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Loss Of Language, And The Future Of Science

In our age of unnuanced media reporting, cynicism, and political correctness, words and meanings are subject – perhaps increasingly – to an effective process of cancellation. It's not a new process, in the past certain words might be replaced by others – eg 'race' replaced by 'ethnicity', 'illegitimate' replaced by 'ex-nuptial', 'benefit' replaced by 'handout'. Such replacements are not necessarily problematic. In the first two examples given above, words whose popular meanings have become pejorative have been replaced by words with essentially the same meanings, but without the pejorative connotations.

In the third example, a word ('benefit') that is a very good word – indeed a word that literally means 'something good' – has suffered a pejorative meaning and has been largely replaced by a word that reinforces that pejorative meaning. The proper meaning of 'benefit' – as a noun, though not as a verb – has largely been lost to the language; and it's a critically important meaning to the understanding of the available capitalist options for the future of human civilisation. (I cannot conceive of any non-capitalist options that are not dystopian; apologies for the quadruple negative!)

Three words that I am particularly lamenting are 'disinterested', 'progressive', and 'literally'. Today the word 'disinterested' has been almost entirely conflated with the word 'uninterested'. Yet the craft of an academic – of a scholar – is to be always disinterested and never uninterested. The loss of this distinction is one of the warning signs that the age of reason – always tentative, but critically important to facilitating a civilised way of life – is nearing its end.

The word 'progressive' has two main meanings – both somewhat nebulous. For the earlier meaning, we get the full flavour in James Belich's book on New Zealand history, Making Peoples. It was exemplified in the settler dream of creating a 'Greater Britain' in these islands; progress was understood as growth on steroids. The politicians in New Zealand most associated with this meaning of progressive were Julius Vogel, Joseph Ward, and Robert Muldoon (in Muldoon's case it was about stemming what would otherwise have been substantial negative growth). These were our financially heroic political leaders, prepared to make full use of the government's privileged balance sheet to build a materially advanced and equitable future.

The alternative – and prevailing – meaning of 'progressive' was coined through the American progressive movement of the early 1900s. Indeed these left-wing American intellectuals looked to New Zealand – and particularly the initial 'radical' Liberal leadership of John Balance (who lost his head, decades ago, in Whanganui) and William Pember Reeves – as setting the pace to a bright new socially enlightened twentieth century. (Refer Progressivism and the World of Reform: New Zealand and the Origins of the American Welfare State, 1987, by Peter J. Coleman.)

There are ironies. In Canada in the twentieth century, the equivalent of New Zealand's National Party was the 'Progressive Conservatives', with the word 'progressive' fully containing that Vogellian meaning mentioned above. Yet today, the term 'progressive' relates to the new white collar socio-economic elite – simultaneously left-wing and (like all elites) conservative, inclined to shut down debates about practical solutions to the actual problems of our age, pursuing ideological agendas formed yesterday, and inclined to interpret the contemporary world as a contest between intelligentsia (defined as themselves) and an emerging conspiracy-theorising stupidia.

The word 'literally' is a wonderful word, the antonym of 'figuratively'. To literally walk in someone else's shoes means to actually wear the shoes of that other person. Recently I heard someone say, after a good result in the Olympic Games, that they were 'literally over the moon'. Yeah right! Not even Jeff Bezos can do that. Not yet. 'Literally' is now becoming a synonym of 'figuratively'; and, more generally, its just becoming another meaningless expression of hyperbole.

Sex, Gender and Certification

Language in this area is becoming a (figurative) minefield. And, in reflection of these sensitivities, this week the New Zealand Parliament is proceeding with a bill that will enable people to modify their birth certificates. This retrospective tinkering with historical documents – like other retrospective procedures in law – makes me very uneasy. Retrospectivity was one of the important themes of George Orwell's classic dystopia, 1984. People would be cancelled, would become unpersons who legally never existed, even though they are or were alive, literally.

I will quote Yuval Noah Harari – from p.170 of his very (and deservedly) popular book Sapiens. Harari has impeccable credentials as a 'progressive' intellectual, in the full twentyfirst century meaning of that word.

Scholars usually distinguish between 'sex', which is a biological category, and 'gender', a cultural category. Sex is divided between males and females, and the qualities of this division are objective and have remained constant throughout history. Gender is divided between men and women (and some cultures recognise other categories). … To get to be a member of the male sex is the simplest thing in the world. You just need to be born with an X and a Y chromosome. To get to be a female is equally simple. A pair of X chromosomes will do it.

The word 'sex' has become a bit like the word 'race', and as a result many people have come to use the word 'gender', incorrectly, as a euphemism for 'sex'. Some people accentuate the biological concept of 'sex', while substituting the word 'gender'. Take 'gender-reveal parties' as an example. Further, some feminists refer to 'gender' as a biological attribute, while others use it as a cultural attribute.

