11 August 2005

Lost in translation

I had an intermittent smirk on my face last night. I mean, how can someone look at the captioning for this Japanese Elmo toy and not laugh? The enthusiasm of bad translation has a charm all its own. It's that mix of absolute earnest sincerity of people trying to do their best and an end product that is wildly off the mark and hysterically funny to the fluent speakers.

I think much of the same problem affects scientists and the general public. Science, much like a language, has its own words and a distinct way of thinking. So when non-scientists try talk about scientific issues, the results are often very much like the examples of bad translation you might find on Engrish.com or Hanzi Smatter. A recent example concerns the American president's comments where he endorses teaching "intelligent design." In brief, intelligent design argues, "Living organisms are so complex, someone or something must have made them." Unstated but implicit is that the Christian God is that someone or something. It's an old, old argument, whose best known formation came from William Paley, though I suspect variations of it existed before.

His comments drew severe fire from scientists worldwide (see, e.g., this related article), and Bush's own science advisor was trying to put the best light on his boss's comments (i.e., backtracking, disagreeing, what have you). In fairness, today's editorial in Nature gives a more optimistic reading of Bush's statements (text from Pharyngula).

I would definitely see the humour in the situation if the consequences were not so serious. Intelligent design is not science, and that is widely known in biology. So why do so many people buy into the proposition that it is somehow legitimate science? I think there's a similar occurrences when non-scientists try to talk about scientific matter as when foreign corporations try to put English on their packages. Complete sincerity and incomplete knowledge producing a laughable result.

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