Of Words and Their Power: Three Examples and a Musing

I’ve been thinking lately about terms and terminology, and the power of words.  Consider the following three examples:

  • Global Warming and climate change.  What is the difference between them?   There are people who feel strongly about using one term versus the other.  Why?
  • While discussing International Law in the context of climate change in Week 4 of my UCSD course on climate change, Dr. David Victor used terms such as “developed countries,” “developing countries” and “Least Developed Countries.”  Some people still use “First World” and “Third World” to refer to countries such as the United States and Indonesia respectively.  What does the usage of such terms imply?
  • Finally, in my own work as a professor at an undergraduate institution, it is commonplace to speak of the STEM pipeline, where STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The pipeline in this case starts with grade school, goes on to college, and presumably deposits a graduate at the doors of an engineering firm or a biotechnology company.  We speak of the “leak in the STEM pipeline,” referring to the disenchantment that so many students experience with these subjects from as early as middle school, thus abandoning possible careers in STEM fields.  I’ve used these terms myself, without being really comfortable with them.

So what does it matter what term we use, in either of these three examples?  Words matter, of course, because they mean something, define a concept, identify an idea.  But words matter also because they can be used as instruments of obfuscation, or derailment, or distraction.  In addition they can help reveal our underlying assumptions about the world.  Our worldviews and paradigms are the air we breathe, the sea in which we swim.  We are often unaware of them, but the words we use might reveal the underlying topography of our belief systems and thereby enable us to question some of our fundamental assumptions.

Consider the first example: Global Warming versus Global Climate change.  When I first heard about the issue of rising global average surface temperatures, the term used was “Global Warming.”  I recall hearing about global climate change later on.  Apparently some people who didn’t ‘believe in’ global warming, but admitted something was going on with climate found ‘climate change’ more palatable.  I once attended a talk by someone we’d now call a climate change denier or contrarian, back in the early 2000s.  He showed numerous graphs and charts and impressive amounts of data to support the idea of Global Cooling.  Several of the graphs had no units displayed (wonderful teaching moment during Q&A time for the students present) and the speaker cherry-picked data to match his ideas instead of showing the full range of data – tricks that I would later come to recognize as belonging to the toolkit of climate-confusion-mongering.  (For a lovely animated example, see this from Skeptical Science).  While I don’t recall whether he used the term climate change, he did seem sold on the idea of global cooling as a very real threat to humanity, and I can imagine that ‘climate change’ might be his preferred term.  But it turns out that the term ‘climate change’ has also been ascribed by deniers to be the term of preference of scientists.  The myth goes that there has been a deliberate switching of terms from ‘global warming’ to ‘global climate change’ because scientists found no evidence for global warming but did not want to admit it.  Alas, global warming is all too real.  What’s also real is that the two terms have been in use in the scientific literature since at least the 1970s, and mean somewhat different things.

Here’s Skeptical Science again:

What The Science Says:

There have long been claims that some unspecificed “they” has “changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change'”. In reality, the two terms mean different things, have both been used for decades, and the only individual to have specifically advocated changing the name in this fashion is a global warming ‘skeptic’.

There are important reasons to prefer the term Global Climate Change to Global Warming when describing what is happening to Planet Earth due to humanity’s use of fossil fuels.  As Richard Somerville pointed out in one of his lectures a few weeks ago, Global Warming implies only temperature rise, whereas Global Climate Change is a broader term that embraces global warming and its consequences, such as sea level rise, more frequent extreme weather events, and so on.  Seen this way, both terms have their uses, and in fact both are used in the proper context by people who take these matters seriously.  It is fascinating to see how deniers have played with the two terms for their own ends.

