S#*@ scientists say

How do you define "aerosol", or "manipulation"? What about "organic", "mutant" and "confidence"?

The truth is that scientists often say words that do not mean what the general public thinks they mean. And that's a problem. If you're not speaking the same language, miscommunication is inevitable. There's a new paper up in Physics Today, which argues that it's the responsibility of all scientists to think about the colloquial meanings of words and talk in a way the public can understand.

But here's the first step: Making it clear to scientists which words cause communication problems. You can see the list from the Physics Today paper above. Meanwhile, the Southern Fried Science blog has added to the collection, and Southern Fried Science blogger Andrew Thaler is looking for more suggestions. You can add words that you think scientists and public use differently to Thaler's Google Docs spreadsheet. If you've got a good alternative for a confusing word, add that, too.

Via Mountain Beltway



    1. Actually the general public thinks of “theory” in a much weaker way.  More as something that grows up to be a scientific law. 
      ericscerri.com/   website for philosophy of chemistry, periodic table etc.

  1. “The Scientific Understanding of Evolution” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue…but by Darwin’s beard, I’m going to use it every chance I get.

  2. It’s a worthy effort. But it bothers me a bit that scientists (or, quite simply, people with an actual vocabulary) have to tiptoe around perfectly good words just because a subset of the general public can’t pick up a freaking dictionary.

    Most of the various definitions of the so-called ‘scientific’ terms are plainly listed in basic thesaurus. I understand the need to some amount of vulgarization, but how much spoon-feeding is to be expected when people don’t care about what they’re reading enough to double-check a simple word? I mean, I can appreciate people getting a bit stumped with ‘metamictization’ or something. But ‘enhance’, ‘aerosol’, ‘value’…? It’s frustrating.

    1. But it bothers me a bit that scientists (or, quite simply, people with an actual vocabulary) have to tiptoe around perfectly good words just because a subset of the general public can’t pick up a freaking dictionary.

      But many are examples of scientists using non-standard meanings for words that have been around for centuries. Science is supposed to serve us; not the other way around.

      1. There’s a lot of this in math, too.  “Imaginary” numbers, or an “ideal.”  Good poets borrow, great poets steal.

        While I agree that scientists (and any specialists in a field with a jargon) should tailor their speech patterns to their audience, I also feel that better science education among the general population should definitely be part of the equation.

        1. And those examples are..?

          Take the above graphic, compare to dictionary definitions and etymologies.  Presto. ‘Value’ means worth.  Science hijacked it to mean something else.  You can’t change the definition of a common word and then claim that you’re the sole arbiter of its meaning and the hoi polloi are idiots because they assign the older and more common meaning to the word.

          1. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say that applies to ‘many’ of the examples though, and are you suggesting they should have invented new words, rather than adopting words that are very close to the concept they need to convey, and defining them precisely for the required purpose?  Also, many of these terms migrate from mathematics, where they’ve been used for considerable time.

            Language evolves to fit the culture of the people using it, and English is lousy with multiple definitions for words that can be inferred from context – this is just an example of that – and as science becomes a greater part of everyday life, I don’t think it’s at all unfair to suggest that someone who can’t interpret the correct meaning of a word in it’s context needs to expand their vocabulary.

          2. Well, certainly better science education would be nice.  If we want to survive as a species, that is.  But the science community is taking the heat, however inappropriate, so they’re going to have to come up with the solution.

            Medicine has pretty much just made up words (or borrowed from French) as they go.  There might be lack of understanding, but not much misunderstanding.  It sounds like gobbledygook, but it’s precise and you can just explain it when you need to.  A hemangioma could have been called a vein tumor, and you can imagine how that would be perceived by patients.

            In computer speak, new words or abbreviations seem to work better than just borrowing.  If I ask for the URL of the Post Office, I might not be understood, but at least I won’t be told that it’s the brick building on Main Street.  File and folder, which are lifted straight from common usage are quite confusing, partly because they’re not well distinguished in meatspace use.

          3. Let’s be honest – half of English is borrowed from French/Latin.  That said, I’m not sure your medicine comparison holds up – science (where do we draw the line on that term?) also uses Latin/Greek (hemangioma is likely derived from the latter) to describe objects/phenomena, as well as straight-up invented nonsense (quark?).  But that’s not really what’s being discussed here – what we’re talking about here (IMO) is simply a tightening of various word definitions when used in scientific context – I believe it actually avoids confusion (as is the intent) for those with adequate vocabulary.

