One of the most face-palming things about having a science background is when creationists or other science deniers say ‘It’s only a theory’ when dismissing a scientific theory such as evolution. This was recently the misconception that frustrated readers the most on The New York Times – Science Facebook page.
In everyday conversation, we tend to use the word ‘theory’ to mean a hunch, a guess or tentative hypothesis, as opposed to a known fact. But that’s not what a ‘theory’ means to scientists.
‘In science, the word theory isn’t applied lightly,’ says Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University. ‘It doesn’t mean a hunch or a guess. A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.’
Photo credit: Zohar Lazar
The word ‘proof’ is used in mathematics but not in serious science. I don’t recall ever seeing the word ‘proof’ used in this sense in a published scientific paper.
The prevailing scientific theory is the one that best explains the facts and has not been falsified, despite experimental attempts to do so. As Richard Dawkins says ‘Gravity is a fact. Evolution is a fact. The prevailing theory of gravity is Einstein’s. The prevailing theory of evolution is Darwin’s.’ Dawkins has also invited anyone who doubts the theory of gravity to test it by jumping out of a tenth-storey window.
This conflation of two different meanings of the word ‘theory’ is an instance of the equivocation fallacy. In logic, equivocation is an informal fallacy resulting from the use of a particular word or expression in more than one sense throughout an argument, leading to a misconception. It is a type of ambiguity that stems from a term having two distinct meanings, not from the grammar or structure of the sentence.
Skeptic Michael Shermer recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” I found it a confused piece on moral philosophy, and since I agree with my friend Spider-Man, that with great power comes great responsibility, I was troubled by Michel’s failure toward the broad public of that august magazine. So I wrote a rather snarky response. Shermer has in turn keyboarded a reply to me, entitled “Moral philosophy and its discontents,” which he published on his own Skeptic online. This is my counter-response, and will be the last thing I will say on the topic for a while, as my experience is that going beyond two rounds in these cases quickly leads to diminishing returns. Of course, Michael is free to write a third piece, if he wishes.
A few weeks ago, I went to an interesting talk by Dr. Steve Hallett at Purdue’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department. It was about how efficiency wasn’t going to save the planet, and he referred to the Jevons paradox/effect. Basically, even though we would like to think that more efficient use always means decreased use, historically, increases in the efficiency of many technologies have actually increased consumption.
This has to do with something called the rebound effect: when new technologies allow us to use a resource more efficiently, it drives down prices and can lead to an increase in resource consumption. Granted, I’m not an economist, so at first I was like, “Wow, the Jevons effect makes total sense!” Then I read more about it and apparently things are a lot more complicated. (Aren’t they always?)
While the rebound effect is pretty uncontroversial and well-supported by theory, the Jevons…
Buzzword bingo arrived in the contemporary workplace in the early ’90s, as a way of ridiculing the prevalence of management-speak. To play it, employees prepare cards containing some of the more dreaded terms, then tick them off when their colleagues use them, which tends to be in meetings.
Many of the expressions on this bingo card are some of my least favourite. Still, they can be unpicked: an “idea sherpa” is an expert guide, to “knife and fork it” is to tackle a problem bit by bit, and “face palming” is the act of slapping one’s face as a mark of personal exasperation after making an idiotic comment.
Some of the others are not just annoying or impossible to unpick, but also tasteless. Republican representative Jason Chaffetz reportedly urged Donald Trump to “open your kimono and show us everything” in a bid to see Trump’s tax returns in the run-up to the 2016 election. Not just horrifically icky, but ineffectual as well! Trump has still not released his returns.
André Spicer, professor of organisational psychology at the University of London, attributes the birth of management-speak to a management-training program of gobbledygook launched by the telephone company Pacific Bell in California in 1984. But what defines a buzzword (“buzzword” is itself a buzzword), and when these become clichés, is unclear. As Justice Potter Stewart said of hardcore pornography in the obscenity lawsuit against film director Louis Malle, “I know it when I see it”.
Buzzwords are derided as “brainlessly upbeat language” by some, but praised by others for being time-tested and familiar, with “sturdy truthfulness and comforting ancientness”. Management professor Robert Kreitner calls buzzwords “the literary equivalent of Gresham’s Law” — “Bad money drives out good money” — because they drive out ideas and/or disguise a lack of them.
Do buzzwords provide any benefits? Yes. Organisational jargon has its place in the professional arena. It can function as shorthand when used in a context shared by all involved. It can help newcomers to the organisational conversation to “enter the parlour” (as Kenneth Burke put it in 1941) and gain a sense of identity and comfort as part of a club.
But it is also clear that buzzwords can obfuscate and deceive.
From metaphor to cliché
Buzzwords, like most of our language, originate in metaphor. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are pervasive in everyday language, thought and action. A metaphor is a comparison in which a word or phrase in one domain of experience is applied to another domain. There’s no literal connection.
Take, for example, “strategic staircase”. When a buzzword first makes its appearance it can evoke a powerful image.
