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Science Archives

January 20, 2015

Apparently Science Says "Is" Really Means "Ought"

Ah, grammar. You can be a descriptivist (you think that "correct" grammar is whatever grammar people actually use), or a prescriptivist (you think that people should follow correct grammar rules), or something in between. I'm in between, leaning descriptivist in most situations.

But if a scientist describes the descriptivist position, suddenly "science says" that is the correct one.

The article is titled, "Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice", and the subheading tells us that "Steven Pinker explains why you don't have to follow bogus grammar rules."

"There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship," explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "They're a way in which one person can prove that they're more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules."

Any rules that tell you what you ought to do are "pseudo-rules"; the only real rules are whatever exists that aligns with your individual will.

(In fact, I get the feeling that it may go farther than that. It's late, and I don't have the formulation down, but it seems to me that this is related to the idea that everything not forbidden is compulsory.)

Funny, but I always thought that science was a descriptive endeavor. Science tells you how electricity works, but not whether you should use it to light a hospital or to torture a political prisoner. Science is is, morality is ought.

One could wish it were only in grammar that people make this error, but no: We have to endorse homosexual behavior because it's practiced by bonobos as well as in some humans.

By that logic, of course, anything goes. Somehow it never quite works that way, though: People who say that science has all the answers (Michael Shermer comes to mind) will also tell you that science supports their view of morality. Gee, it's amazing that objective science happens to back up the ideas they had already decided upon. I wonder how that works.

Sad thing is, I agree with Pinker on the grammar. I just don't agree with him on its "scientific" nature.