5 Terms Scientists Wish You'd Stop Screwing Up

There are times when scientists are speaking a different language than the rest of us
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 17, 2014 4:08 PM CDT

(Newser) – Ah, science. It's ever-present in our pop-culture, and its words and phrases have become part of our everyday vernacular. There's just one problem: Scientists mostly can't stand it, because we mostly get everything wrong. Io9 asked some scientists which misuses drive them the most crazy. Here are some of the results:

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  • Proof: Most people seem to believe this simply means "strong evidence," but to scientists, it has a strict technical definition they rarely meet. That often leads to a "mismatch" in language when people ask for "proof" of, say, evolution or human-initiated climate change, writes physicist Sean Carroll.
  • Theory: Most people use this to mean "idea" or "supposition." But real scientific theories "are entire systems of testable ideas," explains astrophysicist Dave Goldberg. "The best theories (in which I include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution) have withstood a hundred years or more of challenges."
  • Gene for ... : When a genetic variation has been correlated with something, news articles often say it is the "gene for" it. Which bothers biologist Terry Johnson because in reality we all have the same genes, and some have specific variations or "alleles" that cause problems. "The language suggests that 'this gene causes heart disease,' when the reality is usually 'people that have this allele seem to have a slightly higher incidence of heart disease.'"
  • Statistically Significant: This sounds like it implies that something is important, but really it just means that it can be measured at all, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg laments. He suggests that mathematicians should switch to a less confusing term like "statistically noticeable."
  • Survival of the Fittest: "First, these are not actually Darwin's own words, and secondly, people have a misconception about what 'fittest' means," writes paleocologist Jacquelyn Gill. Sometimes the 'fittest' could be the smallest or squishiest. And sometimes evolution doesn't move in a straight line at all, and traits arise from random mutation or sexual selection.
For more, see the source. (Read more science stories.)

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