One of the key functions of science is to organize knowledge. Scientists take new information and classify and categorize it — connect it with the known. Name it. But knowing the name of the thing is not the same as knowing the thing.
One of the key functions of science is to organize knowledge. Scientists take new information and classify and categorize it — connect it with the known. New species of insect? Find its closest relative and then name it. New human disease? Describe its symptoms and name it. New molecular mechanism? Identify its physiological or pathophysiological role and name it. But knowing the name of the thing is not the same as knowing the thing.
Richard Feynman, the famed physicist and Nobel laureate, told a story of how his father helped him distinguish knowing the name of the bird versus knowing something about the bird. While the story might not be accurate, the principle is: that knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing it.
However, having a common language is necessary to build knowledge. Doctors spend years memorizing a unique and specific language in order to communicate with other doctors. She has ageusia; he has anosmia. While these might mean nothing to you and me, these words immediately trigger an understanding of what could be wrong with a patient and how a doctor should treat them. Without this language, the ability to communicate and act upon knowledge would be hindered. She has lost her ability to taste which could be neurological damage or problems with her endocrine system; he has lost his ability to smell which could be an infection or COVID-19.
The key argument that Dan Kahneman makes in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that a specific language allows a rapid understanding of the underlying complexity. He anthropomorphizes quick-thinking and slow-thinking characters in order to develop a common language around bias. Importantly, he argues that having this language allows people to describe biases and act to reduce them.
Naming something is an inevitable byproduct of discovery. Many scientists have tension around naming things. On one hand, a sure-fire way to ensure a scientific legacy is to discover and name something. Alzheimer’s disease is named after German psychiatrist and pathologist Alois Alzheimer, who first described the constellation of symptoms in 1906. Cajal bodies are spherical bodies found in the nucleus of proliferative cells. They were initially discovered by neurobiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1903 as small spots in the nuclei of silver-stained neuronal cells. Charles Darwin, famed for his theory of evolution in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, has finches, frogs, and flies named after him. On the other hand, no scientist wants to be the person who goes around naming things trying to ensure their legacy: Heureka disease, Heureka bodies, Insecticus heurekas.
Perhaps the key distinction is that naming something allows both a rapid mechanism to describe the new thing, but also where it fits in the world of knowledge. The whole point of having new information is linking it to prior knowledge. Like the physician, knowing the name of the thing reveals how it could be further built upon. In the end, we have little control over what things are called, and if the names will be lasting. Instead, we want to know the name of the thing and something about it, regardless of what it is called.