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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Suggestions for Revising Scientific Terminology

Some of the terms or theories in science have poor names, names that either fail to candidly describe the phenomenon or theory, or names that fail to do enough to inform us about the nature of the phenomenon or theory. Below are examples, with some suggestions on better names that could be used (which is not to imagine any possibility that the scientific world will take up any of these suggestions). 

Cold Dark Matter Theory

In scientific journals the cold dark matter theory is often stated as ^CDM, where ^ is the Greek character Lambda. This is one of the geekiest and most unclear names ever used for a scientific theory. In popular accounts, the theory is referred to as the cold dark matter theory. The term “dark matter” suggests regular matter that is not illuminated. But the theory postulates some type of material substance that is not matter as we know it, some matter that is not made of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up an atom.

A better name for the theory would be to call it the “non-atomic halos” theory. This would remind us that the theory involves not merely an assumption about the existence of a non-atomic substance, but also some particular assumptions about how such a substance is arranged.

Cosmic Inflation Theory

The cosmic inflation theory is a theory that during a tiny fraction of the first second of the universe’s history, the universe underwent a period of especially fast expansion called exponential expansion. The term “cosmic inflation” is a terrible name for such a theory, because of the endless confusion that arises by those who confuse this “cosmic inflation” with the regular type of expansion that the universe has undergone since its first second. For example, if I say, “I don't believe in the cosmic inflation theory,” a sizable fraction of my readers may think I am denying the expansion of the universe or denying the Big Bang, even though you can deny the cosmic inflation theory without denying either of these things.

A better and more candid name for the “cosmic inflation” theory would be to call it the “primordial double transformation theory.” Primordial means occurring at the very beginning. The cosmic inflation theory imagines that the universe underwent two drastic transformations in its first second: first changing from a linear expansion to an exponential expansion, and then changing from an exponential expansion back to a linear expansion. By calling such a theory the “primordial double transformation theory” we would be reminding people of the drastically discontinuous nature of such a theory.

Big Bang Theory

It is widely acknowledged that the Big Bang theory has a poor name, suggesting the idea that the universe once existed as a kind of bomb that exploded. The actual theory is that the universe began to expand from an infinitely small and dense point. A better and more descriptive name for the Big Bang theory would be to call it the “origination from infinite density” theory or the “origination from zero diameter” theory or the “primordial singularity theory” (in physics a singularity is a state of infinite density).

Ekpyrotic Theory

According to this link, Professor Paul Steinhardt's contrarian cosmological theory involves speculations about some kind of a double universe. It would seem that calling it the “double universe theory” would be better than calling it by the so-easy-to-forget name “ekpyrotic theory.”

Long-Term Potentiation

The term “long-term potentiation” is one of the most misleading terms in neuroscience. The term refers to a slight synapse strengthening that can occur when learning occurs. For years neuroscientists have told us that long-term potentiation is a sign of memories being stored in synapses. However so-called long-term potentiation is actually a very short-term affair. In virtually all cases it does not last longer than a few weeks, and has never been proven to last for as long as two years. The term should therefore be renamed as “transitory potentiation” or “short-term potentiation.”

Natural Selection

The term “natural selection” is a rather misleading and confusing term, a case of a metaphor that was entirely unnecessary. The term “natural selection” confuses people by making people think that somehow nature does something like a conscious selection action. But blind nature never chooses or selects things; only living things or machines can select things. There is no need at all to use the confusing metaphor of “natural selection,” because there are two different terms that express the same idea exactly without resorting to a metaphor. The first term is “differential reproduction” and the second is “survival of the fittest.”

Evolution by Natural Selection

Besides the fact that it uses the misleading term “natural selection,” there is a big reason why it is misleading to refer to Darwin's explanation for biological complexity as the theory of “evolution by natural selection.” This reason is that in such a theory natural selection is not the biggest factor. The theory maintains that new species arise from random mutations and natural selection. But natural selection (survival of the fittest or differential reproduction) cannot occur in regard to any biological innovation until that innovation has appeared. So Darwinism maintains that first lucky random mutations lead to a biological innovation appearing and then natural selection helps to spread that innovation in a gene pool. In such a theory 99% of a biological innovation is coming from random mutations or pure luck. A Darwinist believes that every single nucleotide in a fine-tuned gene pool came from a random mutation. To describe such a theory as “evolution by natural selection” is therefore rather dishonest or disingenuous. It's like someone having a theory that log cabins arise from random falls of trees (with friction helping the trees stay together), and calling such a theory “the friction theory of cabin origination,” when such a theory should really be called the “chance theory of cabin origination.”

