How people think about scientific concepts

A couple of times a year, I taught a class in introductory physics for non-science majors. Once for this class, I was discussing a problem in Newtonian mechanics with some students.

I think maybe we were looking at a moving cart that suddenly had an unbalanced force applied to it. Maybe I asked what the effect of having this unbalanced force be large rather than small would be. Jason* said “the cart would move faster”

And I said something along the lines of “I see where you’re going here, but in this case we want to be very precise in that what we’re talking about isn’t the speed, it’s the acceleration

At which point Brock* turned to his neighbour, and said in mock outrage: “Dammit, Jason*, words have meanings!”

I hope you can see that this was really funny.

But it also underscores the way most people think about scientific concepts. Whether because I’ve been studying physics for long enough that I don’t notice it any more, or because English is not my native language — I don’t know why — but it doesn’t bother me that velocity and acceleration mean totally different things and you can’t use one when you mean the other. It sure does bother a lot of other people, though.

I thought about the episode the other day when I overheard two administrators talking in the campus coffeeshop. They were (I think) discussing an administration effectiveness seminar that they had just been at. Janet* said “what are we supposed to do about learning objectives*?” To which Cindy* replied “no, we shouldn’t use learning objectives at all, we need to use learning outcomes*!”. To me this conversation sounded funny. Not only was it funny, but it made me want to turn to them and say “Dammit, Janet*, words have meanings!”

The precise meanings of scientific terms seem just as arbitrary to people. “Force” and “power” are both strength words. Trying to say that they are different things entirely, and to say that you are wrong when you say power when you mean force comes off as ridiculous pedantry.

*Names changed to protect the innocent. Terms changed cause I forgot the original ones.

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