Science 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.
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I have many pet peeves in my life. Because I am a scientific editor, many of my pet peeves revolve around abuse of the English language. The abuse that set me off most recently is the misuse of the word “theory”. These days everyone has a theory about something. For example I have a “theory” as to why I gained five pounds over the holidays: Too much rich food and egg nog! However, from a scientific standpoint, saying “I have a theory as to why I gained five pounds over the holidays” is not a proper use of the word theory. While it is likely that the food and egg nog contributed to the weight gain, I do not have a theory. The cause of the weight gain has not been scientifically scrutinized and put through rigorous testing. There isn’t a pile of scientific evidence to support my statement. What I have is a sound working hypothesis, not a theory.
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