Misusing Science

We’re all guilty of misusing words, often on a daily basis. Whether we’re exaggerating the emptiness of our stomachs or literally just being ironic, lots of the time it’s pretty harmless. However, sometimes misunderstanding or misusing words can be detrimental.

Scientific terms are key victims of misuse. This is often because a single word can mean something very different in science, compared to in everyday life.

The word ‘theory’ is a big one. What is a theory? People often use ‘theory’ to mean an untested or only vaguely thought through idea. For example, ‘I have a theory for why my cake was a total failure: I think I might have used plain flour instead of self-raising flour.’ This is an idea, but without going back and checking which bag of flour got used, there is no proof if the idea is right or not. How about ‘in theory, I like the sound of it’? What does ‘in theory’ mean? Think about a driving theory exam. You get tested on stuff that it relevant and factual, it’s just that the test is conducted on paper, instead of being a practical exam in which you actually drive a car.

To the scientific community, theories are well thought through and proven by experimental evidence. For example, the theories of relativity, evolution and climate change. If we are not careful however, people can latch on to the word ‘theory’ and claim that it means there is no proof, that it is just somebody’s idea.

‘Hypothesis’ is another one. If you ask somebody what ‘hypothesis’ means the most common answer will be ‘an educated guess’. However, a hypothesis is actually a proposed explanation for something that can be properly tested. My suggestion that the cake was a failure because I used the wrong type of flour could be a hypothesis. I just need to be able to check which bag of flour I used, and then try baking the cake again using both self-raising and plain flour. If the cake with plain flour fails but the one with self-raising flour works then I can prove that my hypothesis was correct.

Here are ten words that scientists want us to get right, as compiled by io9. And if you’d like to know more science stuff we often get confused, check out this collection.

The image is borrowed and edited, with thanks, from Steven Straiton under a Creative Commons License.