During the week when we learned about International Policy on climate change, I had occasion to think about another commonly used set of terms.  I am by no means an expert on politics or international affairs, but my sense is that it is no longer quite OK to use terms like First World or Third World, although they are still widely used.  Perhaps more in vogue are the presumably less insulting “developed countries,” “developing countries” and “least developed countries.”  I realize that these terms are widely accepted and have a history of usage, but to me they are all problematic.  “First World” and “Third World” obscure the fact that we live on one planet, and that our actions and their consequences are interconnected across nations and continents.  The nomenclature adds insult to injury because many of the ‘first world’ nations got fat by exploiting ruthlessly the countries they now refer to as “third world,” and that process hasn’t stopped in some cases.  However the terms “developed countries,” “developing countries” and “least developed countries” are no less problematic.  They are commonly used in various treaties and agreements, since the countries thus categorized form different interest groups, and their commitments might be different for that reason.  All well and good.  But looked at more deeply, the terms reveal some disturbing assumptions.

Foremost is the assumption that there is only one path to development, and by default it is the path taken by the Western industrialized nations.  The implication is that the latter are leading, while the rest of the world follows along as best it can.  (For a 20 minute reality check, check out this animated feature, The Story of Stuff ).

[I’m told that now there is another term for ‘developing countries’ – “Emerging Economies,” as though a country and its people, its geography, its history and culture, its issues and triumphs can all be reduced to the marketplace].

So while the ‘First World’ has brought us many wonderful things, the question is whether the path it has followed to where we are today should be emulated.  Are there other paths to food security, comfort and safety?  Are there ways to provide education, electricity and healthy food to people without exploiting other people or trashing our natural resources?

Such questions are explored in the realm of sustainable development.  What is the opposite of sustainable development?  Perhaps ‘destructive’ or ‘unsustainable’ development might serve.  But I can’t see that terminology being adopted very soon.

Words are important.  A nomenclature that rests on a different paradigm, a healthier one, might be, for instance:

Sustainably developed countries (SDCs) — (defined clearly to be carbon-free economies that eschew exploitation of people, or destruction and pillage of natural resources) – there could be many different kinds of SDCs

Developed Countries (DCs) – Western Industrialized nations and Japan, aiming to be SDCs by (necessarily) changing their paths

Crossroads countries or Transition countries (CCs or TCs) – formerly known as ‘developing’ or ‘least developed’ countries, these are nations that are in a state of transition from post-colonial, or climatic, or economic collapse of some other kind, and are also aiming to be SDCs by leapfrogging over the carbon economy.

A simple shift in terminology can open up the imagination to alternative possibilities and pathways.  The canvas suddenly appears broader.  Given a broader canvas, creative human minds can come up with practical ideas to realize some of these alternative possibilities, ideas that could not have been conceptualized easily before.  Language can both free and constrain the imagination, after all.

A related matter is the debate around defining a country’s progress through the exclusive use of Gross Domestic Product or GDP, which is the total monetary value of all products and services produced annually within the country.  This might serve to give an idea of the economic state of the country, but it has been argued that it does not measure economic well-being very accurately.  Among other things it ignores environmental impacts of these products, excludes ecosystem services that the environment provides for free, such as breathable air,  and excludes things people do without pay, such as parents (typically women) taking care of their children.  This New York times blog post  discusses alternatives to GDP, including everything from China’s “green GDP” to Bhutan’s GNH (Gross National Happiness).

My first two examples are clearly related.  Global Warming, Climate Change, and how we might journey, as peoples and nations, toward a sustainable economy.  At first sight it may not be obvious how my third example of the “STEM pipeline” is related to the first two.  Let us consider this.

