The headline was really 10 scientific ideas that scientists wish you would stop misusing, but you probably don’t make these errors if you’re a competent science journalist.
Still, the list, compiled by Annalee Newitz at of io9, is a must read. If you write for the general public, some of the terms on this list probably are confusing to your readers and your editors as well. Some of the better entries reveal important differences between the way scientists and members of the general public understand certain words and phrases.
The most thought-provoking entry was #1 – proof. The word is technically not a scientific idea the public borrowed and screwed up. It’s a general use English word dating from the 13th century, and scientists generally steer clear of it for good reason. In most cases when it’s applied to science, it reflects a misunderstanding. Mathematicians prove theorems, but scientists don’t prove theories. Physicist Sean Carroll argues that proof is the most widely misused concept in science:
“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.”
That’s a deep dilemma. The fact that science isn’t in the proof business is key to its power, and yet, some people can’t see the value of science if scientists can’t “prove” things. Scientists want to be accurate but they also want to be pragmatic in dealing with the public. And too many members of the public see science as a set of static facts rather than as a dynamic process.
For science journalists, pragmatic but wrong is not an option. We have to find ways to convey the weight and power of evidence behind evolution by natural selection and other widely-accepted ideas without resorting to a misleading use of the word “proof”.
We can say that well-established theories fit the available evidence better than any of their competitors, or that some experiments or observations serve to bolster some theories and falsify others. But that introduces the word theory, which is the number two problem word on the list.
The other entry that should be of particular interest to science writers is the use of the word “gene”. That, too, is a common source of editor-writer battle, as editors seem compelled to insert the phrase “gene for…x disease” into stories. Using it that way reflects a lack of any coherent mental conception of a gene.
The solution is tricky, however. The writer of the entry, Terry Johnson, introduces the word “allele”. This is a great term, and it’s a shame it’s not part of the general vocabulary. But alas, allele will not get past many editors at general interest publications. There are other ways to get it right, but it takes some thought.
Another term, “organic” can be the source of confusion. The author of the entry writes that it comes packaged with other misleading terms – “natural” and “chemical free”. But if you’re a reader of this site, then there’s a good chance that you, like me, have used the word often to mean carbon-based, as in, “The Mars Rover was equipped to detect organic compounds…” It crops up constantly in chemistry, origin of life research and the ever popular field of astrobiology.
In that context the word is pretty straightforward and uncontroversial, but it’s good to remind ourselves that some readers may have no idea we’re referring to carbon-containing compounds. For all we know, readers think the Mars rovers are testing whether Martians are using synthetic or organic fertilizer.