Gender, as a term of identity, is much like that of religion. We know that most people born to Muslim parents will live their lives as Muslims; but it would be wrong to put the world 'Muslim' on a person's birth certificate. A person born into a Muslim family may choose to not be a Muslim. It's even trickier with Jews. To be an 'Ashkenazy Jew' is widely used as an ethnicity (eg in ancestry DNA tests), as well as a descriptor of a person's faith, or an ancestor's faith. This is because of the widespread social practice – covering three millenniums – of Jews to reproduce within their religious community. Over time, a religious group thereby becomes an ethnic group. Nevertheless, a person born into a Jewish family can disavow Judaism, but will still have the same ethnicity as their siblings who retain their birth faith.

A birth certificate is the official documentation of a birth, not a documentation of a person's life, nor a documentation of a person's subjective status on their eighteenth birthday. It's meant to be a document of a person's biology, not of their culture.

The issue does arise however, about the need to have a widely-used document that states who someone 'is', rather than what they 'were'. Our common practice is to use passports and drivers' licences for this purpose. But its an ad hoc solution.

Given that, in the 2020s, fewer people will travel internationally and more people are choosing not to drive (or choosing to delay gaining a driver's licence), it is now time that New Zealanders 'bite the bullet' and develop an official domestic system of identity documentation; a present-focussed (rather than past-focused) system that easily allows a person to revise their identity when any aspect of their identity changes. Some categories of identity – eg gender, religion, ethnicity – could be optional inclusions. A person's sex would not be required. The items of information needed would be a photo, a signature, a date of birth (to indicate age), a social security number, and a person's immigration status. (With immigration status shown, a person's place of birth would not be required.)

Do we need to indicate sex at all on a birth certificate? We don't include ethnicity. I would argue 'yes', a person's sex is an important part of their birth identity. (And, much academic research focusses on different life outcomes and options and discriminations based on their sex, even if much of its publication is couched in the subjective language of gender. Sex, like age, is a fundamental human attribute.) Harari (p.172) notes that "there is some universal biological [my emphasis] reason" why we have regarded, throughout history, the distinction between males and females as important. I presume it relates to their distinctly different biological roles in the literal reproduction of our species.

There is no equivalent imperative to define a person by their ethnicity, although some societies still do. (This is a touchy hypothetical point though, because there were once multiple species – not races – of humans. Even politically correct people today hang on to the idea that it is acceptable to be disparaging to extinct species of humans – eg Neanderthals – whereas they should not be disparaging to more recent victims of genocide, such as Tasmania's first peoples. The boundary between extinct human species and extinct ethnicities is not clear though; it's still accepted practice to call an allegedly 'uncultured' person a 'philistine'. Also, especially in this modern era of DNA sequencing, we know that neither the genomes of native Tasmanians nor native Europeans [Neanderthals] are extinct.)

Marriages and Unions

An interesting episode in New Zealand's political history is when, half a decade ago, New Zealand was one of the first jurisdictions to redefine the word 'marriage'. The legislation came up, purely by chance, as a private member's bill, and was promoted as an exercise in the right of two men (or two males) or two women (or two females) to love each other in the same public sense as a man and a woman (or a male and a female) could. Very few people disagreed with that right, which already existed. (It's a bit like the 'anti-hate speech' bill which we are told to expect this or next year. We already have laws against hate-speech.)

There was a small issue, a problem with the earlier 'Civil Union' legislation, brought in about 15 years ago by the then Helen Clark led government. Imagine a Venn Diagram with 'marriage' on one side and 'civil union' on the other. While the two sides largely intersected, in some respects a civil union was wider in scope (same-sex relationships) and in other respects marriage was wider in scope (eg in the rights to adopt children). What we did, in effect, was to extend the scope of the Civil Union legislation, and then to redefine a 'civil union' as a 'marriage'. The first part of this process was necessary, the second part was not. In doing so, we removed by diktat the meaning of a word – marriage, the union of an adult male and an adult female – that had existed since Adam and Eve, or Rangi and Papa.

The logically obvious approach to take was to make traditional marriage a cultural subset of an enhanced legal institution; a subset of a properly defined civil union. (An unpleasant linguistic analogy is that of 'murder' being a cultural subset of the legal term 'homicide'.) In that way, marriage could still have been what it always was (a popular name for a union between a man and a woman), and there would have been no basis for any discrimination between same-sex and different-sex unions. In that case, marriage would have disappeared as a legal construct, while maintaining its popular role as a reproductive union.

My understanding is that the then Attorney-General, Christopher Finlayson, held essentially this same view. But hardly anybody – least of all people like myself, or Christopher Finlayson – wanted to be seen as gay-bashers or as neanderthals, as all opponents of gay-marriage were framed as being. At that time, there was no space for nuanced opposition to the legislation; in the public eye, re that issue, a person was either a progressive or a philistine.

