Friday, January 04, 2008

My recent provocative post on Why biology is harder than physics has been discussed by both Philip Johnson on Biocurious (critically) and Larry Moran on The Sandwalk. (favourably). One commentor on my post, Fred Ross, then complained that I was misusing the term 'complex'.
It's also a pet peeve of mine that biologists insist on calling their organisms "complex," a very specific, technical term which I have never seen justified in biology. They are complicated, but I have seen no evidence that they are complex. There are problems of graph theory that are complex, but the graphs that biologists insist on writing down of protein interaction and genetic networks aren't sufficiently well posed to take any difficult mathematical problem that appears in them seriously.
This is a timely point as I've been thinking quite a lot lately about words that, like 'complex', have both an everyday meaning and one or more specialized meanings. Evolutionary biologists have been fumbling with this problem as it arises for the word 'theory'. When we speak of 'the theory of evolution' we are using the work in a very special philosophy-of-science sense, but creationists then criticize evolution as being 'just a theory', using the term in its everyday sense and counting on the general public not knowing the difference.

One context where such words create big problems is for students learning science. In biology we have words like adapt, assort, base, segregate, phase, message, membrane, sex. Two colleagues even wrote a whole article about many meanings of the one word 'cross' ("The crosses genetics students have to bear"). The teaching fellow associates with my Biology 121 course has been compiling a list of such words, and I'm going to ask my students to start collecting them for their own learning.

But I've also started putting out feelers about such words to linguists and educators, wondering if they have insights into how our brains (and our students' brains) deal with such words. I'm even wondering if we might get together a workshop of researchers in different disciplines to try to clarify the issues they raise.


Elizabeth said...

This is such an interesting topic. A further dimension of it in terms of the teaching you do might relate to the different ways native and non-native English speakers deal with different senses or signifiers of the same word. As someone who grew up speaking English, I get the "cross" pun in that article title, for example, and my language center automatically switches between the different meanings of the word 'theory' depending on context. If I was reading a similar article in, say, Spanish, however, I would likely miss the multiple levels of meaning that a single word can hold. Since so many of the students you teach are learning in a language other than their first language, I wonder if these types of semantic confusion are particularly acute for them.

Anonymous said...

I think the your comment about two cells sharing the same genes but having end up having different proteins etc misleading. Certainly, the behaviour of these cells will tend towards the same "average" dictated by the genes.

Jamie said...

For what it's worth, I think it's stupid in English for physicists to try and argue that "complex" and "complicated" mean vastly different things, let alone that this means the word "complex" shouldn't be used in biology. To me, the only difference in meaning at all (and it's very slight) is that "complex" implies a system that though "complicated", though intricate, functions well, whereas "complicated" has a slightly more negative connotation. In fact, I would say that "complex" and "intricate" are as close to having an identical meaning as you could get, and "complicated" shares much of that meaning but slightly less of the same connotation.

Coincidentally, I'm getting frustrated with the terms "hard" and "soft" amongst scientists... partly because every time someone like you appears to try and write in layman's language, and you say something is "harder", they assume you mean "more rigorous" and not "more difficult to properly learn and teach and understand in full". (And partly because in fact even some of the allegedly "softest" sciences, namely the social sciences, actually are just as statistically replicable - and therefore just as scientifically "hard" - as physics according to one study I saw referenced in I think New Scientist).

ALthough, I will say that in that spirit, I'm going to do something daring and suggest that NO scientific field of worth nowadays is easier than any other, either to comprehend or to teach... not inherently. It's the kind of thing that varies from person to person; I know people who have trouble wrapping their brains around even the basic concepts of biology but who passed chem and physics with no trouble and see it as simple and straightforward... yet I myself graduated high school with a C in physics and zero understanding of it beyond "objects in motion tend to stay in motion", and have no trouble wrapping my head around concepts like evolution or genomic interactions.

I also think that in terms of difficulty, bio edges physics out but only very slightly, because as some have said, it's "messier"; harder to apply the scientific method to with any expectation of accuracy (though some wonderfully creative efforts have come from that same challenge). In both fields though there are things that don't seem to make sense and which are inherently mysterious... there's still debate over the origins of the universe and the underpinnings of the laws of physics, as much as there is a mystery surrounding the mechanics of epigenetics or the origin of human language. I think that research in each field will have its unique challenges though, and its unique, baffling, frustrating-but-exciting mysteries.

But the truth is that neither is at heart harder to TEACH, not inherently; you just need a brilliant teacher to get their true nuances and complexities accross. I've been told (even by biologists!) that basic physics or even graduate-level physics are "simple" and "easy", yet my high school physics teacher and chem teacher were so horrible at explaining the theory or meaning surrounding the formulae we learned, that I struggle with understanding some very basic physics and chem concepts to this day. I don't think it's that physics is more difficult and biology easy; just that I have always had fantastic bio teachers and crappy physics and chem teachers.

It worries me sometimes to see people fight over this, considering how much the field of science as a whole is increasingly needing to be interdisciplinary to make the really cool advances!

Jamie said...

Also, @Elizabeth: you're actually even more right than you may know, when you speak of "different ways native and non-native English speakers deal with different senses..."

I've studied two foreign languages (Japanese and Spanish) and in BOTH cases, the perception of color as expressed in the language was significantly different from English. In Japanese, they often use the term for "blue" (ao, adjective form aoi) to describe the color green (traffic lights are aoi for instance), even though they technically have a separate name for green (midori, which is used more often for the stronger, more vivid shades of green). In Spanish I was lucky enough to have a native speaker as a teacher, who informed me that the Spanish word usually just blandly translated as "blue" (azul), in fact refers more to the azure blue of the sky, and not so much to darker shades which technically have a separate name; as well, there is more than one name for "brown" in Spanish, depending on if it has a little red in it or not. Inversely, in some languages, additionally, "pink" is described as "light red", much as we would describe the color the Spanish-speakers call azul as simply a shade of "light blue". Meanwhile, in Russian, "black" and "blue" are seen as being the same color, and IIRC, they use the same name for both. Additionally, onomatopoeia can change radically from one language to the next: English-speakers would say that pigs go "oink", whereas to the Japanese, they go buu.

And that's not even considering cultural impact: here in the west, pigs are seen as slightly gross but otherwise cute... in the Middle East, they are abhorrent creatures. This impact can even change over time: the color pink used to be associated with young boys and light blue with young girls, an association which in less then 200 years reversed itself; both the idea of a diamond engagement ring and the surprise marriage proposal were invented in the 20th century; and more startlingly, the US cultural attitude towards women shifted from "Rosie the Riveter" to "humble housewife" in considerably less than a decade... and just a few years later, this once again slowly started to change. And let's not even get into the complications surrounding AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which despite being more linguistically complex than Standard English, carries with it associations of poverty or illiteracy that can be hard to shake.

The subtleties of language and culture - even just subculture - cannot POSSIBLY be overlooked when you're teaching, particularly if you are teaching a diverse group of kids, or in a cultural setting that differs from your own background. Not if you want to be a good teacher.