The Correct Use Of Labels

One never knows what the mail will bring and how that can change our plans. I had planned to write another mathematical puzzle article with a basis on decision theory, and not dwell again on the importance of understanding the words used in making decisions, but then the November issue of Natural History arrived. It reminded me that correct use of labels is critical to decisions.

For those of you who do not read Natural History, the November issue is devoted to Darwin and Evolution. In reading through the various articles, one is impressed with the constant justification that the various scientists and scholars feel obligated to make when describing aspects of what is one of the most elegant and fruitful pieces of work ever done by humankind.

Why should such defense be necessary? One reason is that the anti-evolutionists thrive by the misleading use of our language. They throw around terms like “theory” and “proof” without justification or support. And since making effective decisions is more than simply understanding the mathematics, exploring how language can be used to mislead is a critical part of studying decision theory.

Let’s start by distinguishing between theories and experimental facts. Evolution itself is a well-documented fact. It is just as firmly placed on experimental grounds as F = MA. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution is still a theory just as Newton’s theory of motion is a theory. Note: they are not “just theories.” They are well-established theories. And both Darwin and Newton’s theories have evolved themselves. Einstein modified, extended, and evolved Newton’s theory, and in a similar way, Darwin’s ideas have been modified, extended, and evolved. The difference is that no one seriously questions Newton, but substantial numbers of people still deny the elegant and overwhelming evidence that Darwin’s theory is the validated basis of thousands of observations and predictions.

Near where I live is a center devoted to what they variously call “Creation Science” or theory of “Intelligent Design.” Such people are certainly within their rights to believe what they wish, and even to attempt to convince others to reject simple science in favor of more complex deliberate ignorance. However, I do wish they would use the language correctly. “Creation Science” is not a science, and “Intelligent Design” is not a theory. Long time readers of this column will recognize both terms as describing conjectures. Neither even rises to the level of hypothesis.

Getting drawn into a debate over the validity of evolution is about as illuminating as debating the flatness of the Earth. Knowledgeable people don’t waste their time. However, I think that investigating why a vocal fraction of the population chooses to deny well-established facts that are consistent with a concise explanation is a valuable pursuit.

Some of the attraction of the deliberately ignorant approaches must be due to the clever names given to them. “Intelligent Design” sounds positive and seems to incorporate a defensible idea within just two words. After all, the alternative would be “Unintelligent Design” and who wants to be associated with unintelligent anything? We see similar attempts to motivate by naming in the self-chosen names of the two sides of the abortion debate. “Pro-Life” is positive and implies that anyone who disagrees is “Anti-Life.” “Pro-Choice” is positive and implies that anyone who disagrees is “Anti-Choice.” Details such as what is life and what is a valid choice are swept away in the naming. Of course, each party prefers to refer to the other with a less positive name to try to overcome any benefit the name might confer. So we have Pro-lifers calling the other side “Pro-Abortionists,” and pro-choicers calling the other side “Anti-Abortionists.” This in spite of the fact that many pro-choicers do not support unconditional rights to abortions at all, and not all pro-lifers would deny all abortions under all conditions.

Similarly, followers of “Intelligent Design” and its cousins like to call Darwinian evolution “Atheistic” and “Godless.” However, neither appellation is justified in the general case. By contrast, most credible scientists refer to promoters of creed-driven alternatives as “pseudo-scientists.” Frankly, I think that is much too kind, but since I can’t think of a noun that means “deliberately denying knowledge in favor of optional ignorance,” it will have to do.

Naming yourself and your opponents carefully can bias the decision making process of the vast majority of humankind without regard to the underlying validity of the claims. BTW, I’m Pro-Learning. Anyone who disagrees with me must be Anti-Learning.

For those who wish to delve further into decision theory without wading through a lot of equations, I have posted a tutorial on elementary decision theory. It shows examples of faulty physicians’ diagnoses (important for those considering surgery) and how to evaluate anti-terrorist activities (important for everyone). That tutorial can be found here.

[tags]labels,natural history,darwin,evolution,misleading language,intelligent design[/tags]