Whorf and Thermodynamics

An exploration into how language can steer our perception of science

Can language sway how people perceive science? I think so. This week in class we saw that one simple word could have a huge impact on the way we make decisions. If we framed crime as a beast ravaging our cities, we were more likely to propose harsher punishments for those convicted of crimes. If we framed crime as a virus infecting our cities, we were more likely to propose preventative solutions like outreach to high-risk schools. Since language has such a big impact on policy decisions, it must just as strongly influence our understanding of science.

For example, consider the following situation. On a hot summer day, you forget to close the back door and your mom chastises you for having let out all the cold. Maybe you didn’t grow up in a warm climate like Florida, where I grew up. As a child you could’ve been told to enter your home quickly, “Hurry, you’re letting in the cold.” In either case, language is giving us the wrong impression of what is actually going on. Rather than letting the cold out (or in), we are doing the opposite: letting the heat in (or out). From thermodynamics, we know that heat flows during energy transfer; there is no such thing as ‘cold’ except to describe objects that are lacking heat. But through our use of language, the uneducated individual would be very misinformed about how heat transfer. As Benjamin Whorf would argue, language certainly steers how we think about the world.