Weasly words I (no offence meant to weasels)

15 03 2013

This week we covered induction/deduction (briefly, as it turned out), and a variety of “weasly words”: begging the question, circular reasoning, complex questions, and loaded words. At first we thought we understood the difference between deduction and induction, but then had a bit of a wobble about what we do as scientists. We have a vague notion that we follow the “hypothetico-deductive method” (or that we’re supposed to, anyway), yet in reality we seem to rely on induction. Help! So we are revisiting this next week.

It was great to think about “begging the question” because it’s such a common device, and yet the phrase itself is counter-intuitive: people often treat it as though it means “raising the question” but it really it means to ask that the very point at issue be conceded. Sometimes this can happen as part of a complex, multi-part question (my favourite example from the Warburton book: “Are you going to carry on behaving like a spoilt brat or will you concede that you ought to spend at least half an hour a day doing the housework?”); sometimes, via the use of just a single loaded word (e.g. “natural”, or “freedom fighter” versus “terrorist”). We had a fun discussion about the amazingly loaded words that crop up in science all the time (experimental animals are not just killed, they are “sacrificed” via “euthanasia”; nesting or social contact are not just the basics that animals that need them should always have: they are “environmental enrichment”), and I found myself wondering if I deliberately call zoo, farm, and lab animals “captive animals” because it’s loaded in a negative way (I know some animal science students would rather I say “husbanded” or something else nicer-sounding). As for circular reasoning: circular reasoning is wrong because circular reasoning is wrong – what else is there to say?