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Arguing over the use of words in science


Is sematics in science important enough to argue about?
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I think often, in science, it turns out that you find yourself arguing with somebody, and then you actually realise that the argument is only about what words you want to use for what things. No, I don't think that's trivial, by any means. I mean, it can be very important what words you use for... for what things, you know. But I think it's terribly important when you're doing science and you find yourself disagreeing with somebody, to realise what kind of a disagreement is it. Is it disagreement just about the use of words, which doesn't mean it's not important, but it's a different kind of argument than an argument about what you think the world is like. And indeed, there might even be a third kind of argument, which we've touched on when talking about Bill Hamilton and your different views of the way of imaging the evolution of social behaviour. It... it may not be an argument about either words or what the word is like, but what is the easiest way of looking at the world. What's the... the clearest imaging of the world. And there, you may never be able to decide. I mean, one person may say, 'I find it easier to look at it from this side,' and somebody may say, 'But no, I find it easier to look at it from that side.' And if so, I don't think there's any way of settling it rationally, you just have to encourage the students to learn both ways and choose whichever way they like.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: WD Hamilton

Duration: 1 minute, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008