The answer, it turns out, is "Offer weapon." Or, hold on... maybe it's "Use weapon?" Or "Offer tool?" On most days of a linguistics professor's life, a tricky translation would be an opportunity for some hearty discussion, or maybe a conference presentation. Now, though, shit is real. The president needs an answer, and the answer definitely cannot be, "Well, you see, there is an interesting nuance to the term tool..."
The trade-off between providing useful answers and being upfront about the limitations of any inquiry is one that we often deal with in my field, cognitive neuroscience. Here's a real-world example: In the 2005 landmark case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court determined that individuals cannot be sentenced to capital punishment for crimes committed before they turned 18. Evidence from psychology and cognitive neuroscience suggested that the parts of the brain involved in decision-making do not fully mature until a person is in their 20s. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote "as the scientific and sociological studies... tend to confirm, '[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults.'"
Subsequent majority opinions in other cases have also cited neuroimaging findings in decisions about the sentencing of juveniles. Among certain audiences, something about the nature of brain data in particular draws a stronger argument than psychological data, even when they both help us to draw the same conclusion. Brains feel more biological, more objective, more, well, science-y.
The neuroimaging research that was cited in these cases was brand-new. The entire field is brand-new on the grand timeline of scientific research. We are still developing the methods used to study the human brain. Every year, scientists gain greater insight into the nuances, the caveats, and the limitations of our current understanding of adolescent brain development. We could say, "Sorry, government, check back with us in 20 years when we are super-duper confident about our findings," but in the meantime, how many young men and women's lives would be irrevocably altered? And who is to say that we'll have it all figured out in 20 years?
That's how science works: The more you know, the more you realize that you are just scratching the surface. It's never done and finished, especially when it comes to the stuff that keeps evolving, like people and brains and language. The worry of Arrival, though, is that unless Louise comes up with an answer fast, a lot of people might stop evolving -- or even existing -- altogether.