However, the buzzwords that “gain currency” (there’s a cliché for you) almost inevitably transform over time to become overworked and banal. In other words, they become clichés.
Nouning and verbing, abhorred by many language mavens, are commonly relied on to express corporate clichés. Nouning occurs when verbs are used as nouns in expressions such “fulfil an ask” or “set up a fail”.
Verbing occurs when nouns are used as verbs: “We are efforting to determine where the storm hit.” “Let’s kernelise the issues and tangibilise, bucketise and solutionise our problems.” Of course, the ugliest of the lot is “utilise”.
And how about adjectiving, turning nouns into adjectives: presenting an impactful, planful, bandwidth talk?
Plain language, please
Ever since the origins of business-speak there have been those who have tried to combat these words. Despite many such efforts to mock or combat these corporate clichés by organisations such as the Local Government Association in the UK, which once outlawed 200 words and expressions such as “predictors of beaconicity”, they have proved to be annoyingly resilient.
(Elsewhere, a New York bar, The Continental, which has happy hour seven days a week from 4pm to 7am, has banned the word “literally” in a bid to stop what it calls “Kardashianism”. Anyone using the word gets five minutes to finish their drink and leave. Anyone heard starting a sentence with “I literally” is ejected from the premises immediately.)
If you’re curious about the meaning of any frightful examples of the organisational twaddle that you come across and need them “unsucked”, go to unsuck-it.com, where you’ll get mostly cynical translations of buzzwords. You can also use Houston PR’s Buzzsaw to measure the prevalence of corporate-speak in your writing.
In his 2001 book, The War Against Cliche, Martin Amis makes a heartfelt plea: “All writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen, but cliches of the mind and of the heart.”
It’s a commendable aim for us all – but especially the corporate perpetrators of obfuscatory management-speak, who need “incentivising” to adopt plain language.
A kind reader sent me the email for the Natural History Museum, firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you want to write to them about this, feel free. Here’s my email:
To whom it may concern:
As an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry, I am deeply offended at your practice of covering up the human evolution exhibit lest it offend the Haredi Jews who go to your museum. Why would a museum hide the truth, even if it’s offensive to some religious believers? Is this proper in a largely secular state like Israel?
I hope you realize that by literally hiding the evidence for human evolution, you are misleading people: in effect, lying by omission. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether some people are offended because it goes against their upbringing; and by catering to the false beliefs of creationists, you are, in effect, censoring whatever science that…
I’d like to believe that yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong-un of the DPRK and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Demilitarized Zone was a harbinger of peace and prosperity, but that’s what I want to believe, not what I do believe.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, signed the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula,” at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has divided the two countries for more than six decades.
Following the signing ceremony, the two leaders clasped hands and hugged in a symbolic…
Perhaps you then start to appeal to science. But unless you’re unusual, you probably don’t know all of the details of the scientific proofs – is it something to do with ships and horizons? Or eclipses? And even if you know the details, unless you’ve indulged existing flat earth literature you are unlikely – right here, right now – to be able to cogently, concisely and comprehensively respond to the lengthy rebuttals flat earthers will give to each and every scientific proof.
You could double down. Getting knee deep in the vloggersphere, you might learn the details of the scientific proofs as well as painstakingly spelling out each error in every flat earther’s rebuttal.
I recommend against doing that. I recommend letting philosophy do the work. I recommend “epistemic contextualism”. To understand what this is, we first must understand a familiar idea: context shift. Consider the sentence “I’m tall”. Surrounded by five year olds at a rollercoaster park, the sentence is true – after all, I can get on all the rides and they can’t. But at the try-outs for the Harlem Globetrotters, my measly 5’11″ won’t cut it. So in that context, the sentence is false. Tallness is contextually sensitive. And it makes no sense to further ask whether I’m really tall or not. It only makes sense given a particular context.
Epistemic contextualists say that knowledge is the same. Imagine you’re transferring £10 to your daughter. You know her bank details. You tap them in. You send the money. But now imagine you’re transferring £50,000. Doubt sets in. Do you really know her bank details? Are you sure? Sensibly, you phone her to double check. The contextualist says that in the first case, you know her bank details. In the second case, even though nothing about you has changed, the context has. And in that case, you don’t know the details.
Moving the goalposts
That said, I claim the flat earther is doing a “Phoebe”. In one episode from Friends, Phoebe and Ross argue about evolution. Ross piles on the evidence thick and fast. Finally, Phoebe loses her temper. Can he be so unbelievably arrogant, she asks, that he can’t admit the slightest chance that he might be wrong? Sheepishly, Ross agrees that there might be a chance. Suddenly, Phoebe has him – Ross’s admission destroys his worldview. He’s a palaeontologist and, having admitted he can’t be sure about evolution, how can he “face the other science guys”?