A ‘pipeline’ is a metaphor that suggests a liquid, or sludge of some kind, flowing through a pipe.  There is an entry point, and an exit point at which the sludge leaves the pipeline.  The liquid, whether it is water or sewage or oil from tar sands, has no other path to follow than the one prescribed by the pipeline.  It also has no other purpose.  The existence of the pipe constrains both its path and its reason for existing.  To me the ‘pipeline’ idea conjures up an assembly line.  A bunch of disconnected parts of a machine moving on a conveyor belt, being attached together by automatons, each cog having only one purpose, one meaning.  Looked at this way, the STEM pipeline suggests that students, starting from elementary school, are put on some kind of conveyor belt where teachers at various stages put their minds together in a way that makes them finished products for industry.  Now I am not against preparation for jobs and the real world – far from it.  Nor am I unaware of the connection between a healthy economy (at least as defined by the GDP) and lots of qualified STEM applicants.  I spend a lot of my time preparing students for competencies in these fields, and am well aware that we all have to eat and have a roof over our heads.  But the metaphor is, to me, disturbing.  It suggests that the pipeline, being a pipeline, has just that one purpose – to produce nicely polished cogs for the great industrial machine.  And that as educators our responsibility is that the cogs are well cut and shiny.  Consider for instance the Fuel for Schools initiative from the oil and gas giant, Chevron.

“Fuel Your School is an innovative collaboration to help our local public schools and to help support young students with an effective education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM),” said Dale Walsh, president of Chevron Americas Products. “At Chevron, we depend on an educated workforce to meet our business needs, and we know that an educated and skilled workforce helps lead to economic growth for our business and the communities where we operate.”

For every eight gallons or more of gasoline purchased by consumers in participating gas stations, the program received a dollar, generating over $7 million.  The article goes on to state that “Chevron works with education organizations, government officials, non-profit organizations and community leaders to develop and support innovative programs that invest in tomorrow’s workforce by educating students, supporting teacher training, providing classroom resources, supporting educational standards, funding out-of-school activities and preparing workers to excel in their jobs, including possible engineering positions at Chevron.”

For an oil giant to help push the idea of a STEM pipeline makes sense from their perspective.  Industry has clearly defined goals, and well-defined jobs to further those goals.  Part of the work of educational institutions is indeed to help our students obtain good jobs.  In my opinion, producing job-worthiness, while necessary, is not sufficient in terms of our role as educators.  There is an overlap between what the employer wants and what the educator wants from a student, but that’s just it – it’s an overlap.  Call me an idealist, but there is so much more to what education is about than only producing job candidates for employers of any stripe.  Contrast the statement from Chevron above with this definition of a liberal arts education from the Association of American Colleges and Universities:

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

To me the metaphor of the pipeline is counter to the spirit of a liberal arts education.  Education should help serve the economy but it should also be above it.  A ‘pipeline’ model could not have produced  scientists like Sherwood Rowland or Mario Molina, who discovered an inconvenient truth about certain classes of chemicals called CFCs – that they could destroy the protective ozone layer in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.  This discovery was made in a public research university that is a member of the AAC&U (University of California, Irvine).

Einstein famously said that “Imagination is more important than Knowledge.”  Our tendency to chunk up the world into disconnected bits, to look at things one-dimensionally  – whether it is labeling countries or looking at students solely as industry fodder – ultimately is a failure of the imagination.  It may have very deep roots historically, going all the way back to the Newtonian paradigm of the clockwork universe, which has given us the power to change the world, not always for good.  We have been enculturated to limit our concerns and our attention to the short-term and our immediate surroundings, to think only of the bottom line, to view the world with the blinkered vision that prevents us from seeing the full human potential of a student, or make the connection between the flipping of a light switch and the melting of a glacier.

I will end with a quote from the poet Blake, who could not accept the philosophical implications of the reductionist Newtonian worldview.  He was right – for all the power of the Newtonian paradigm, it is true that the universe is not, in fact, Newtonian.  God save us, Blake said, “from single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

Maybe it’s time to wake up.



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One Response to Of Words and Their Power: Three Examples and a Musing

  1. Judith Otto says:

    Last Sunday’s Boston Globe (I think) had a review of a new book called “GDP: A brief but affectionate history” that, despite the title, apparently outlines the shortcomings of the metric. (As do the Econ101 textbooks that I have seen.)

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