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Cladistics: A problem of language



Having noticed for sometime now the little "flare-ups" over cladistics,
I'd like to offer an idea that might help bring some clarity rather than
heat to the conversations.


One of the joys and pitfalls of science is "jargon."  Have you ever gone
to a doctor and  had a medico-babble conversation peppered with long
words and Latin terminology? Eventually you need to get the doc to tell
you that you have a tummy ache and that pepto bismal will work.

Within a discipline, the finest and most intelligent practitioners
evolve an "in-group" language that is perfectly useful and meaningful to
them and gets a lot of work done. To outsiders, however, the language is
often incomprehensible.

Cladistics uses extraodinarily fine shadings of meanings in its jargon.
And my perception is that as often as not, there are many
misunderstandings that have to do with very idiosyncratic and subjective
definitions. 

I can remember the first time I encountered the whole notion of
cladistics, it involved no less than five re-writes of the article I was
working on! And, without mentioning names, the subject of the piece was
one of our leading paleontologists AND he was extraordinarily patient
and helpful in working it out and explaining.

Some of the longer threads have, at their root, previous publication
and/or previous discussion and conversation between the participants:
however, not everyone has followed them.

Perhaps, if folks held it in mind that language and jargon are intended
to clarify and not obfuscate, it might lead to some "simpler"
descriptions of the "precise" issues involved rather than dealing with
differences in subjective definition.

Clearly, I'm very interested in following the discussions, but, frankly,
it is not always easy, and this is offered in a constructive spirit
hoping that it will make my life (and maybe someone else's) a little
easier.

Edward Summer

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