Wednesday, October 24. 2012
In the Scientific American blog recently there was a rather poor article about the science supporting different stances on homosexuality. In fairness, it starts with two quite popular questions: Is being gay a choice? and Is being gay determined by our genes? At this point the article turns poor because it suggests that the scientific answer to both of these questions is yes and that this is a quandary. The correct answer is "These questions are both too imprecise, especially as a pair, to answer scientifically."
If we rephrase them to remove that imprecise word "gay" we get some different answers. Gay, in this sort of context, has at least two meanings. One is "Are you predisposed to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex?" The other, rather more imprecise still is roughly "Are you actively interested in or involved in a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex?"
So lets try using those wordings. We get four questions:
And now some answers:
There is no quandary. There are badly worded, imprecise questions used to confuse people unwilling to actually think.
Another blog I read (tagged as NSFW although this article is SFW) recently complained about the confusion regarding love and fascination or rather their lack of precision. I found I disagreed with both of the examples given (although the conclusion regarding having a healthy, safe space for your fantasies is good). We very rarely use ambiguous words alone. Love! doesn't really make sense. Stop! does though. But we'd struggle to find a dozen shades of meaning for stop - or even three meanings. As soon as we have other words in the mix, in the sentence or in the paragraph we have a context. And that context gives us, if well written, at least some of the rest of the meaning. Having those ambiguous words lets us play word games, make puns and jokes - even bad ones like "Which do you love more, Daddy or chips?" - and use language in interesting ways. The story linked to in which the woman loves the Eiffel Tower - in a romantic, amorous sense - only works because love is ambiguous. If we saw "Woman has amorous, romantic interest in the Eiffel Tower" we might think she's a bit odd, but the story is suddenly less interesting to read than "Woman loves Eiffel Tower... and wants to marry it!" despite being the same story. The change is because the story about the amorous, romantic interest is plainly reporting an oddity. Leading with "Woman love Eiffel Tower" plays with our expectations and most of us like this sort of word game. Ambiguities like this can be fun, make communicating more interesting and engaging - which is surely good.
Sure, these ambiguities can be misused, as in the "Is being gay a choice? Is being gay determined by our genes?" example - but if we're daft enough not to be able to work out there's something wrong then, rather than a job blogging for Scientific American, I've got a bridge in London you might like to buy...
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