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LINGUISTIC HABITS OF SCIENTISTS IRWIN D. J. BROSS, Ph.D.* I. A Linguistic Approach Will success spoil modern science? At the moment the human enterprise called "modern science" is enjoying unprecedented prestige and power in contemporary technological societies. But history is strewn with the wreckage of enterprises that have survived failure and adversity only to perish (or fossilize) during a period ofprosperity. Since science is an intellectual enterprise, it is especially vulnerable to linguistic difficulties. Two predecessors of the modern scientist—the ancient Greek philosopher and the medieval scholastic—worked their way into total linguistic impasse. They ended up as pretentious, impotent, and ridiculous creatures in the eyes oftheir contemporaries. A similar fate may await the modern scientist unless a start is made toward solving the linguistic difficulties that are becoming increasingly restrictive in the sciences. Any discussion of linguistic issues has to use language to talk about language. The resulting circularities and confusions are hard to avoid, but in an effort to do so I am going to switch over to a question-and-answer format. Question: What linguistic difficulties are you referring to? Answer: The linguistic difficulties in current science occur at all levels oflanguage and range from minor linguistic blocks to major impasses that can stall research in an entire specialty. However, it is rare for linguistic difficulties to be identified as such. Most ofthe time these research troubles are blamed on technical, administrative, personal, or other factors in the experimental situation. The part played by the living languages that are being used in the studies is usually overlooked. But many common research complaints—ifre-examined from a linguistic standpoint—turn out to be due, in part, to limitations ofcurrent scientificlanguages. Sometimes language plays little part in producing the problem but enters the picture * Director ofBiostatistics, Roswell Park Memorial Institute, Buffalo, New York. 322 Irwin D.J. Bross · Linguistic Habits ofScientists Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Spring 1963 in other ways—by blocking the efforts to find an effective solution, for instance. Question: What do you mean by a "living language"? Answer: By a hving language I mean one that is actually used for regular communication between human beings. Thus, the algebraic languages (such as logic, mathematics, and statistics) that appear in scientific papers come under the heading of living languages. Often one version of an algebraic language is used for communication between investigators, while another version is not used for communication except, perhaps, in the classroom. The latter version would be a dead language. Sometimes a Hving and a dead language share the same formal vocabulary (e.g., symbol system) and syntax (e.g., rules for combining symbols). For example, the integers ofordinary arithmetic that are used in scientific studies are part of living numerical languages, while many ofthe axiomatic systems for the integers represent dead languages. The additional "vital" component ofa living language consists of the linguistic habits ofthe human beings who use the language. Even in formal algebraic languages the linguistic habits have only a loose relationship, at best, to formal structure. This point shows up very clearly in the algebraic languages where, for example, the shuffling and reshuffling ofthe axiomatics of integral domains that have occupied mathematicians for a century has had no discernible effect on the way in which the integers are actually used. It is also quite clear that in considering the linguistic difficulties in actual research we are dealing with living languages . Question: Why do you putso much emphasis on this distinction between living and dead languages? Answer: Because it is so very easy to get offto a false start when we are trying to resolve some linguistic difficulty. There are important lessons to be learned from the long and bitter experience ofthe linguists who have studied the spoken languages. For generations the study of the spoken languages was dominated by the "classic" approach. Classicists regard some prescriptive or normative structure as the language (e.g., they study a dead language). The traditional English teacher, with his interminable list of "do's" and "don'ts," exemplifies the classic approach. However, in the past generation or so "modern" linguistics has shifted the focus to living languages. With this shift in focus...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 322-346
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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