‘Just a Theory’: 7 Misused Science Words

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Hypothesis. Theory. Law. These scientific words get bandied about regularly, yet the general public usually gets their meaning wrong.


Now, one scientist is arguing that people should do away with these misunderstood words altogether and replace them with the word "model." But those aren't the only science words that cause trouble, and simply replacing the words with others will just lead to new, widely misunderstood terms, several other scientists said.

"A word like 'theory' is a technical scientific term," said Michael Fayer, a chemist at Stanford University. "The fact that many people understand its scientific meaning incorrectly does not mean we should stop using it. It means we need better scientific education."

From "theory" to "significant," here are seven scientific words that are often misused.

1. Hypothesis

The general public so widely misuses the words hypothesis, theory and law that scientists should stop using these terms, writes physicist Rhett Allain of Southeastern Louisiana University, in a blog post on Wired Science.

"I don't think at this point it's worth saving those words," Allain told LiveScience.

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for something that can actually be tested. But "if you just ask anyone what a hypothesis is, they just immediately say 'educated guess,'" Allain said.

Written By: Tia Ghose
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

20 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by SaganTheCat:

      so the good news for shoppers is all your food is natural and organic…

      Artificial Flavoring are flavor elements(1) constructed by laboratory-engineered mechanics and tend to create pure ingredients. Natural Flavoring are the same ingredients but mined or harvested from something found in nature and tends to have impurities.

      (1) Composed by a flavorist, usually having nothing to do with our typical association with that flavor, such as the cherry in Cherry Coke. When Starburst hard candies were in production, I remember enjoying that I could taste a hint of the peel in the orange lozenges. Of course there was no actual orange in them.

  1. The fact that many people understand … scientific meaning[s] incorrectly does not mean we should stop using [those words]. It means we need better scientific education

    Hit the nail so on the head it went straight in.

  2. As the article says, describing what really are evidence deniers as “climate change skeptics” is the one that grates on me.

    As far as the “general public” getting hypothesis and theory wrong, I’d dispute that claim. Certainly the anti-Darwin populations misuse the word theory, but the general public? I’m not so sure about that.

    Mike

  3. I’m really pleased to see this article.

    I think scientists too often fail to make allowances for the lack of understanding of the basic methods of scientific discovery among the general public.

    I always ask people who make negative comments about science to explain precisely why they don’t think this or that is true; and guess what, they can almost never do so.

    I point out to them that the first prerequisite of criticising something is knowing what it is you’re criticising.

    Don’t replace problem words, rather inform as to what they mean in scientific as opposed to lay terms.

    It’s just a theory! Yeah, and so is gravity.

    I think what people of that mentality really mean is that they don’t understand it and therefore it frightens them; or that the idea doesn’t appeal to them; or it’s too much hard work to try and find out about it, or what ever.

    The term apropos of Global Warming should be changed from “Climate Sceptic” to “Climate Cynic”.

  4. Can anybody explain to me why even scientists speak of the “superstring theory”? As far as I know, it is one of the main problems of this “theory” that it hasn’t been experimental verified. So why is it called a theory?

    • In reply to #6 by elblobbo:

      Can anybody explain to me why even scientists speak of the “superstring theory”? As far as I know, it is one of the main problems of this “theory” that it hasn’t been experimental verified. So why is it called a theory?

      In fact, many physicists of repute will maintain that m-theory is a philosophy because it cannot (yet) be tested. As I mentioned elsewhere, so it was with general relativity until someone came up with the solar eclipse idea (and we’ve confirmed it since with more advanced observations, including gravitic lensing of galaxies seen through space telescopes).

      But the nice thing about m-theory is that it fits so far and unifies the standard model with gravity. And it works! And that’s what makes it so appealing to be regarded as more than a notion or a hypothesis. (It’s not even that!)

      But any string theorist will (happily) admit its embarrassment of not being an official theory, and being neither provable or disprovable by prediction and observation. Evolution is really a theory where as m-theory really is only a theory.