            And words like ‘positive’ should not be confusing to anyone who’s covered the first couple of years standard mathematics education, unless placed in a table such as the above, that’s designed to elicit a confused response.

            In the computing example, I’d suggest the terms ‘file’ and ‘folder’ are more likely to elicit an intelligible response than ‘URL’ from most people, though I take your point.

          4. It may be that a very few of these words have older meanings, or commonplace (vulgar?) meanings.  The problem seems to be one of context.  If I am speaking of scientific, mathematical or computer terms, value certainly does NOT mean worth, and anyone literate there would know that.  Only those ignorant in those areas (pretty big areas), or those seeking to disemble by intentionally confusing contexts would read it that way.

            Most of the scientific menaings are far more specific definitions, exacting, compared to the vagueness of the “common” definitions.

            I find your use of the greek term terribly ironic here, not sure if you intended it.  I wonder which which end of the phrase “values of the hoi polloi” would cause more consternation and confusion in public discourse.

          5. Am I seeing something that’s not obvious to other people when I look at ‘value’ meaning ‘how much is it worth’ vs ‘how much is it’? Is this a case of science hijacking a word or the word evolving in two ever-so-slightly different directions?

          6. “Is this a case of science hijacking a word or the word evolving in two ever-so-slightly different directions?”

            Neither, or at least not for centuries. My dictionary has rather a lot of definitions for ‘value’, including, but not limited to:
            ‘the extent or amount of a specified standard or measure of length, quantity, etc. (1600)’ and ‘the number or quantity represented by a figure or symbol (1542)’. The latter being a near-perfect description of its meaning in computer programming, as it happens.

          7. That just isn’t true. Antinous. It’s true that “value” has several meanings, such as monetary worth, numerical amount, and moral principle, but those go back to the middle ages. Science didn’t “hijack” it.

      2. Perhaps in some cases, but if we look up the etymology on many of the above terms, we see that they very much mean what the ‘scientific usage’ means. I can’t really see some elitist conspiracy on the part of scientists by using the above words. Their meanings are appropriate, they’re used in a very specific context and their definitions are, again, readily available (often the very first definition listed!). Most of these words are plain English and not scientific jargon.

        I guess I find it strange that this issue is approached as if the problem is that scientists are using ‘wrong’ words instead of facing the fact that the public’s literacy and reading comprehension is poor. I’d think it would be preferable to find solutions for improving literacy instead of making scientists use roundabout synonyms, because if it keeps getting worse, they will eventually need even simpler words to replace the simpler words…

        1. The meaning of the common language’s words and phrases IS DEFINED BY their usage by “the masses”, not by any know-it-all pedant or book.

          Dictionaries usually reflect a more academic (and usually therefore more precise) definition, but as the language evolves (faster and faster these days), they tend to “fall behind” the true meanings of words. A classic example is “virtual” – anyone using the word in its older sense is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood.

          To the extent the more generally understood meaning is commonly used, the more important it is that the academic/scientific subset of people using the term are careful to do their best to communicate clearly in terms common people will understand.

          Of course, this is only needed when they are communicating with the public. Within their own subset group, then the more precise meanings will work accurately, but if they want common people to understand their ideas, the onus is on them, and this is very helpful work to clarify these discrepancies.

          People complaining that the general public must become more knowledgeable are just beating their head against a wall – if science teaches us anything it is that we must work with reality as it presents itself, not as we wish it to be.

          Again, this assumes that the speaker actually wants to be understood, if the purpose is to be elitist, then blather away however you like.

    2. It IS frustrating, but the simple fact is, people won’t meet you half way.  Also, how can they know to pick up a thesaurus and look for alternative definitions when they only know one?  Someone else has to TELL them there’s another meaning to look up!  Since that’s unlikely (unless they read this post), then that means it falls on scientists (and i am one) to use the language that everyone posseses, not just the one only they posses.

