“10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing” Article Is Either Wrong or Needs Clarification

An article is being shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. PZ Myers and Vandy Beth Glenn have also blogged about it. Which is… how shall I put it… wrong. Well, not all of it, of course, but a great portion of it. Or actually it might not be wrong, but it needs clarification. The article is named 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing, but the majority of list looks like “Ten non-Scientific Words with One Scientific Sense, But We Wish to Appropriate Those Words.” Which is not cool, friends.

This is the opening of that article:

Many ideas have left the world of science and made their way into everyday language — and unfortunately, they are almost always used incorrectly. We asked a group of scientists to tell us which scientific terms they believe are the most widely misunderstood. Here are ten of them.

Well off the bat I want to ask who appointed these scientists who are interviewed here as the ultimate spokesperson of all scientists and since when scientists have the right to police the language, but whatever. The false claim starts with “Many ideas have left the world of science and made their way into everyday language”, as some of them have not actually originated in science.

Let’s look at the words:

1. Proof

Physicist Sean Carroll says:

I would say that “proof” is the most widely misunderstood concept in all of science. It has a technical definition (a logical demonstration that certain conclusions follow from certain assumptions) that is strongly at odds with how it is used in casual conversation, which is closer to simply “strong evidence for something.” There is a mismatch between how scientists talk and what people hear because scientists tend to have the stronger definition in mind. And by that definition, science never proves anything! So when we are asked “What is your proof that we evolved from other species?” or “Can you really prove that climate change is caused by human activity?” we tend to hem and haw rather than simply saying “Of course we can.” The fact that science never really proves anything, but simply creates more and more reliable and comprehensive theories of the world that nevertheless are always subject to update and improvement, is one of the key aspects of why science is so successful.

Erm…. proof has a technical meaning, but it also has a legal meaning, and a general meaning. And that concept has not originated by science. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “proof” goes back to 13th century, and at one point it even meant experience. And the dictionary clearly includes the meaning this article says we should stop using: “something that induces certainty or establishes validity “, it also includes the definition mentioned here: the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact”, it includes a logical sense as well: “the process or an instance of establishing the validity of a statement especially by derivation from other statements in accordance with principles of reasoning”.

I’m not saying that the basic point of this argument is wrong, they’re demanding something wrong from a scientist, but that doesn’t mean that the other meaning is invalid completely, it only means that this certain application of the word is wrong here. Or maybe you might even say that that other application is always wrong on a reasonable level, like we always rely on evidence and we should never be certain, which is not what we mean – we will continue to use “proof” in that sense because there are linguistic needs for it.

2. Theory

Astrophysicist Dave Goldberg has a theory about the word theory:

Members of the general public (along with people with an ideological axe to grind) hear the word “theory” and equate it with “idea” or “supposition.” We know better. Scientific theories are entire systems of testable ideas which are potentially refutable either by the evidence at hand or an experiment that somebody could perform. The best theories (in which I include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution) have withstood a hundred years or more of challenges, either from people who want to prove themselves smarter than Einstein, or from people who don’t like metaphysical challenges to their world view. Finally, theories are malleable, but not infinitely so. Theories can be found to be incomplete or wrong in some particular detail without the entire edifice being torn down. Evolution has, itself, adapted a lot over the years, but not so much that it wouldn’t still be recognize it. The problem with the phrase “just a theory,” is that it implies a real scientific theory is a small thing, and it isn’t.

Actually what moved me to write this post was this one.

This is one of the narrowest ways to define theory. If words had lives, this would be murdering the word.

And again, it did not originate in science.

Theory can be used as the opposite of practice, and that has many usages in day to day life. In dictionary while the first meaning is the scientific meaning, it goes on to add the other meaning as valid too: “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.” So why should we deny people this legitimate sense of this word?

Again, it’d be wrong to stop using this word in the context this article mentioned, but it makes no sense to stop it everywhere all the time.

