Some Unfortunate Choices in Mathematics Terminology
Words can be tricky things. The same word can often carry wholly different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. Take, for instance, the semantic range of the word “light.” This word can carry very different meanings when used in different contexts, as the following sentences illustrate.
- That feather is light.
- That shade of pink is light.
- That laserbeam is light.
Each one of these sentences is of the form “That <noun phrase> is light,” but the word “light” intends an entirely different thing, in each. In (1), “light” is a description of the weight of the feather. In (2), “light” is a description of the intensity of the shade of pink. In (3), “light” is a description of the physical nature of the laserbeam. There is a well known fallacy of logic called equivocation which involves conflating such definitions in order to arrive at a false conclusion. For example, if I said…
- Light things weigh less than heavy things
- This shade of pink is light
- Therefore, this shade of pink weighs less than heavy things
…my logic would be invalid, because the definitions of “light” used in (1) and (2) are completely different.
Mathematics, unfortunately, contains some terminology which tends to lead to these same sorts of equivocation fallacies, because the common usage of a word very often differs from the mathematical usage of that word. While there are numerous examples from which I could likely choose, today I’m going to focus on a case which I believe to be particularly egregious. Today, I’m going to discuss Real and Imaginary numbers.