Scientists sometimes conceal a lack of knowledge with vague words

Friday, May 22, 2020 - 05:00 in Psychology & Sociology

You can’t kill a virus, common wisdom contends, because viruses aren’t alive to begin with. Yet some viruses sure act like they’re alive. And in fact, you can find biologists and philosophers who will insist that viruses do deserve a branch on the tree of life. Still, many oth­er experts refuse to confer viruses with life status. Debates about viruses as life-forms (or not) have raged for decades. But as more and more data on viral vitality accumulate, the disagreements do not diminish. Perhaps that’s because the argument is not really about the nature of viruses. Rather it’s about the definition of life. Scientists can’t agree on that, either. Science’s inability to define life reveals not merely a lack of lexicographic dexterity, but also signifies a broader issue — the peculiar way that science’s relationship with reality is connected to science’s relationship with words. Words are obviously indispensable for scientists, both to communicate among themselves and to report their findings to the rest of civilization. Even in the...

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