Space and subject classification

The importance of classification, like any other piece of information, is that it affects the way people think and behave. Let’s say that a big space story breaks, and the editors of The New York Times want someone to cover it. Each journalist has a beat: national, local, foreign, sports, business, science, etc. Space is classified under science, so the editors choose a science journalist. The science journalist will naturally emphasize the science component of the story, and will contact scientists for their reaction to the story. During this whole process, from the editors to the journalist to the finished article, no one is deliberately promoting the science aspects of the story. Everyone simply accepts and works under the assumption that space belongs to science.

Saying that space is a region, and not a science or technology, does not mean that science and technology are unimportant. Science and technology are essential to space activities, and will continue to be so. Saying that space is a region allows other important subjects to be considered as well. —Michael Huang

Space and subject classification (The Space Review)

The caption that goes along with this brief story is misleading: “People looking for books about space in a library usually end up in the science or technology section; should those books instead be in the geography section?”

Huang never actually mentions “geography”. There’s an etymological problem with suggesting that “space” is a subset of “geo-” (a root with the meaning “earth”).

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with terms like “Martian earthquake,” since the lowercased “earth” just means “soil”. Thus, “the geology of Mars” makes sense. Still, this isn’t a debate Huang started — it was inadvertently started by whoever wrote the caption.

Huang starts with a reference to Orwell, noting that the latter criticizes “the habitual use of euphemisms and opaque language for political ends”. But I’m not sure that Orwell is really the right person to cite here.

On Mike Vitia’s blog, I wrote recently about politics in the composition classroom. Mike noted that an attempt by an instructor to free a student from the grip of a dominant ideology is, in practice, typically hard to distinguish from the instructor’s attempt to convert students to a different ideology (such as the one in whose grip the instructor happily resides). An ideology that says the composition classroom is no place for ideological diatribes is, itself, an ideology, since no human can really be completely objective, and all communication is a rhetorical act of some sort. I think Mike made a good point and I enjoyed being prodded to post a few thoughts about the subject.

So it’s fair to argue that the classification of “space” as a subcategory of “science” serves a political interest, even if there is no secret cabal of experts in smoky rooms who set things up that way to serve nefarious (or noble) ends. Orwell was talking about the deliberate use of passive verbs and the invention of euphemisms to deceive. That’s something a little different from the habitual use of a received metaphor. One such is the conduit metaphor, which Reddy says conditions us to think of communication as the transfer of information from the sender to the receiver. Reddy suggests a constructivist metaphor, which invites us to consider the hard work the receiver has to do in order to build a mental model to make sense of what someone else is saying.