Common sense, as discussed here some time ago, is a tool we use in everyday life to sort out our surroundings. But it evolved to solve certain problems arising in the everyday experience of cavemen, or hunter-gatherers. Science takes us far from that realm of experience and so, common sense is not to be trusted if one wants to understand the world scientifically.
Scientists have common sense too, but they learn not to rely too much on it.
Speaking of which I am reminded of another tool for everyday life that cannot be applied unchanged to science --language. Languages, like common sense, developed in the “normal” world of everyday experience. Guided by our limited perception, we invented concepts like “light” and “sound,” and gave them special names We created words for everything we could see, hear, or otherwise perceive. We named what we could imagine. But our imagination rarely creates something new. It only puts together existing conceptual elements, however artfully. Our mental constructs are not unlike Frankenstein’s monster.
In the relatively recent past science and technology have revealed that what we call light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the part that our eyes can see; and what we call sound is only the range of pressure wave frequencies that our ears can detect. We now use these words for light that cannot be seen and sound that cannot be heard. When confronted with new scientific developments, everyday language is forced to either stretch the meaning of extant words, or create new words by agglutination. The term electromagnetic is a case in point. Like the concept it labels, it is the result of putting together “electric” and “magnetic.” Now elektron is Greek for amber. When rubbed with a piece of cloth, amber has the strange property of attracting small objects placed nearby. This property we call electricity. Magnetism is the property of the lodestone, a material also known as magnetite after the ancient Greek city of Magnesia. The word electromagnetic is a Frankenstein monster assembled with parts of other Frankenstein monsters.
There is yet another typical reaction of language to new developments, and that is not to react at all. We have known that the earth spins on its axis these four hundred years. Yet we still say that the sun rises and that the sun sets.
So, not surprisingly, scientific language sometimes clashes with the rules of “good” English (or “good” Spanish). A scientist friend of mine was recently asked by a Spanish teacher to write a short text as an example of scientific language for a book she was writing. My friend complied, and soon got back a “corrected” version (corrupted is more like it) of his text from the teacher. She objected to his use of the phrase “almost constant.” She argued that being constant is not a matter of degree --either you are or you’re not. She is right, of course, but as my friend points out, the meaning of this phrase is self-explanatory, and to say the same thing in pristine Castillian Spanish would require a lengthy circumlocution. Scientists often don’t have time or space for such niceties. (Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that they should not try to write good Spanish or good English whenever possible.)