Optics and Perception

“Optics” used to mean, “the science of light.”

Until recently, the only definition of the English word optics I was familiar with is this one:

optics noun: (plural usually treated as singular) a science that deals with light, its genesis and propagation, the effects that it undergoes and produces, and other phenomena closely associated with it —Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

Then I noticed it being used in a very different sense:

To put it mildly, the optics of firing Comey are terrible.

Once I noticed that example, many more jumped out at me. Here are a few:

[Because the Republican committee on health care is made up of 13 senators, none of them women], CNN’s Inside Politics host John King speculated about whether Republican leadership should, “for optics purposes, have tinkered with the working group.” Appearing as a guest on the same show, CNN’s Jeff Zeleny agreed with King that excluding women was “optically terrible.”

The issue itself is secondary to the optics of the Democrats opposing this administration in a high-profile way.

The optics are terrible, but it’s also a terrible waste of government money.

In each of these examples, the word optics is being used as I would use the word perception, to mean, “the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted,” or appearance, “the way things look.”

The noun perception and its verb perceive are often used in contrast to the word reality:

Sometimes, Perception is Just as Important as Reality

In the world of security, there is often a significant difference between perceived reality and what is actually happening.

Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.

We need to challenge many popular perceptions of old age.

Why take a scientific term like optics and start using it to replace ordinary words like perception and appearances? Possibly to obscure meaning.

It’s not clear who was first to use optics in the sense of perception. According to a 2010 article in the New York Times, it may have begun with bilingual Canadian political writers. In French, the word optique means both “the science of optics” and “perspective or point of view.”

In a 2009 On Language column, William Safire referred to this use of optics as a new buzzword in American usage, but about thirty years earlier, in 1978, Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation, Robert Strauss, said that inviting certain business leaders to the White House “would be a nice optical step.”

In my view, optics in the sense of perception or appearances is pompous jargon suited to politicians and other speakers whose purpose is to muddy communication. Writers and speakers who are committed to plain speaking and truth telling should probably leave it alone.