common in many educational venues.

In fact, Mooney’s non-definition of the process of science is exactly the second thing that made my antennae twitch while reading. In another example, Mooney describes what he regards as a sneaky tactic used in a political challenge to scientific work. Seeking to discredit the science in question, the sneakers “cleverly questioned its methodological underpinnings.” I think it takes some fairly detailed contextual knowledge to understand the distinction between this kind of activity and, say, that undertaken by Ian Hacking or Dr. Free-Ride, for that matter. Certainly the context of studying the process of inquiry as opposed to trying to use the results of the same process are one criteria for when examination should take place, but again, I think that puts the burden of proof on those least familiar with the formal process of science, since they are most likely to encounter it while it is being used to formulate policy. In other words, if you haven’t taught people how scientific results are arrived at, you can’t blame them for asking.



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