Explaining ambiguity in scientific language

Synthese 200 (5):1-27 (2022)
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The idea that ambiguity can be productive in data science remains controversial. Efforts to make scientific publications and data intelligible to computers generally assume that accommodating multiple meanings for words, known as polysemy, undermines reasoning and communication. This assumption has nonetheless been contested by historians, philosophers, and social scientists, who have applied qualitative research methods to demonstrate the generative and strategic value of polysemy. Recent quantitative results from linguistics have also shown how polysemy can actually improve the efficiency of human communication. I present a new conceptual typology based on a synthesis of prior research about the aims, norms, and circumstances under which polysemy arises and is evaluated. The typology supports a contextual pluralist view of polysemy’s value for scientific research practices: polysemy does both substantial positive and negative work in science, but its utility is context-sensitive in ways that are often overlooked by the norms people have formulated to regulate its use, including prior scholars researching polysemy. I also propose that historical patterns in the use of partial synonyms, i.e. terms with overlapping meanings, provide an especially promising phenomenon for integrative research addressing these issues.

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Beckett Sterner
Arizona State University


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