Phoebe has (humorously) shifted context. Ross’s proof starts off relying on fossils in museums, books and articles on evolutionary biology, and so on. But Phoebe moves him to a “sceptical context” in which if there’s a hint of doubt about something – any possibility that you might be wrong – then you don’t know it at all.
Philosophers are well acquainted with these sceptical contexts. For instance, you could be plugged into the Matrix and, if you were, then every belief you had would be false. By bringing your attention to that, I put us in a sceptical context within which we don’t know much of anything. Most people, though, ignore this possibility – most people assume themselves not to be in a sceptical context.
It’s now easy to see how Ross can face the other science guys. He does know evolution is true in most everyday contexts. It is only in Phoebe’s weird context that Ross does not know evolution is true.
The flat earther’s argument is framed in a context where you can’t set aside the possibility that there’s a pervading global conspiracy – albeit one which somehow intermittently leaves glaring errors which give them away. In that context, you don’t know the earth is round. But in that context, nobody knows much at all and so this conclusion is simply unsurprising.
In the more everyday contexts that we care about, we can rely on testimony. We can rely on the fact that every educated physicist, cartographer and geographer never pauses to think the earth might be flat. And we are correct to rely on these things. If it was incorrect, we’d never get treated at hospitals – for in a context where we can’t trust theestablished laws of physics, how could we trust the judgements of medical science?
So do you know whether the earth is round? It turns out it depends on context. But in most regular contexts then, yes, you do. And that’s even though I doubt most people could prove it, right here and now.
Psychotic disorders are severe mental health conditions. They’re characterised by a “loss of contact with reality”, where the individual loses the ability to distinguish what’s real from what’s not. Psychotic symptoms can include visual hallucinations, hearing voices, or pervasive delusional thinking.
These can often present as a “psychotic episode” – which is a relatively sudden worsening of psychotic symptoms over a short time-frame, frequently resulting in hospitalisation.
The heaviest users of cannabis are around four times as likely to develop schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly) than non-users. Even the “average cannabis user” (for which the definition varies from study to study) is around twice as likely as a non-user to develop a psychotic disorder.
Furthermore, these studies found a causal link between tetrahydrocannabinol (THC – the plant chemical which elicits the “stoned” experience) and psychosis. This means the link is not coincidental, and one has actually caused the other.
People with certain gene variants seem to be at higher risk. However our understanding of these factors is still limited, and we’re unable to use genetic information alone to determine if someone will or won’t develop psychosis from cannabis use.
Those with these genetic variants who have also experienced childhood trauma, or have a paranoid personality type, are even more at-risk. So too are adolescents and young adults, who have growing brains and are at an age where schizophrenia is more likely to manifest.
The type of cannabis material being used (or the use of synthetic cannabinoids, known as “spice”) may also increase the risk of psychosis. As mentioned above, this is due to the psychological effects of the chemical THC (one of over 140 cannabinoids found in the plant).
This compound may actually mimic the presentation of psychotic symptoms, including paranoia, sensory alteration, euphoria, and hallucinations. In laboratory-based research, even healthy people may exhibit increased symptoms of psychosis when given THC compounds, with more severe effects observed in people with schizophrenia.
Many cannabis strains contain high amounts of THC, found in plant varieties such as one called “skunk”. These are popular with consumers due to the “high” it elicits. However with this goes the increased risk of paranoia, anxiety, and psychosis.
But can’t cannabis also be good for mental health?
Ironically, one compound found in cannabis may actually be beneficial in treating psychosis. In contrast to THC, a compound called cannabidiol (CBD) may provide a buffering effect to the potentially psychosis-inducing effects of THC.
This may occur in part due to its ability to partially block the same brain chemical receptor THC binds with. CBD can also inhibit the breakdown of a brain chemical called “anandamide,” which makes us feel happy. Incidentally, anandamide is also found in chocolate and is aptly named after the Sanskrit word meaning “bliss”.
CBD extracted from cannabis and used in isolation is well-tolerated with minimal psychoactive effects. In other words, it doesn’t make a person feel “high”. Some studies have found CBD is actually beneficial in improving the symptoms of schizophrenia. But one more recent study showed no difference in the effects of CBD compared to a dummy pill on symptoms of schizophrenia.
Perhaps this means CBD benefits a particular biological sub-type of schizophrenia, but we’d need further study to find out.
Would legalising make a difference?
It’s important to note most studies finding a causal link between cannabis use and psychosis examined the use of illicit cannabis, usually from unknown origins. This means the levels of THC were unrestricted, and there’s a possibility of synthetic adulterants, chemical residues, heavy metals or other toxins being present due to a lack of quality assurance practices.
In the future, it’s possible that standardised novel “medicinal cannabis” formulations (or isolated compounds) may have negligible effects on psychosis risk.
Until then though, we can safely say given the current weight of evidence, illicit cannabis use can increase the risk of an acute psychotic episode. And this subsequently may also increase the chances of developing schizophrenia. This is particularly true when high-THC strains (or synthetic versions) are used at high doses in growing adolescent brains.