Articles to 2019-06-16

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First the link to this week's complete list as HTML and as PDF.


In Yeung et al. direct but older measurements are falsified by models based on other models using measured differences of the same size as their measurement error. The achieved result is plausible and probably correct, but this is one more example of science changing from experiment-based empiricism to a scholastic deriving of ideas from ideas. If this trend continues, we're bound to lose the ground on which we stand. I view this tendency with great apprehension.


Hua et al. label their axes for latitude and longitude in units of 100 km and claim their depicted squares to be of equal area. Nothing could be further from the truth. If this is the basis for their maths, it makes the whole paper an utter and obvious nonsense.


Looking at the longue durée, culturally advanced societies have always shared a wide spread, common language. The advent of multiple written vernaculars has always been an accompaniment of cultural collapse. Science had shared a single common language – Latin – until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Our current anarchy of prolific publication of science in the vernacular is a recent phenomenon and an aberration that is increasingly being overcome. As always there are detractors pointing out supposed downsides of this development. Of course the most frequent ones I come across are first year students. When they complain about all the set literature being in English, they do not desire a more multilingual set of sources, but a monolingual one in their own native tongue. The points made in the two articles below deserve a bit more consideration.

Speaking for the humanities, Rubel only looks at the writers and ignores their readers completely.

“[O]ne can only really make one's point in the first language. Non-English-speaking scholars “do not say what they want to say, but what they can say” if they must express themselves in English. [...] [I]t should be clear that the quality and precision of arguments fall by the wayside if one does not write in one's first language.”

It might be nice to have so fine a point being made, that it can't be put down by anyone not versed in the minutest of details of the language used – but who on earth is supposed to get that point? If it were important, would it not be better to express it clearly in words readers can understand? As Rubel himself recognizes, awareness of all the relevant literature is important:

“[I]f people ignore things that do exist and that are to hand, they are ignorant; and ignorance is no excuse. [...] Literaturkenntnis schützt vor Neuentdeckungen.”

The absurdity of his argument becomes fully exposed near the end of his essay, where he advises:

“An easy way to get a glimpse at least of recent literature without knowing the language is, of course via Google-translate, which works well enough with German and English.”

How many of those supposedly all-important fine points does he expect to survive that procedure? As is so often the case, Richard Phillips Feynman has put it best:

“I thought at first that I would give my lectures in English, but I noticed something: When the students were explaining something to me in Portuguese, I couldn't understand it very well, even though I knew a certain amount of Portuguese. It was not exactly clear to me whether they had said “increase,” or “decrease,” or “not increase,” or “not decrease,” or “decrease slowly.” But when they struggled with English, they'd say “ahp” or “doon,” and I knew which way it was, even though the pronunciation was lousy and the grammar was all screwed up. So I realized that if I was going to talk to them and try to teach them, it would be better for me to talk in Portuguese, poor as it was. It would be easier for them to understand.”

The positions of scientists are more nuanced. Clarissa Rios Rojas is beside the point with

“In my experience, people who grow up speaking a language other than English are at a real competitive disadvantage when it comes to science. And it's not only because they will struggle to read and write scientific papers. Many haven't been exposed to the process and culture of science.”

Language may play a part there, but it's a tiny and insignificant part. Or as Michael Gordin puts it:

“In countries where English isn't spoken, you shut out everyone but the well-educated.”

An advanced paper in science is only accessible to the well-educated in any language. And that assumes it can even be written. As Yangyang Cheng says:

“The Chinese language is rich and beautiful, but it still lacks much of the vocabulary that's needed to describe physical science. I don't even know how I would give a talk about my work in Chinese. It would take a lot of effort.”.

Montserrat Bosch Grau:

“[S]peaking at conferences, writing papers and asking for fellowships in English is harder and demands more energy when you're not a native speaker. You need to fight with the language. We need to improve English-language education before and during university.”

A good grasp of English is essential before you begin to study science. After having studied and trying to write your first paper, it's too late to learn. As a first year student and native German speaker I was unable to read a physics or archaeology text in German without first learning a whole new vocabulary. Whether those new words were derived from English or German was rather immaterial. But being taught in German and reading in English (plus French for archaeology) forced me to learn all those new words twice or even three times – how is that supposed to be easier? Tatsuya Amano highlights the problem of not publishing in English:

“We found that 36 % were published in a language other than English, which makes that information much less accessible to the wider world. We need to embrace linguistic diversity and to make a concerted effort to dig up scientific knowledge in languages other than English.”

How is it easier learning to read at least a dozen languages at an advanced level compared to learning to write just one? His conclusion makes no sense. I'll let Michael Gordin sum it up:

“Having a single global language of science makes the whole endeavour more efficient. There are around 6,000 languages in the world, today. If science were being conducted in all of them, a lot of knowledge would be lost. In the 1700s and 1800s, scientists in Europe often had to learn French, German and Latin to keep up with their fields. We've gained a lot by lowering the burden to just one language. Over the centuries, scientists worldwide have adapted to using English, but the language has also adapted to science. English has acquired a vocabulary for concepts and processes. When a new field emerges, its terminology piggybacks on the existing vocabulary. A lot of languages don't have that history, so they don't have the infrastructure of scientific vocabulary.”

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