When someone asks me “Can I fart in your face”, am I to answer “In hypothesis yes, but in practice I will not allow you?”

But more importantly, many of humanities are predicated on the idea of theory. In literature we defined theory as a philosophy that provides a textual and contextual methodology to read and interpret the literary texts. Like saying “My theory in this essay is feminism” it means that we use feminists concepts and methodology to understand a work of literature from a certain angel.

Should we just forgo all humanities because the word should belong only and only to the scientists?

Again, does the article mean that “stop using it in THIS CONTEXT?” Because by reading it I see no textual evidence of it, I’m only assuming it because it seems the automatic thing to assume. But why wasn’t that clarified in the article?

Even Vandy Beth Glenn claims that these words were “borrowed” by the others, but that is not true, because the specific scientific usage is not the origin.

Actually, in this whole article I agree only with three entries. “Quantum Uncertainty and Quantum Weirdness”, “Statistically Significant”, and “Geologic Timescales” are the only concepts that originated in science and are misunderstood by people in all contexts.

“Learned vs. Innate”, “Natural”, and “Organic” were not originally scientific terms, and there are many valid uses, although they are wrong in the concept this article uses them. But again, concept is key. I might say “This child is innately a musician”, and I’m not making a scientific claim. Coleridge discusses “Organic Unity” in a poem. etc etc.

And “Gene” and “Survival of the Fittest” are concepts that originated in science, but went on to mean different things in other areas of life. Like saying “That child is such a great musician, it’s in her genes!” Which again, since there’s really no scientific claim made, and the context makes that clear, is perfectly valid.

If you’re someone who thinks if someone says “That child is such a great musician, it’s in her genes!” is a sentence that needs correction, stop. You’re just a pedantic person with no actual understanding of language, and a bore and a bother to be around.

Again, this article could make perfect sense if someone added a disclaimer somewhere “We mean in scientific contexts, we don’t mean you should stop using these words everywhere except in scientific debates!” But then I suspect that the writer and the people quoted really think their narrow usage is the only permissible usage, which is an insult to language and its miraculous ability to expand and take new meanings, and it also has a false sense of entitlement.

Print Friendly

About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • colnago80

    1. Proof. In science, there is no such thing as proof. Proof is a concept in mathematics and symbolic logic. Thus given a set of axioms and postulates, one can prove that two triangles in flat space are congruent if they have 2 sides and the included angle equal (side/angle/side), or they have two angles and the included side equal (angle/side/angle). In science there is only evidence that supports a given proposition or evidence that falsifies it. In the entire history of science there has never been a proposition that has been proven.

    2. Theory. In science, the meaning of the word theory is different then it is in common usage. Goldberg’s definition is the one that is used in science. For instance, when an attorney says that his/her theory of the case is X, what is really meant scientifically is the X i8s a hypothesis, unless there is a mountain of evidence to support it.

  • M can help you with that.

    I remember this bugging me at least as far back as junior high school. I have no problem with a particular field (science in general here, though use of plenty of these terms varies between and within scientific disciplines) using a word from everyday language in a specific, more-clearly-defined (though definitions are never completely exact) sense. I do have a problem with partisans of the particular discipline then insisting that their use is the only acceptable use of the term.

    Seriously, even if it were the way the article describes (which, as you point out, isn’t necessarily the case), and terms originated in jargon and migrated to general use…that still wouldn’t make general-use, non-technical senses of the word “incorrect.” Just non-technical. Which is how language works.

    Add this to the list of “reasons people should have a broad education, so e.g. science people should still have a basic grounding in humanities” (which also, conveniently, doubles as a list of “reasons I’m a science/humanities double major”).

  • John Horstman

    I agree entirely. The most common example of “my jargon usage is the only valid usage” argument I encounter is with respect to “organic”, as there are apparently quite a few chemists running around who think the word was invented by chemists to mean “contains carbon” (when in fact it’s neither the case that the term has always meant “contains carbon” in chemistry nor that chemists invented the word).


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X