Philosophy of Science, Part IV with Nathan Pearson: A Scientist Responds


Guest: Nathan Pearson, Senior Director of Scientific Engagement & Public Outreach, New York Genome Center

Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:44 Asking the "why" questions

5:55 The biological editor

11:53 Has the language of biology limited us scientifically?

16:02 Latin vs. plain language

20:17 Presenting genomics to the lay audience

23:30 Has the reductionist approach been codified into the language of biology?

29:58 Do scientists listen to philosophers?

For the next segment of our Philosophy of Science series, we talk not with a philosopher, but with a scientist. Nathan Pearson has been a genome scientist at Knome and Ingenuity Systems, and just this month began with the cool title, Senior Director of Scientific Engagement & Public Outreach at the New York Genome Center. On today's program Nathan responds to some of the ideas that have surfaced in this series. How is the study of biology limited by language? Is a certain amount of reductionism codified right into the language of biology?

Nathan studied linguistics in college, so his knowledge of language is deeper than that of many scientists. But he's also part of the working industry of science. Starting with a discussion about the many ways language and biology intersect, Nathan explains how the history of language affected the study of biology.

Becoming aware of his own language in the interview, Nathan says that since Latin was first used as the language of science, we have always "prized the long flowery way of saying something as somehow being better than the one syllable--or beat [he corrects himself]--way of saying it."

He's against the flowery approach, and says there's a movement in science, law, and business toward using plainer language. And what is the argument against this transition?

"That it's less precise," he says, "which is fluff."

He recites several older Saxon words which are every bit as precise--and more impactful, he argues--as the latinate words. Gut vs. intestine and gullet vs. esophagus, for example.

That's all fine and interesting, but the big question is whether Nathan thinks language is responsible for an overly reductionist approach to biology?

The culprit is more math than language, he says. We end with a discussion about whether scientists even listen to philosophers.

While chatting about philosophy of science at a recent conference with Nathan, industry veteran Lee Hood walked by, and we threw some ideas at him. Always focused and in a rush to somewhere with a retinue following him, Lee nonetheless stopped in his tracks and demonstrated some enthusiasm for the topic.

"Scratch a scientist and you get a philosopher," quipped Nathan.

So we put Nathan in front of the camera and scratched him.

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