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The Ontology-Epistemology Divide: A Case Study in Medical Terminology
Medical terminology collects and organizes the many different kinds of terms employed in the biomedical domain both by practitioners and also in the course of biomedical research. In addition to serving as labels for biomedical classes, these names reflect the organizational principles of biomedical vocabularies and ontologies. Some names represent invariant features (classes, universals) of biomedical reality (i.e., they are a matter for ontology). Other names, however, convey also how this reality is perceived, measured, and understood by health professionals (i.e., they belong to the domain of epistemology). We analyze terms from several biomedical vocabularies in order to throw light on the interactions between ontological and epistemological components of these terminologies. We identify four cases: 1) terms containing classification criteria, 2) terms reflecting detectability, modality, uncertainty, and vagueness, 3) terms created in order to obtain a complete partition of a given domain, and 4) terms reflecting mere fiat boundaries. We show that epistemology-loaded terms are pervasive in biomedical vocabularies, that the "classes" they name often do not comply with sound classification principles, and that they are therefore likely to cause problems in the evolution and alignment of terminologies and associated ontologies.