The meanings of words matter

I want to spend a few lines on vocabulary.

In my book, “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts,” early on I establish the importance of operational definitions. Specifically, I talk about how both parties in a conversation should agree on those definitions if the conversation has any hope of being “productive.” Taking my own medicine here I define “productive” in this context as, both parties in the conversation coming to a better understanding of the other position.

Operationalizing the definition of a word becomes very important in those cases where words have distinctly different meanings. Occasionally you will find yourself in a conversation where it seems one party insists on using one meaning while you insist on using the other. The classic case here is the word “theory.” Now, if both parties are intellectually honest, the context of the conversation and the ability of reasonable people to apply that context to the meaning at hand, will remove any linguistic impasse. However, there is a group of people who will almost never budge on this, irrespective of the context. For them, using the meanings of words in the way that only they recognize, is how they think they are going to win their arguments. These people are called, “apologists.”

Going back to the word “theory” for a moment, the impasse normally emerges when speaking with someone who believes creation myths are actually true. We label these people “creationists” because they believe in a creation narrative from some religious tradition rather than believe the scientific evidence. They refuse to understand how a “theory” in science is different from a “theory” in casual conversation.  The phrase they often deploy which betrays their motive normally goes something like this,

“Evolution is just a theory.”

Insert face palm.

The science is out there for anyone who wants to learn, so my warning is to be wary. It should not take too long for you to recognize when you’re having a conversation with an apologist who insists on discrediting the science by using words incorrectly. If that happens, achieving the goal of having a “productive” chat is highly unlikely.

With that admonition, I thought it might be fun to jot down some other words or phrases which indicate that you’re probably talking to someone who doesn’t understand evolution.

  • Evolutionist
  • molecules to man
  • kinds
  • observable science
  • historical science
  • (belief in) millions of years
  • (belief in) Noah’s Ark
  • devil’s trickery

If you have come across others, add them in the comments below or if you’re reading this from Facebook or Twitter, you can respond there. Happy critical thinking!

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