At least the idea of a biological-based reproductive union still exists, albeit as a phrase – heterosexual marriage – rather than as a word. So all is not lost. Problematic though is the fact that – by affirming the legal meaning of the word 'marriage' – the concept of a de facto marriage, a favoured union for many people, has become an oxymoron.

Science, Knowledge, and other related Concepts

We have a number of important words – science, knowledge, truth, facts, claims, information – that have related meanings, but distinctively different (albeit nuanced) meanings.

A few weeks ago, a group of University of Auckland scientists wrote to the New Zealand Listener, arguing that traditional Māori knowledge (and modern knowledge developed through that Mātauranga Māori framework) was not science. While they were correct – science and knowledge are not the same thing – the uncritical reaction was immediate and unforgiving.

Knowledge derives from three things: observation (and measurement), reasoning, and literature (ie culture). Knowledge is evolving, and much of what was knowledge in the past would not be classed as knowledge today (eg Galen's paradigm of medical knowledge). Much that is knowledge – such as complex knowledge that passes to us through literature – is unverifiable, but it tells us who we are, and how we see the world and how we think about it. (Early medical knowledge may not be classed as knowledge today, but the historiography of early medical knowledge certainly would be classed as knowledge today.)

Science is very much a method – associated with the Age of Reason – that can only create negative knowledge. Scientific research can only falsify propositions; it cannot declare them to be 'true'; and, in practice, most falsification is based on probabilistic arguments devised by statisticians.

Empirical knowledge about the stars sufficient to enable trans-oceanic navigation is no more 'science' than is knowledge about which herbal remedies relieve certain conditions of pain or disease. Ptolemaic astronomy, traditional Polynesian astronomy, and Copernican astronomy all equally convey practical navigational knowledge. Polynesian astronomical knowledge is 'true', as observational knowledge; but it's not science, it cannot be falsified. Ptolemaic astronomy, likewise, enabled navigation. But it offered an explanation for the movements of celestial objects that has been proven to be false. Likewise, Copernican astronomy is also false – the sun is not at the centre of the universe – but in an important scientific sense it is less false than Ptolemaic astronomy. Copernican astronomy made it possible to create further truths that are even less false (eg those associated with Gallileo, Kepler and Newton). These are evolving truths that are progressive – in the Vogellian sense – without which humans could never have visited the moon.

Truth is a philosophical rather than a scientific concept. If I say that I believe Vitamin C supplements are good for a person's health in some circumstances, then I know that that is true, because I know what I believe. Further, that belief is verifiable (sort of) if I am observed to be taking Vitamin C supplements; although I could be taking the supplements as part of an experiment, and not necessarily because I believe they are good for me. Beliefs are truths, albeit subjective truths. I know what I believe, even if you don't. If I believe in flying pigs, then it is true that I believe in flying pigs.

A scientific truth is a plausible 'claim', or 'hypothesis'; an assertion of objective truth. By its very nuanced meaning, all scientific truths are provisional. A scientific truth, by definition, must be conceptually falsifiable.

Information is a mix of all the above-mentioned: science, knowledge, truth, facts, claims. Information makes no special claim to truth, and may be intentionally false, or an untested claim.

Trivial truths may be called facts. My date of birth is a fact. The size of a crowd for an event at Eden Park is a fact, but only has meaning if contextualised; it needs to be 'time-stamped', because the crowd size varies during an event. And even then, the truthful meaning of a time-stamped fact may vary; 50,000 people may have turned up by 7:30pm on the day of a given event, but most those people may have left soon after. The size of the crowd at 9:00pm is an alternative fact. For an event to be truthfully classed as more popular than another event, it depends on the duration of the crowd as well as its peak size.

One important kind of truth is abstract (or a priori) truth. Mathematics is a set of such abstract truths. 2+3=5 is a truth. So is +x+(-x)=0; the truth that underpins double-entry bookkeeping (where 'x' can be any number). So is i²=-1, where i is by definition the imaginary number which makes that truth true.

Historical Truth

A particularly important class of truth is 'historical truth'. Historical truth is a set of facts underpinned by a set of counterfactuals that confer meaning or explanation onto that truth. Facts can be observed; that's the easier part. Counterfactuals can only be argued; they can only be reasoned, because, by definition, they did not happen.

Much of what we think of as history is sequences of facts; many of these are provisional facts which may be disputed because of gaps or anomalies in the documentary record. Further, such facts are often interpreted. Was a recovered archaeological monument a temple, or a palace, or a parliament?