      1. Yeah, that’s tho point right there, I suppose. I am very aware that words have many meanings in different contexts, but I am taking for granted that I had people teaching me early on that both literacy and science were important and worthy of time and effort. Worked wonders for me. I just wish more people had access to better education (or better incentives for learning?) instead of having everything made less eloquent and dumber. Seems like it bypasses the root of the problem.

  3. Oh…you Smarty Pants Scientists with your science and education and what not…hmph:

    “You and your theories; with inescapable uncertainties: your biased errors manipulating various schemes to suit your purposes; while your enhanced aerosol anomalies insure a ‘positive trend’.”

    I got your POSITIVE FEEDBACK right here…

    (do i really need to /?)

  4. Talking in a way the public can understand is fine- when one is talking to the public. Being able to express an idea simply is a sign that you have a good understanding of it yourself.

    But- when scientists talk to each other, they must use the terminology of science, lest their statements be imprecise, ambiguous, or misunderstood. If the public cannot understand them, the public should have paid more attention in school.

    1. Why scientists talk to each other, it’s also quicker.  As you can see, most of the suggested alternatives are wordy, which is why scientists invent their own vernacular in the first place.

    2. Hey, I liked your comment, but all the same, there really is a marketing issue here. These ideas about AGW need to be sold to a scientifically illiterate, cognitively biased, emotionally-filtered public. Facts and figures don’t sell vacuum cleaners or cars. 

  5. I like the “manipulation” one.  Every time I get into a discussion with Global Warming Deniers they start shrieking that the temperature data has been “manipulated”.  For example, the values reported from satellites are altered to reflect the fact that the satellites orbits have been decaying and that the onboard instruments were calibrated for the original orbital heights.  Evil “manipulation”!  (Done as a result of studies done to explain the differences found by Global Warming Sceptics who were pointing out the differences between satellite and shipboard readings.)

    Let’s face it, unless you get your instruments directly from God, there’s going to be a difference between your readings and reality.  In most cases you know in which direction the differences will trend and roughly how big they can be.  If you don’t manipulate your data to reflect this then your study is incompetently done at best.

    Even in social sciences you manipulate the data.  I’m doing statistical analysis on some survey results right now.  One guy wrote down that he was 200 years old.  I manipulated the data to throw that datum out.   Clearly I am tampering with the data to cover up the Immortals! 

  6. But some of that public misunderstanding was created by those who view science as a threat (e.g., religious pundits telling people evolution is “just a theory”), and no matter how scientists say something, there will be those who go out of their way to misunderstand what’s being said.

    And using four words where one would suffice will probably not help understanding in the long run, especially if scientists begin using different sets of words to describe the same thing when a single word with a specific meaning would describe it better.

  7. Better education will set us free from the erroneous nature of many of the better choices listed. For instance: a pollen grain is a tiny atmospheric particle; it is not an aerosol. Also, a positive trend in an error rate is not upward. It is downward. While color values can be expressed as a number, they are not a quantity.

    Context is king and what the “better” choice is depends on context.

    1. a pollen grain is a tiny atmospheric particle; it is not an aerosol.

      Actually, according to scientists doing atmospheric research, yes, it is.  

      Belongs to the subcategory “bio-aerosols”, i.e., aerosols consisting of or produced by living creatures, which includes bacteria, viruses, mold spores – and, yes, pollen grains.


      (Don’t believe me?  Don’t trust Wikipedia? Try Googling the words pollen and  aerosol together, and see what you get.)

  8. No, this is about communicating information clearly to an audience that, for whatever reason, doesn’t speak the same language. Science doesn’t do itself. People do it, and people must get other people to support it if they want to keep doing it. And some people should stop being arrogant jackasses who use language to exclude others rather than include them in the wonders that science, properly done and clearly communicated, has to offer. Present company excepted, of course. Because no one on Boing Boing *ever* considers the “masses” stupid or ignorant or unworthy of common decency.

      1. Clearly you read my statement with your own intent sewn in.  Would you tell an architect to not refer to something as a “Dorian” column, because that’s exclusionary language?  Or decry that a doctor refers to a growth of blood vessels as a “hemangioma”?  Or that a sports trainer tells someone they are “pronating”?  Communication is important, but since when did this nation lose its ethos of self-education and want everything to be an easily digested sound byte?  T.S. Eliot openly puts Greek and Latin prose in his poetry.  Imagine the outcries today.

