The misunderstanding, and, more importantly, abuse of certain scientific terms has some scientists suggesting we should stop using them altogether.
Words such as hypothesis, theory, skeptic and natural, despite the fact their scientific meanings are taught correctly in school, are definitely a frustration for critical thinkers faced with fighting ignorance, particularly on topics such as evolution and climate change.
They are pet peeves of mine as well, but I believe allowing the opponents of reason to co-opt these terms for their own purpose is lazy and unhelpful. We need to take these words back and educate the general public of their proper meaning.
Recently, Scientific American published an article called “Just a Theory: Seven Misused Science Words”. My own thoughts on these terms follow.
In the popular vernacular, a hypothesis is a wild guess, which allows those proposing extraordinary explanations to attempt to put their ideas on the same footing as ideas with scientific merit. In the scientific sense, a hypothesis is a proposed explanation that can actually be tested.
Pseudoscientists in general, and climate-change-deniers and creationists in particular, have redefined theory to cast doubt on sound scientific fact. By adopting the colloquial meaning of theory, which is more akin to hypothesis, it allows them to diminish overwhelming bodies of conclusive evidence as “just a theory” as if it is something that merely exists in the imagination of scientists.
Model can be particularly troubling because it conjures images of things or concepts that are not real, such as a model railroad or model citizen. Furthermore, the meaning of the word varies even across scientific disciplines. The Standard Model, for example, is a tangible concept that governs the dominant theory of particle physics whereas a climate model is a tool researchers use to make educated predictions of future conditions. Either way, those who seek to discredit science disingenuously use the term to mock the facts.
Not long ago, skeptic was a moniker given to those who eschewed blind acceptance of religious fundamentalism, pseudoscience, magic, the occult, paranormal activity and medical quackery, basically anything that is widely accepted without proper evidence. Unfortunately, more recently, the purveyors of these discredited “fields” have usurped the word for their own benefit and have actually made some inroads with the media. For example, climate change-deniers have managed to become “climate skeptics,” although they are really nothing more than contrarians. I have never been personally comfortable with being called a skeptic, I prefer critical thinker, but even that gets co-opted by people claiming to have done an objective and comprehensive review of the evidence. It is unlikely there is any designation we can use that someone won’t try to use against us.
Nature versus nurture
This phrase unnecessarily sets up an adversarial condition between two ideas that work together in varying degrees of dominance. Our genes predispose us to certain physical characteristics and, to some degree, behavioural tendencies. But genes can also be affected by the physical environment and behaviour can be influenced by social and other factors. In short, it is far too complicated to be characterized by an either/or proposition.
Significant is simply too ambiguous to be very useful. Significant results from a statistical point of view means something very specific, i.e., that an observed difference is unlikely to be the result of random chance. Significant in common parlance means important. This bites scientists in the gluteus maximus virtually every week in the media. When a study contains “significant” results, reporters often jump on it thinking it is important, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Natural (along with organic) is perhaps my greatest pet peeve of all, more so because of its advertising connotations meaning virtuous, healthy or good than its misuse by those who seek to discredit science. Arsenic is natural, but it will kill you. Kevlar is synthetic, but it will save your life. And, when it comes right down to it, everything in the universe is natural. More accurate terminology, which is actually commonly used by scientists, but not so much in popular parlance, is naturally-occurring as opposed to fabricated or synthesized. Similarly to natural, organic has come to mean things, particularly food, produced using methods that are not harmful to us or the environment, whereas scientifically it simply means carbon-based (plants, animals) as opposed to inorganic or non-carbon-based (rocks).
Language is a wonderfully complex human endeavour. Changing the way we use it scientifically will not combat its misuse or misrepresentation by our opponents, merely give them more ammunition to twist the facts.