An honest name for Darwin's theory will be candid about its reliance on lucky chance events. Suitable names for the theory would be “the theory of accidental engineering” or “the theory of accidental inventions” or “the theory of accidental biological innovations” or “the theory of evolution by random mutations.”

natural selection

White Holes Theory

I remember forty years ago buying John Gribbin's book on the theory of white holes – that there are places in the universe where matter mysteriously squirts out, in a process the opposite of the process by which matter is lost in black holes. Since then the white holes theory has gained little traction. It would probably gain more attention if it were given a catchier sexed-up name such as the “cosmic ejaculations” theory, which would be a fairly good description of what the theory imagines.

Many Worlds Theory

The theory called the Many Worlds theory is the crazy theory that every instant reality is splitting up in an infinite number of ways, so that every possibility is actualized. Under this theory, there are an infinite number of parallel universes or realities, in which there are an infinite number of copies of all of us. "Many worlds” is a bad name for such a theory. The phrase “many worlds” suggests something reasonable enough, like perhaps the idea that there are some Earth-like planets in the universe. But the Many Worlds theory teaches something infinitely more extravagant than that: the idea of an infinity of parallel Earths in which every possible thing happens. A more candid name for this theory would be “the theory of infinite duplication” or perhaps “the ever-splitting universe theory.”

Abiogenesis Theory

The theory of abiogenesis theory is the theory that life arose from mere chemicals. Most people who hear the term “abiogenesis” cannot tell from that word what the theory is about. Because life is a state of organization vastly higher than that of some mere chemicals in a liquid, the abiogenesis theory is a theory of a kind of chemistry miracle. It would be better to call such a theory “the chemistry miracle theory” or the “accidental life origination” theory.

Vacuum Catastrophe

I really shouldn't complain about the use of the term “vacuum catastrophe,” because when you type that in as a Google search term, you will get one of my blog posts on the first page of results. But it should be noted that the term “vacuum catastrophe” is ludicrously inappropriate. The term refers to the fact that despite various physics and quantum factors which should have produced (under 99.9999999999999999999999% of random cases) a vacuum of space very high in density, precluding the appearance of any life, so that the space between the sun and the earth was denser than steel, we instead have a vacuum of space that is almost entirely empty, which allows life to exist. It would be far more appropriate to refer to this “vacuum catastrophe” as “the vacuum blessing” or “the vacuum long-shot” or “the vacuum miracle.”

Panspermia

Besides the fact that it sounds vaguely erotic, the term “panspermia” has the disadvantage that no one can tell from the name itself what the word means. Panspermia refers to the idea that extraterrestrials were involved in the appearance of life on planet Earth. A better term would be “the extraterrestrial assistance theory.”

The Second Law of Themodynamics

The term “second law of thermodynamics” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you basically nothing about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “law of increasing disorder” or “law of increasing entropy.”

The Special Theory of Relativity

The term “special theory of relativity” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you nothing at all about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “cosmic speed limit theory,” because at the heart of the theory is the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

The General Theory of Relativity

The term “general theory of relativity” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you nothing at all about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “Einsteinian gravitation theory.”

String Theory

The term “string theory” tells you pretty much nothing about the extravagant family of fancy physics theories known as string theories. A much better term would be “the extra dimensions theory,” which at least tells you something substantive about such theories, that they postulate that there are extra, unobserved dimensions of space.

Quantum Mechanics

The term “quantum mechanics” tells you basically nothing about the theory that has this name. A person guessing what the theory was about might guess that it had something to do with engines or machines, on the grounds that it has the word “mechanics” in it. A better name for this theory would be the “subatomic strangeness” theory, which would at least tell you that it has to do with what's going on at the subatomic level.

Synaptic Plasticity

The term “synaptic plasticity” is a term that neuroscientists mouth whenever they observe minds working well despite large brain damage or the loss of a large part of the brain. So, for example, if a French civil servant who thought himself to be a normal person finds that 90% of his brain has been replaced by fluid, such a case (a real-life one) is described as a case of “synaptic plasticity.” A more candid term would be to call such cases examples of “brain dogma shortfall” – because they are cases in which the dogma that the brain makes the mind fails to predict reality correctly.