        1. But the article isn’t about scientists communicating with scientists or architects communicating with architects or doctors communicating with doctors. Experts speak to other experts in the most concise and useful language they have: the language of their discipline. The article, however, recognizes that not everyone is an expert in every discipline and that the experts need to stop assuming that’s the case and stop using their professional jargon with a non-technical audience.

          Your original comment, which now seems to be gone, very strongly implied (or I inferred based on my obvious plebeian bias) that anyone who didn’t work to become an expert in whatever field being discussed was actually lazy and/or stupid (not that that’s not a possibility). That approach creates an “elite” who either fail or refuse to share their knowledge with the ignorant, and thus the ignorant remain so. That does no one any good.

          Eliot used Greek and Latin in his poetry because he had a pretty good sense that his audience would have passing familiarity with it. He was writing for his contemporaries, not for us, and he knew his audience well enough to include them in his poems, not exclude them from his club.

      2. and it took a lot of self will for me not to say something about miscommunicating “malthusian” for “malthusan”.  but here I am being an elitist solecism-finder.

  9. The language of science is the language of science for good reason, to communicate to the science community with as much fidelity as possible. As someone who runs into researchers on a daily basis, I’m nearly offended by the idea that all scientists are out of touch brain cases who are practically unable to speak like “average joe’s.”

  10. Attenuate = to weaken, but too often used to describe an observational trend in dosage studies. “Clorazepam attenuated comorbidity of nosocomial VCd infections in 34% of subjects (p < 0.001)" is only useful for a few, and completely obscures grammar and meaning. Using "attenuated" in this fashion not only obfuscates their data, but the trickle-down confusion then misinforms a citizenry already scared of public health issues.

    Potentiate = to strengthen. Same as above. Over-used. I would far rather read a sentence about *how* the trend increased rather than just reading that it did. I can look at graphs (you'd better have graphs!) to see the trend itself. Put meaning in words.

    Predicated = to justify/warrant. At least that is how it is used. I had been given to understand that something had to be predicated upon something else, and in scientific papers it takes on a whole new Frankenberrian meaning.

    Skew. Scientists use this to mean that something had an effect on something else, as in lead cladding skews radiation dosage effects, but it is a wiggly skeptic word that lets pundits jab a self-righteous finger into the scientists' broader context and whine about false fears of data-rigging.

    There are probably more, but I don't read as many papers nowadays.

    1. OK, I’m done for tonight.  

      this is mostly pointless.  “skew” is used in that fashion due to it’s mathematical definition based upon the statistics of distributions.  see the wikipedia below for all the peeps.


      this is tiresome and could likely be done for any profession.  have you been to a garage lately?  lots of jargon there too.

      as stated many times previously, language evolves to concision.  because in a profession, no one feels the need to spell things out to the nth degree such that any outsider could “get it”.   

  11. I guess I find it strange that this issue is approached as if the problem is that scientists are using ‘wrong’ words instead of facing the fact that the public’s literacy and reading comprehension is poor. I’d think it would be preferable to find solutions for improving literacy instead of making scientists use roundabout synonyms, because if it keeps getting worse, they will eventually need even simpler words to replace the simpler words…

    I would say do both, but I suspect every day language is more accessible to scientists than scientific language is to non-scientists. Scientific language really is specialized, and many disciplines require a lot of study (with un-skipable background learning) to become proficient. I suspect boingboing readers on average are very scientifically literate; the time investment this required might not be obvious since we’ve been reading science magazines since we were kids.  I’m definitely an advocate of improved science education, but I don’t think it is reasonable or desirable for everyone to invest the time to learn the nuance of scientific language. This is not unlike similar discussions we have had about computer literacy. It is not reasonable or desirable for everyone to be a computer expert, and it is incumbent upon the experts to make technology usable by nonexperts. That’s part of the job. Same with scientists. If you don’t like communicating with the public, find something else to do. 

    Whatever one’s philosophy, however, it is clear we live in a world where people have different levels of scientific literacy. And, Occupy-Wall-Street complaints nonwithstanding, most of us live under some sort of democratic government in which the opinions of non-scientists affect public policy. So it is scientists interest to learn how to speak and write in a way which will be understood.