      • In reply to #17 by Uriel-238:

        But when Einstein was working out general relativity, he didn’t have immediate ideas as to how to observe evidence of it either. I’m not sure he came up with the eclipse idea himself.

        Mercury’s perihelion motion had been well measured and was a known problem before he started.

        He also knew it was an observable way to test general relativity. From his general relativity paper:

        It will be shown that the equations arising in a purely mathematical way out of the conditions of the general relativity, together with equations (46), give us the Newtonian law of attraction as a first approximation, and lead in the second approximation to the explanation of the perihelion-motion of mercury discovered by Leverrier (the residual effect which could not be accounted for by the consideration of all sorts of disturbing factors). My view is that these are convincing proofs of the physical correctness of the theory.

  5. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is fond of making fun of biologists for using long multi-syllable terms they made up when a more common word would have done, and he brags that physicists don’t do that and instead use words like “string” and “force” and “energy’ and so on to be clear-er.

    But the problem with Neil’s comment is that its precisely the use of common terms that leads to people muddying the waters by misreporting science and spouting pseudoscience bullshit. If a scientist uses a redefined common term, people will think it’s the original common term. But if a scientist uses a newly invented term for their newly invented need for a word (usually built from greek or latin base terms strung together), then people who don’t know what’s being said can’t pretend that they do know what was said.

    The re-use of common terms that originally had wide vague meanings, and using them for new narrower meanings is what opens the door for the likes of Deepak Chopra to make up horseshit about what science articles have asserted.

    • In reply to #9 by Steven Mading:

      Neil DeGrasse Tyson is fond of making fun of biologists for using long multi-syllable terms they made up when a more common word would have done, and he brags that physicists don’t do that and instead use words like “string” and “force” and “energy’ and so on to be clear-er.

      Color, Charm, Spin, Top, Bottom… words that seem more appropriate to the LGBT community than to physicists.

      And don’t get me started on Quark. Some kind of cheesy stuff they sell in supermarkets in Holland, I think.

      Though I may mentally read haploid and diploid as Happy and Dippy, I doubt it would serve much useful purpose to promote the vernacularization (or dumbing down) of bio terminology – at least, the words have their own precise definition, not overloaded with connotations from everyday usage.

  6. In my opinion (my theory) it would be better if we were to invent totally new words If the science community has an urgent need for them. On the other hand I would like to propose/define the following.

    theory – an explanation that has yet to be disproved.

    failed theory – an explanation that has been disproved.

    a failed theory passed off as a theory – a lie.

  7. By all means teach how these words are being used in a scientific setting, but don’t presume that laypeople are “misusing” them. They have different meanings in colloquial and scientific settings. It’s like objecting to “military force.” “Theory” and “hypothesis” date from the 1590′s, and “significant” from even earlier, when it simple meant “shown.”

  8. When I observe someone (at least someone honest) dismissing substantiated theory as ‘only a theory’, it seems that they are reaching for absolutes. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable; some have low tolerance for it, while others delight in it. The latter tend to gravitate toward scientific interest, and the former toward dogma.

    }}}}

  9. Words are tools for conveying meaning. When one word has multiple meanings it muddies up the water. The word that gets kicked around the most is “theory” and while I have no real agenda or plan for how to stop it from being misused, I truly wish there was a remedy.

  10. I use significant a lot casually, but one of the examples I’ve mentioned elsewhere is regarding the scale of belief in God. There should be a threshold division between belief in an insignificant probability in God (infinitesimal, such as the probability of the celestial teapot) and a significant probability in God (more than mere non-zero.). That point of division is relevant, at least as Dawkins has discussed it at length.

    I also hypothesize which is to say I posit a notion of how something might work without considering how it could be tested via observation. But when Einstein was working out general relativity, he didn’t have immediate ideas as to how to observe evidence of it either. I’m not sure he came up with the eclipse idea himself.

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