Jeremy Côté


Qualifying Language

I used to hate reading a text when someone would write with qualifying language (this was also prevalent in how many people I looked up to spoke). Why couldn’t they just go ahead and say the thing that they wanted to say? Why did their have to be language such as “this suggests” or “I can’t say for sure”? It would drive me insane because I believed that writing that made an impact doesn’t need this extra baggage surrounding statements.

Before then, I was reading a lot of material on domains such as design, writing, and generally creating some type of art. What this meant was that the goal was to connect with the audience, and this was best done in direct language. There was no need to say things in a roundabout way. Instead, the artist could take a direct stab at the issue and touch the person viewing the piece.

This is the mindset I brought with me when I started to read more material by scientists, and that’s where I started seeing all this qualifying language. Like I said, it did not make sense. Why wouldn’t they just communicate without putting clauses on all of their statements?

Slowly, I found the answer: scientists are trying really, really hard not to fool themselves. In a nutshell, a good way to explain the scientific process is that we are trying to look for ways that we are fooling ourselves. Throughout history, we’ve seen over and over that humans can be easily fooled into thinking something is true when there is actually a much larger picture. I highly doubt our ancestors thought there was anything other than what they could see with their eyes (except for perhaps a god). Then we smashed this perception in the 19th century by discovering that light is a wave and can have wavelengths that we cannot perceive.

In particle physics, we’ve seen a complete makeover in regards to what we think the universe “truly” is like. We went from just seeing matter to thinking about the atom to breaking that apart into fundamental particles. Finally, we pushed that even further by saying that these fundamental particles are part of a wave function. In the end, we’ve gone from what we can see to having the entirety of the universe being composed of wave functions.

Obviously, this is a radical change with respect to our first thoughts about the universe. Therefore, what we’ve found is that the scientific process has shown us just how wrong we are. As such, I believe most scientists have a certain fraction of skepticism in their minds when approaching any kind of phenomenon. It’s not personal, it’s that history has shown us that it is the safe bet to make.

The truth is that a scientist should be willing to believe anything, as long as the requisite proof is supplied. If a scientist won’t believe a statement after sufficient proof is given, then there is a problem, but that tends to not happen when someone says a comment like this.

What I find fascinating is that, if the person really believed in what they said and could say that it makes sense to anyone, there shouldn’t be a problem with supplying good evidence. If not, there should be at least an explanation as to why evidence is hard to come by.

Remember, lack of evidence doesn’t mean a statement is false, but it sure won’t convince me to believe in it.

Unfortunately, I get into many situations in which those claiming extraordinary things cannot bring any proof, and then they get upset that I won’t believe them. However, I couldn’t do anything better. It’s difficult to accept a proposition on the basis of someone just telling you so. As a science student, I’ve learned that this is a terrible way to go about finding knowledge about our universe. Trusting the human senses because they feel right might seem okay intuitively, but that’s the problem. Humans don’t have an intuition that is good for some of the deepest questions about the universe, since they are happening at a realm that is basically invisible to us. Therefore, we must safeguard against any attempt to “reason things out” without actually using tests and logic and theory. Without the scientific method, we would still believe that the world is only made up of components we can see.

So what does this have to do with qualifying language?

It means that scientists are careful about what they say. It’s fun to say something with certainty, but that technically never happens with science. Science is a process in which we can give ourselves a “good idea” (and sometimes a great idea) about the world, but we can never be one hundred percent certain. This is what makes science what it is. Consequently, the responsible scientist will use qualifying language because they know it’s good to be as specific as possible about what we know. Apart from perhaps a few minutes of fame, there’s absolutely no long-term reason that would make it a good idea to oversell a scientific achievement. It will always catch up to you, and so it’s not worth it. Therefore, scientists are fond of using qualifying language in order to remind us that they don’t have all the answers.

Now, I always shake my head when I see someone write without qualifying language, particularly because it’s not completely honest. The truth is almost never absolutely declarative, and I believe we’d do much better to remember this.

Qualifying language isn’t a sign of weak communication or “not believing in one’s message”. It’s about being honest about what you know and what you don’t.