That James Cook and Jean-François-Marie de Surville unknowingly crossed paths off Cape Reinga in December 1769 is a fact. The date of that crossing is an unresolvable fact, because 17 Dec 1769 on Surville's calendar would have been 16 Dec 1769 on Cook's calendar. (I thank Mike Lee, former Auckland Councillor and author of Navigators and Naturalists for alerting me to this!) This is because Surville's voyage was travelling towards the east, while Cook was travelling towards the west. (And for Surville, New Zealand's north cape was one bit of land – now named in his honour – while Cook saw and named North Cape, another piece of land; close but not the same.)

The deeper historical truth is that these voyages changed New Zealand (named 'New Zealand' in the 1640s, after Abel Tasman's voyage, so both navigators knew in advance that New Zealand was there, and that New Zealanders were fierce) forever. Possibly an even deeper historical truth is that, even if none of these three European voyagers had ventured to these islands, Europeans would still have come to – and colonised – New Zealand, and before the year 1800.

The last-mentioned 'probable truth' is a counterfactual. It is a fact that all the Europeans who visited New Zealand in the eighteenth century knew in advance that it was there. It is an argument, however, to claim that Europeans would have visited New Zealand before 1800 even if they had not known it was there. The argument is based on two main pieces of reasoning: first that Europeans at that time believed that there was land in our part of the world even before they knew it was there; and, second, Europeans had become a global voyaging people, much like the Polynesians before them. So, sooner or later – most likely sooner – they would have found us anyway, by chance.

This counterfactual actually devalues the significance of the 'discoveries' of Cook et. al., because others would have made them had they not made them. But the fact that Cook – and men of the French Enlightenment – made voyages to New Zealand when they did (in the era of the 'Noble Savage'), may be important in that other people with less reputable motives could have made those first contacts instead.

The history of New Zealand can only be understood through well-argued counterfactuals; how did what actually happened differ from the other likely scenarios that might have happened. This applies, obviously, to all aspects of history, and not just the history of early encounters between Pakeha and Māori, between Europe and Aotearoa. To establish the best historical truths available, the most critical skill is to be able to present one or more well-argued counterfactuals. The art of argument is essential to the acquisition of historical knowledge.

Counterfactuals, as mentioned, represent alternative probabilities. There is another kind of counterfactual, an ideal counterfactual, which considers what might have been the best historical possibility. And knowledge of ideal counterfactuals can inform the future. In my example case above, relating to early post-contact New Zealand, we can imagine 'win-win' scenarios in which post-contact history might have worked out better for all parties. (We can also imagine other 'win-lose' scenarios, bearing in mind that today's progressive narrative is that post-contact factual history represents one such 'win-lose' scenario.) Thinking about win-win historical scenarios can help us to think about win-win futures. But there is one proviso, and that is that well-intentioned behaviours do not necessarily bring about desirable outcomes; and selfishly-intentioned behaviours do not necessarily bring about undesirable outcomes. (Unintended and unforeseen consequences constitute one of history's major themes.)

Covid19 Delta

A final example of historical truth worth mentioning here is that relating to the ongoing outbreak of Covid19 in New South Wales, Australia. I heard on the news last night some gentleman claiming that we are now in a near-existential battle between humanity and delta.

Certainly, the way the story is being reported is that all would be well for us on the viral front if only the delta mutation of the covid virus had not happened. Thus, the story we are getting comes with an ordained (rather than argued) counterfactual; that delta, and only delta, is the beastie. An alternative counterfactual is that what is happening in Australia is much the same as what would be happening there had delta not evolved. After-all, South America – consider Uruguay as a particularly pertinent case – experienced something much worse, and without a hint of delta.

If we go back to the story of the near-existential battle between humanity and delta, where delta is an allegory for a strengthened foe, an important factor is whether humanity (the good guys) are stronger or weaker than in previous episodes. If humanity this year is weaker – ie less immune to respiratory viruses – than last year then the present weakness of humanity may be the key determinant of events, meaning that the New South Wales event might have happened regardless of delta.

Yet the narrative we have may be useful, if not true. If the message is that humanity has to strengthen in order to match a stronger foe – eg strengthen through taking vaccines – then the 'official' narrative, though probably not true, nevertheless supports good behaviour.

Finally

By losing language, and conflating words with similar meanings into the same meaning, we lose our ability to conceptualise the alternative realities which represent the pathways to better futures. Too many words today become synonymous with hyperbole. Other words morph into their opposites.

Science is a particularly important word. Unlike 'marriage', if the word 'science' loses or changes its meaning, eg morphing with 'knowledge' and 'facts', there is no other word or phrase which we can use, in its stead, to mean what 'science' has meant. Indeed, all the slightly synonymous words used above - science, knowledge, truth, facts, claims, information – may all be coming to mean 'beliefs'. In other words, all these nuanced words – with their underlying objectivity – may be lost in favour of post-modern subjectivity.

Our most important word may be the word 'otherwise'. It is the word that indicates a counterfactual – a blend of imagination and argument that we need to make sense of our world, and to make progress in it.

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Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

contact: keith at rankin.nz

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