Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms

science-lecture-DNAScience touches our lives every day, yet far too often, scientific concepts become misrepresented in the media. This problem is not an innocent one; swaying public opinion on policies about climate change and vaccination has a large impact on public health. It is the responsibility of every person to achieve a basic level of scientific literacy. More important than being able to recall a library of scientific facts is the decision making process we go through; a mindset that is asking questions and addressing uncertainty can serve as a barrier against deception. Understanding the words common among scientific studies should help non scientists navigate through the sea of information they encounter online.

This article covers nine common misconceptions about scientific terms. We recognize that there are hundreds of words that are misused, so we encourage your contributions below.


 Hypothesis

Common misconception: Pretty much just a fancy word for a guess or an opinion.

What it means for scientists: Based upon supporting evidence, a hypothesis is a testable prediction about natural phenomena. Scientific hypotheses venture an explanation for the way something is. For example, this means predicting that a hammer will fall faster than a feather on Earth because of air resistance, and then performing an experiment to measure the air resistance.

Theory

Common misconception: All people are entitled to their own theories, and they should all be treated equally. People often use the word theory when they actually mean hypothesis.

What it means for scientists: Theories are built upon mountains of data, requiring scientific evidence to support them. Contradictory data are evaluated against supporting data, but a study with poor research methodology and poor reproducibility is not given the same weight as a more robust study. It can be challenging to confront our beliefs and realize that our preconceptions may be wrong, thus some theories—like the Earth revolving around the Sun—can take a while to become widely accepted.

Error

Common misconception: You made a mistake and your study should be dismissed.

What it means for scientists: An error does not necessarily mean a mistake. Often times, an error is simply the difference between a single measurement and the “true” value. This is why scientific graphs include error bars on either side of average values. Where does error come from? Sampling error is inherent in studies where estimates are made from a subset of the entire population. Systematic errors are the consequence of improper calibration of instruments and similar means that skew every result by the same amount and are more difficult to detect.

Significant

Common misconception: A seemingly intelligent way to say “the majority of the population” or to convey importance.

What it means for scientists: Statistical significance is a measure of confidence that your data represent a “true” observation and not just random chance or a sampling error. Even when these values are achieved, the data lose meaning when all the variables of a study are not properly controlled. In practice, a study that generates data with less than a 5% probability that those values were the result of chance is considered statistically significant. The shorthand version of this is to write p < 0.05.

Natural

Common misconception: Any product labeled “natural” must have superior health benefits to one manufactured by large corporations.

What it means for scientists: Any element or compound that is found on Earth and not man-made is natural—including things like arsenic and hemlock. Food labeled as natural can be healthy or unhealthy; even natural compounds like water and salt can be toxic at high enough levels. The distinction between small farms and large corporations has begun to blur as global food conglomerates continue to purchase many brands considered natural and organic.

Organic

Common misconception: Food with a higher level of quality than natural food.

What it means for scientists: The most notorious chemistry class taken in college (for some of us). Technically though, organic refers to any carbon-containing compound. This term has come to describe farming without the use of synthetic pesticides or genetic modifications. While the term “quality” has many subjective characteristics, there is little scientific evidence for superior nutrients in organic foods vs. conventional foods.

Chemical

Common misconception: Chemicals are basically the archenemy of organic food, equivalent to toxins.

What it means for scientists: In everyday language, the word “chemical” typically refers to a compound, which is the combination of different chemical elements. Variations on the composition of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (CHNOPS) make up the majority of all living things. These elements have different properties based on their reactivity, dictated by physical laws. Highly reactive compounds are usually more dangerous to humans. Numerous government agencies exist to help protect consumers from unsafe products, including the FDA and OSHA within the United States.

Bacteria

Common misconception: Germs that are really tiny and serve no purpose besides making you sick.

What it means for scientists: Bacteria are an incredibly diverse domain of single-cell organisms that have evolved for more than three billion years. They inhabit nearly every ecosystem and play many crucial roles in the environment including nutrient cycling and the production of oxygen through photosynthesis. Few species of bacteria are harmful to humans, relatively speaking. The microbiota in human gastrointestinal (GI) tracts help with nutrient breakdown and fight off invading pathogens. Bacteria have been invaluable research tools for scientists.

Evolution

Common misconception: Often abused to imply greater strength, intelligence, or all-around superiority.

What it means for scientists: According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Evolution consists of changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another. It is populations of organisms that evolve, not individual organisms.” Evolution is characterized by change and has no end goal, so to describe an organism as highly evolved is highly subjective. It is better to be more specific and refer to species as being specialized (anteater’s snout and tongue), or complex (mammals vs. invertebrates), or derived (poodles vs. German shepherds in relation to wolves).


What are your “favorite” misuses of scientific terms? Share in the comments below!

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Greg Emmerich

Science Writer at Promega
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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