Language and the Big Lie of Science, by Adam Huttner-Koros

Ed: This post was written by Adam Huttner-Koros, who graciously allowed us to re-post it here. Adam is a science communicator and linguist, and often writes about the intersection of science and language at his blog, Words ApartYou can read more of Adam's work there and follow him on Twitter: @ATHuttnerKoros


Language and the Big Lie of Science

Recent reading I’ve been doing about the culture of science and scientific belief has introduced me to the term “the Big Lie of Science“. To me, it’s the perfect way to describe something that I haven’t been able to name until now. Namely, as Dr. Matthew Francis puts it:

Science at its heart is about evidence; the practice of science, however, is about humans.

The Big Lie of Science is this: Science, if we believe its idealised narrative, is empirical. It is culturally neutral. It is unbiased. It accepts diversity. It strives for greater knowledge and welcomes different perspectives. Basically, so the narrative goes, science is flawless in its pure search for truth.

The practice of science, however, does not match that narrative. It is a human endeavour, with people guiding its every step. People with emotions doing science, people with biases doing science, people with prejudices doing science. They do it in historical institutions, in learned academies and in distinguished organisations. They do it the way they were taught it, the way it’s always been done, the way it will always be done. In contrast to the idealised narrative, the actual doing of science is as human as you can get.

That means that sexism happens in science. Racism happens in science. And yet you still have senior scientists saying things like “Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?” when protests about colonisation and sovereignty in Hawai’i halt the construction of a telescope.

Where does language fit into this? For one thing, English has become the language of science. Remember, although the idealised narrative would have it that science can be done in any language (because of cultural neutrality), in actual fact, English in science has been granted a special assumption of neutrality that is not extended to other languages. This strikes me as similar to the way white men are portrayed as universally understood but coloured women are portrayed as only representative of their race and gender (see, for example, literaturefilms and televisionvideo gaming for instances of where this happens and its impact on people).

Every language has its own way of describing and classifying the world. This is formed through hundreds and thousands of years of people speaking, changing and documenting their language, leading to distinct linguistic behaviours and their own cultural baggage. As you might suspect, English is not immune from cultural baggage. Any science done in English is going to be stuck in the paradigms of that language.

What are the scientists losing by not discussing their work in their own language(s)? What is science losing? We can be sure that science would discover new and different things by working in different languages: people traditionally excluded would be let in, and traditionally ignored perspectives would be considered.

When we ignore the reality that the language of science is a key part of the practice of science, we ignore the fact that one of the reasons that science is a human endeavour is that it is done using human language. Science is currently being discussed primarily through the worldview of one particular language. I assure you, people and science are missing out because of it.