Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms: Volume 2

Misconceptions About Scientific Terms Volume 2Media coverage of the Zika virus and colistin-resistant E. coli have introduced new terms for some people. What do they all really mean? Even people with technical backgrounds may benefit from a refresher. This set of eight terms covers topics related to diseases and nutrition. This article is a continuation of my previous blog post about scientific words that are frequently misunderstood.


Common misconception: A disease that is going to kill all of humanity or turn us into zombies.

What it means for scientists: According to the Centers for Disease Control, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” This could happen with a new strain of the flu or with something more devastating like Ebola. There is an endemic level, or baseline, for the number of people affected by the flu at any given time, and an epidemic would be a significant increase from this level. The endemic level for diseases like Ebola would be zero. Epidemic diseases that spread across multiple continents are considered pandemic.


Common misconception: Medicine you take to treat the common cold and flu.

What it means for scientists: A substance that targets and either kills or inhibits bacterial cells but not mammalian cells. Antibiotics are useless against viruses and should not be taken for the common cold or flu. Overuse and improper use of antibiotics can lead to acquired resistance, making it harder for doctors to treat serious bacterial infections.


Common misconception: These things are everywhere. They are found in low quality food and plastics, they can be created by negative emotions or using electronics too often, and their accumulation in our bodies is responsible for everything from low energy levels to becoming ill more frequently.

What it means for scientists: A toxin is a biologically-produced poison. Venom is a toxin that is injected from one creature into another. Not all poisons are toxins, and not all toxins are venom. Lead is not a toxin, nor are pesticides, nor is water, but all of these can be poisonous at high enough levels.  Animals, plants and microbes can produce toxins for defense or predation. Some toxins can be tolerated in low concentrations, while just 1µg (one one-millionth of a gram) of botulinum toxin is deadly to humans.


Common misconception: An unnatural process that leads to disease or, if you’re lucky, superpowers.

What it means for scientists: Changes to part of the genetic code are considered mutations, and they are a natural process that created the wealth of diversity on Earth. Errors in human DNA replication cause mutations at a rate of about one in 10 billion nucleotides, after accounting for repair mechanisms. Ultraviolet light and chemical mutagens, like benzo pryene found in cigarettes, can also cause mutations. Individual mutations in a cell may not have any observable or harmful effects, but they can potentially be a cause of cancer.


Common misconception: Created by nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants, radiation is certain to cause physical deformities and enough exposure will lead to death.

What it means for scientists: Radiation is a broad term and can mean waves from light, sound, particles and gravity. We are constantly exposed to radiation and most of this is harmless, e.g., non-ionizing radiation like radio waves and microwaves. Cosmic rays and other high-energy waves like x-rays can cause damage to our bodies by ionizing molecules—that is, stripping away an electron. Long-term exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation can increase your risk of cancer; however, the average person is well below the recommended levels of exposure.


Common misconception: An independent thinker who doesn’t believe what “The Man” is spoon feeding the public.

What it means for scientists: Someone who examines the evidence supporting or contradicting a claim. This includes looking at the methodology, the results and the extent to which other scientists have studied the topic. Disagreeing with an overwhelming amount of evidence does not make you a skeptic, however, great strides have been made in the field of science when someone has presented contradictory evidence that can be replicated by others. Skepticism is important for everyone to practice in this digital age where anyone can publish their opinion online. As Abe Lincoln said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”


Common misconception: Used to imply food is healthier.

What it means for scientists: A quantitative measure of the amount of a substance compared to contaminants, expressed as a percentage. Purity, along with yield, are painstakingly sought after by organic chemistry students worldwide. See also: concentrated.


Common misconception: Used to imply food is unhealthy.

What it means for scientists: Processed food is commercially prepared and convenient to eat. Not all processed food contains high levels of salt or sugar, and thus their nutritional value should be thought of independently from the preparation method. Frozen vegetable mixes are technically processed food.

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I am a science writer at Promega striving to combine creativity with science. I live off adrenaline rushes from skiing and discovering new music. I received my B.S. Microbiology and M.S. Biotechnology degrees from UW Madison.

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