  12. One of my favourite incorrect understandings is ‘positive reinforcement’. The psychological meaning of each word is very specific (positive = something that is given, rather than taken away, reinforcement = intended behaviour increases over time), but the public conception would be ‘encouraging feedback’. The public understanding has the right kind of theme, but how would the public view ‘negative reinforcement’, ‘positive punishment’, and ‘negative punishment’? I don’t hear those terms being used at all.

  13. As far as I know, saying “theory of evolution” didn’t confuse many people who cared about the subject, any more than saying “seahorse” for a fish. It’s become confusing thanks to people who want it to be confusing, and I don’t think surrendering the word will help.

    Has anyone really been confused by things like numerical “value”? It’s not like scientific terms are the only ones that can mean different things. If you can’t get past that one, you must have been really confused when people started saying “bad” to mean “good”.

  14. I´m pretty sure “enhance” actually means to make pixels and audio data magically appear and disappear at the press of a button. Scientists on TV do it all the time.

  15. How could they have left off “accurate” and “precise”?  Most people think that both mean “correct”.

  16. Perhaps because I had a fairly decent science education, or because, like Slaarti Blartfast, I’ve always been a big fan of science, I don’t have much of an issue with different technical and colloquial meanings for words. It’s often clear from context which meaning is intended. When the context isn’t clear or when a scientist is addressing the general public (or vice versa), that’s when care should be taken to be aware of the multiple meanings. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t take the time to figure out the technical meaning of ‘manipulate’, for example, is waving a big flag indicating that I don’t need to waste time listening to their climate change denialism.

    Saying that, I have to take issue with a few of the examples shown in the table. ‘Positive feedback’ is a technical term that had no other meaning until it was appropriated by the public.

    1. Damn iPad/Disqus is screwing up. Continued from above: And ‘aerosol’ is a perfectly cromulent word in its technical meaning, since an aerosol spray can is so named because it makes an aerosol of paint. And a scheme is a ‘devious plot’ since when?

      1. The use of “scheme” as a neutral term for plan is I believe British usage. In American English, it has a nearly universal connotation of “bad” if not evil. I believe the adjective “scheming” has that meaning in both. . .

    2. Saying that, I have to take issue with a few of the examples shown in the table. ‘Positive feedback’ is a technical term that had no other meaning until it was appropriated by the public.

      Not necessarily the case all. I did a search through the Google Book archives for the use of the term.

      Among the earliest usages I could find was:

      One of the reasons the system works is that the student gets positive feedback and praise in a patient, understanding way. — The American school board journal: Volume 166, 1891

      Earlier than that, I found (just) one case of it being used in the scientific sense. But earlier than that, Google reports that it was used in the The Federal reporter: (Volume 72). It doesn’t give the quote, but that’s the cases in the federal claims courts and appeals courts, so I’d say it’s more likely to be the “colloquial” usage than the scientific usage, though of course it could be either. 

      In any case, as far as this unscientific Google Books search is concerned, it seems as if people were using both meanings certainly by the late nineteenth century at the latest.

  17. The table makes some good points, but ultimately people just need to understand that context is important. Scientific and common use definitions are different and always will be.
    Science hijacks common words and specifically defines them because science needs a way of being specific.

    You don’t need to learn the definitions, you just need to avoid the assumption that everything means what you think it means.

    It’s like reading anything in a language you don’t fully understand (e.g. false-friends in languages, like the French ‘sensible’ actually meaning sensitive).  I can read some French or Jamaican Patois and I’ll get most of the words, but I’ll get some definitions wrong or fail to understand how they apply in context.

    Still, it works both ways.  Margret Thatcher was a chemist.  She thought you could easily dissolve the unionised workforce by blasting it with water cannons and using vigorous shaking (in a 6ft square police vessel). She should’ve realised that the bonds between workers were covalent. 

  18. Decanting a beaker of annelidae :

    Compare the precision attempted in scientific jargon with the emotionally loaded obfuscation used in political announcements.

