related texts

misleading words

It is very common to find confusing language in cognitive psychology (See here). The problem is compounded by the fact that many people don't realize how damaging this confused usage can be.

For example, neuroscientists use many times the word "precise" to describe the connections in the cortex. For most of people, for something (X) to be "precise", there must be something else (Y) that it can be compared to, and if they are very close, than X is precise. Typically the entity to compare with Y is a plan or a specification. Thus saying that the connections are precise implies the existance of a plan or specification.

However, since the connections in the cortex vary randomly across individuals, there is obviously no plan or specification for them. Thus they are not "precise", and also are not "imprecise". The concept of "precision" is simply inapplicable to the connectivity of the cortex.

Most of neuroscientists know that. I used to write "all", but I am not sure by now. It is possible that researchers working on simple systems like the nerve system of C. elegans, which does have a plan which is reproducible in all healthy individuals, really believe that the cortex also has such plan. Researchers of more complex systems cannot keep this belief, becuase they can see that it is wrong everyday.

So why do they use the word "precise"? It is possible that some of them intentionally say something that they know is wrong, i.e. lying, but I would say that is rare. Most of them probably attach a different meaning to word "precise" when they use or read it in this context.

The problem with this is that it does not help non-neuroscientists, who don't know that the connectivity varies across individuals, and that neuroscientists don't use the term "precise" in its normal usage. These readers, when they encounter the word "precise", interpret it accordingly the usual meaning. Hence, when they read that the connections in the cortex are precise, they interpret it as saying that there is some plan for the connections, and the connections match this (which is false).

Neuroscientists would probably still claim that their usage of "precise" is ok, because the reader should understand it differently in this context. However, neuroscientific texts do not tell the reader how to interpret "precise", so the reader necessarily uses the normal definition. The only exception are neuroscientists, who know the actual situation, and hence that the word cannot be interpreted this way. Thus when neuroscientists describe that the connections in the cortex are precise, they mislead the rest of the world, but for them it looks ok.

An interesting question is whether neuroscientists realize that they mislead by describing the connections as precise. It seem difficult to believe that they are not intelligent enough to understand that other people will interpret "precise" in its normal meaning. On the other hand, if they do understand it, they knowingly mislead the public. I am not sure what would be a better description of the way they think about it. In this page, for example, there is a case which look to me like a straightforward lie (saying that the connections are "identical from one animal to the next"). In other cases it is much less obvious (here).

Examples of various words that are used in a conusing ways are given here.

Yehouda Harpaz