Ambiguity in Scientific Language

Precision of language is a virtue so lauded as to seldom be questioned. And yet, a new article by Peter McMahan and James Evans in the American Journal of Sociology — “Ambiguity and Engagement” — shows the potential upside of ambiguous language. This, from Evans’s Facebook post:

Everyone from scientists writing a research paper to criminals under interrogation use ambiguity to widen their appeal or claim more or less than they know. In “Ambiguity and Engagement”, we measure ambiguity in language and explore its consequence for social life. We build a measure of ambiguity in language and demonstrate that when calculated on New York Times articles captures most of the ambiguity perceived by surveyed readers. Next, we assessed ambiguity across millions of article abstracts from science and scholarship, revealing that the humanities and social sciences use language most ambiguously, while chemistry, biology and biomedicine use it most precisely. Finally, we show that more ambiguity systematically—in all time periods and subject areas—is associated with greater association and engagement, as readers reference one another in prolonged conversations. While ambiguous language could lead to fragmentation and disconnection, as audiences understand it in conflicting ways, these findings demonstrate that instead it draws competing interpretations together into conversation with one another as they build on it. [emphasis added]

Association and engagement seem to be measured through fragmentation of citations: Greater fragmentation means that articles are cited by other articles in sub-literatures that don’t cite each other: the academic citation version of cliques.

Here’s how different disciplines line up on ambiguity:

ambiguity 2

Here’s a word from the article’s discussion:

Articles that use more ambiguous language tend to result in more integrated streams of citations tracing intellectual engagement. This pattern underscores the interpretation of ambiguity not only as a limitation but also as a potentially fruitful characteristic of language. Ambiguity leads to individual and collective uncertainty about communicated meanings in academic discourse. Uncertainty drives social interaction and friction, which yields coordination.

Disclosure: James Evans is my brother.

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2 thoughts on “Ambiguity in Scientific Language”

  1. Love it – precise measurement of ambiguity! Best thing I ever read about this is William Byers, The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty, which made similar arguments about the creative power of ambiguity. He’s a maths prof, and I note the comparatively high level of ambiguity in the table – looks to me like social sciences are suboptimally unambiguous!

    1. It’s as you said on twitter, Duncan: The economists are bringing the rest of social science down on ambiguity! Thanks for the tip on the Byers book.

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