Wishful Thinking and Semantic Specificity

Image: Anthony Canamucio In a recent commentary in Science, on the semantics of cloning,1 three eminent members of the scientific community asserted, "Scientists who are fluent in the language of any specific discipline can speak to one another using shorthand expressions from this dialect and can convey an exact understanding of their intended meanings." It is a comforting thought, but the preponderance of evidence does not support this grand claim, if by "can convey" the authors mean to sugg

Neil Greenspan
Aug 18, 2002
Image: Anthony Canamucio

In a recent commentary in Science, on the semantics of cloning,1 three eminent members of the scientific community asserted, "Scientists who are fluent in the language of any specific discipline can speak to one another using shorthand expressions from this dialect and can convey an exact understanding of their intended meanings." It is a comforting thought, but the preponderance of evidence does not support this grand claim, if by "can convey" the authors mean to suggest that, within a discipline, scientists always communicate "exact understanding."

A term can certainly have different meanings within a technical field and outside of it, and scientists put considerable effort into precisely defining terms. Perhaps scientists do sometimes convey exact understanding to their colleagues. Nevertheless, the ideal of absolute lexical specificity is as unreachable as the molecular equivalent. As one of the authors of the commentary in question notes in...

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