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Are Scientists Allowed to Redefine Words?

Posted in Language, and Life


Have you ever seen the following quotation?

Intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad.

Or maybe it’s “Knowledge is knowing . . .” but that’s redundant. I don’t know who first came up with that bit of pseudo-wisdom, but it’s wrong and I don’t want to shame its inventor by name here in public.

People knew what fruit was and that tomatoes weren’t it long before modern botany’s taxonomic schemes were invented. Modern botanists have concluded that tomatoes and fruit belong to the same class? Great. So do humans and dogs. But that doesn’t make dogs human. It makes us both “mammals.”


Have you ever seen the following quotation?

The table looks solid, but science tells it’s actually mostly empty space.

People knew what empty space was, and that tables aren’t it, long before modern particle physics. You can walk through empty space. You can’t walk through a table. And if a table were mostly empty space it wouldn’t work as a table. You’d have to put your mug down very, very strategically.

“But there’s a huge distance between the nucleus of an atom and its electrons.”

Well, if by “huge” you mean, “unimaginably tiny,” sure.

But granted that the distance between nucleus and electron is much larger than the distance between one side of the nucleus and the other (if such terms have any meaning when we’re describing “The Quantum Realm”), that sort of “distance between” is simply not what “empty space” means. It’s not “a region through which you — a human being — could move (or at least stick your arm) without hitting anything like a table or chair.”


Science only “contradicts common sense” or “naive experience” if you think that scientists are allowed to (a) make up new definitions for old terms, then (b) pretend they’re talking about the same thing everyone else was, and finally (c) accuse everyone else of using the terms incorrectly.

Get your own words, scientists. We were already using these.*


*This post is not a sly way of making a comment about gay marriage. As far as I can tell, both sides of the argument over the definition of marriage think they’re appealing to facts everyone should be able to see using the moral intuition all humans share. Neither side thinks wearing a white lab coat gives you the authority to decide what a normal, everyday word means.

Nor is this post a criticism of science. What I’m criticizing is (a) the conclusion that people didn’t know what they obviously did know just because scientists have the bad habit of using common terms in uncommon ways, and (b) the idea — based on (a) — that science and common sense are at odds just like religion and common sense are often thought to be at odds.


  1. Ezra

    I hear ya! It’s like my old Baptist Sunday school teacher who insisted that Jonah was swallowed by some huge fish, and definitely couldn’t be a whale, because the Bible says “fish.” The distinction between a fish and a whale is just a made up category that we have now, to the people in the Bible, most things that lived in the ocean were probably grouped together! Also on that note, Christians should be a lot more careful drawing optimistic conclusions from scientific studies, because often, the Christians don’t really understand what the study really implies.

    June 3, 2015
  2. I first heard the tomato bit as an explanation of Dungeons and Dragons attributes. In full, it went, “Intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad. Charisma is being able to sell someone a fruit salad with tomatoes in it.”

    June 3, 2015
  3. Ezra: Exactly! Yes indeed.

    Cory: Nice! I forgot about that third part 🙂 Good ol’ charisma. May it never be my dump stat.

    June 4, 2015

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