Saturday, February 26, 2011

Language and its consequences

Words have consequences. It's said often enough that I can't nail down who said it first. (My gut feeling was that it was Dick Cheney, but google it and you get a bunch of answers.)

Anyway, I often wonder what are the consequences of English, the current global lingua franca. It has some quirks and chinks that, in certain contexts, make it very easy to misunderstand and to propagate misunderstanding.

A big one is the fact that our words for a million, a billion, a trillion etc. all sound alike--alike enough that a figure quoted when you're not paying attention is hard to remember accurately. Do we spend millions or billions on higher education? On defense? On subsidies to the tar sands?

It's not a trivial distinction. The difference between a million and a billion is the same as the difference between a thousand and a million. If I told you three million people died in the World Trade Center, you would immediately know I was off by several orders of magnitude. But when we learn that Government Program A costs a million dollars a year, while Program B costs a billion, we have a hard time feeling the difference and therefore deciding how we feel about them.

The other one that's occurred to me is the word "falsify."

Did you know that climate scientists have spent decades systematically trying to falsify the science on global warming?

Here's the definition of the word:

falsify [ˈfɔːlsɪˌfaɪ]vb (tr) -fies, -fying, -fied
1. to make (a report, evidence, accounts, etc.) false or inaccurate by alteration, esp in order to deceive
2. to prove false; disprove

The second definition is the essence of science. Scientists test theories, look for evidence, and try to disprove each other's theories. That's why you can trust science--it's set up so that whatever theory someone advances, there are a legion of very smart people whose careers can be made by successfully demonstrating that one of their rivals is wrong.

But the same word is used for fraud, for manipulating evidence, for concealing truth. It is the direct opposite.

This makes it all too easy for the exact same statement to carry two contradictory meanings, and thereby to sow confusion instead of understanding.

1 comment:

  1. not exactly in the same vein, but i was reading a headline ("Gadhafi forces bomb rebel-held town in east Libya") and had to read it several times before i made sense of it. I realised my brain fart was because there were three words in a row that can be used as both nouns and verbs.

    that and i was still on the top half of my first coffee.