Thursday 26 March 2020

What's in a name? The importance of names in understanding ideas

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The above quote taken literally is something we could test. If we called a rose, a “putrid shit flower” and asked people to rate the smell of it, would it affect how we experience the smell? Perhaps we would rate the smell of the “putrid shit flower” slightly worse than if we called it a “rose” because our brains are looking for a foul smelling thing and we do not find one. When we smell a “rose”, however, we are looking for a nice smelling thing and find one. I am not suggesting that the putrid shit flower would smell bad but I could theoretically see how it would affect our experience of smell.*

The reason why names are important is because they are the first thing people usually come in contact with before understand ideas. You may hear the name of a concept in passing such as in a conversation or on the radio. Sometimes a name gives us clues to what the thing is about. For example the German word for gloves is handschuhe which directly translated into English means hand shoes. If I know what a hand is and I know what a shoe is, a shoe that goes on your hand is not a bad description for a glove.

Badly named ideas, however, are a problem. To understand this one only has to look at an idea that has only been really around in the UK for the last 20 days or so: social distancing.

The purpose of social distancing is to slow the spread of the pandemic. Not only do people need to comply with social distancing for it to work, they need to understand what it is first before they can act on it.

Now this point is often quite difficult to explain to informed people. My bet is that if you are reading this, you are more than likely aware of what socially distancing is and why it is important. But for a lot of people, they will form their understanding of the phrase “social distancing” from the word itself.

Let us try to imagine hearing social distancing for the first time. Social distancing sounds like a wanky thing that Gwyneth Paltrow would say like “self-care” or “conscious uncoupling”. This is especially so if you first heard it from a celebrity rather than a scientist. You may also think that it means to stop hanging out with friends. Being “social” is more frequently used to mean interacting with your mates rather than relating to society as a whole. Even though not interacting with your friends is partly right, you may still continue to gather in crowds when you shop which is wrong.

You may rightly ask, if people were unsure of the concept why do they not ask? Firstly, you need to be aware that you are unsure. You may think you have guessed right from the name alone like handschuhe. Even if you do ask someone else, they have to correctly know what social distancing is or they may give you a wrong answer. Assuming you do find someone that knows the correct definition, there are still a multitude of ways things could go wrong. Maybe you were too embarrassed to ask because you didn’t want to look stupid. Maybe you misheard the explanation. Maybe you didn’t bother asking as you thought it wasn’t important.

Finally, some of you may go so far as to even google it but again there are still loads of problems here: you gave up trying to understand due to conflicting information or got distracted etc. So after all this, you are still stuck with your gleaned understanding from the naming of “socially distancing” itself.

The problem gets worse once someone’s understanding of an idea takes hold. For example, some people will be adamant that social distancing means staying at home all the time. Trying to convince them otherwise can be extremely difficult. To this extent I think the WHO trying to rebrand socially distancing as physically distancing won’t catch on.

So what can we do to solve this problem? Well firstly, when you think of a name for something, be extremely careful! However, most of the time names for these sort of thing are not made up with this in mind. It was probably a couple of epidemiologists in a room  who both understood what the concept meant and needed a quick shorthand for it. But when communicating this idea to the public they really should have thought about the consequences. If you can model for the spread of disease you can a model how people will understand a concept!

*My anecdotal evidence from wine tasting is that people are easily primed. If you say some random fruit, people will start to smell that fruit. It is kind of like saying to someone “don’t think of an elephant”.

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