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Institute of Advanced Study

Science and Everyday Life: 'Water' vs 'H2O'


Water' is common to both scientific and vernacular language, and so is a good example with which to explore the disputed relationship between them.  Does vernacular usage defer to science, so that water must be H2O? If so, then for centuries the folk might apply the term to something that science may discover not to be water. Or may vernacular usage properly resist scientific reform, because it embodies a quite distinct body of knowledge and classificatory interests? In that case things that are not H2O may rightly continue to be called ‘water.' Call these options deference and difference: I argue that difference presupposes the basic adequacy and coherence of the vernacular usage. In the case of ‘water' that adequacy and coherence is missing unless the term tracks H2O content.

Insights Paper