  19. “Eliot used Greek and Latin in his poetry because he had a pretty good sense that his audience would have passing familiarity with it.”
    There are many ideas out there as to why Eliot’s use of untranslated language elements in his poetry. As far as I’m aware, you’re one of the first to suggest it was about “knowing his audience well enough to include them.”  Modernism tended not be overly concerned with including the audience and quite often modernist writers like Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Pound seemed very happy to leave their readers puzzled/confused/confounded.  

    Let’s look at Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Waste Land.” Not only does he include untranslated passages of Greek and Latin (which, I dare say, would have confounded much of his audience), he also includes passages in German, French, and Sanskrit. Once you get beyond the translation problem, you’ll soon realize he’s referencing all kinds of texts including Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Donne, Dante, Baudelaire, Milton, Ovid, Shakespeare, Spenser, Augustine, Buddhist tesxts, and Hindu texts. 

    I could go on about Eliot’s radical (and very intentional) impenetrability. 

    tl;dr: Eliot is a terrible example of a writer who uses technical language appropriate to his audience. They were every bit as estranged as we are. 

  20. At the top of this list, I would add the word, “Science.”  To the layman, the word “science” means that some truth was determined in a lab, using either test tubes or fancy electronic equipment or both.  In fact, science is merely an iterative process of observation, informed guessing, and testing.  As one example, whenever I hear a person discussing a “supernatural” phenomenon, and they say, “science has no explanation for this,” I feel relatively certain that a scientific observation would  find that the phenomenon is not actually taking place at all, before even reaching the test tube and fancy electronic equipment stage.

  21. I agree that a few of these like manipulation and aerosol are probably confusing to the public. Others like theory disagree with colloquial meanings but there are many, many explanations out there as to what is meant; people who remain confused about this are being willfully ignorant. For my money, this willful ignorance dwarfs any confusing over jargon.

    However, sign and value are terms from middle school math (or earlier.) I find it hard to believe that there is significant confusion about them. 

  22. I read the list on the Southern Fried Science site and thought of this –
    – when I got to “cosmopolitan”. The critter on the shirt fits both definitions.

    I’d like to know who they asked for the public perception definitions. Was there a survey or were these gleaned from somewhere? ( I didn’t read the original article because I don’t want to register at the moment.) Some of the public perceptions are pretty kooky or seemed to be based on watching too much Spike TV.

  23. I would improve on their translation of the (confusing) term “significant.”

    They have “supported by statistics.” I would say “not likely to have been caused by chance alone.”

    “The difference in height between the two groups is significant.” – “The difference in height between the two groups is not likely to have been caused by chance alone.”

    One of the keys is the word “likely,” which both says that it still could be attributed to chance, and is vague about how likely it is, just as the word “significant” is vague by itself (until you say the significance level, which is essentially the probability that the difference was caused by chance).

  24. It’s lists like these that provide evidence that the American public education system is failing its’ citizens

  25. Differences in interpretation are often ideological.  Someone mentioned climate change deniers above, screeching over “manipulation”.  What happens if scientists work really hard to change the words they use to exactly match the public use (which is a pointless moving target anyways; an example is the use of the word scheme, which as I’ve recently discovered means “government program” here in Australia), and climate change deniers and their ilk misinterpret the new word usage to mean whatever they want it to anyways?  You’re not going to solve the linguistic version of confirmation bias by changing the word you use – they’ll just move the goalposts and kick again.  

    Having said that, I’m not against the idea of reducing friction with the public by trying to avoid potential confusions.  It’s a worthwhile goal.  But I do think that you have problems coming from both directions;  ideologues will misinterpret you no matter what you do, and *every* field has its own jargon, usually for a reason. Solving that will probably require a more sophisticated approach, likely involving some combination of word normalisation as the paper suggests, and better education about common variants as other commenters have argued for.  

  26. I actually decided to go read the paper as well, and I quite like it.  There’s a lot of straightforward, sensible advice in there that I think is (ironically) getting lost in the focus on word usage.

  27. I think a lot of the problem might boil down to more people reading material closer to the source than in the past.  In the 90s people would read about whatever Great New Thing in Popular Science or Wired or wherever.  Now people are likely to see a link here or /. to material straight from the scientist which hasn’t been filtered through magazine editors to change dialect from “science” to “human”.  Seems to lead to a lot of people thinking their opinions and hypotheses are as valid as the scientist whose paper they just misinterpreted.

Comments are closed.