Hypothesis. Theory. Law. These scientific words get bandied about regularly, yet the general public usually gets their meaning wrong.
Now, one scientist is arguing that people should do away with these misunderstood words altogether and replace them with the word "model." But those aren't the only science words that cause trouble, and simply replacing the words with others will just lead to new, widely misunderstood terms, several other scientists said.
"A word like 'theory' is a technical scientific term," said Michael Fayer, a chemist at Stanford University. "The fact that many people understand its scientific meaning incorrectly does not mean we should stop using it. It means we need better scientific education."
From "theory" to "significant," here are seven scientific words that are often misused.
The general public so widely misuses the words hypothesis, theory and law that scientists should stop using these terms, writes physicist Rhett Allain of Southeastern Louisiana University, in a blog post on Wired Science. [Amazing Science: 25 Fun Facts]
"I don't think at this point it's worth saving those words," Allain told LiveScience.
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for something that can actually be tested. But "if you just ask anyone what a hypothesis is, they just immediately say 'educated guess,'" Allain said.
2. Just a theory?
Climate-change deniers and creationists have deployed the word "theory" to cast doubt on climate change and evolution.
"It's as though it weren't true because it's just a theory," Allain said.
That's despite the fact that an overwhelming amount of evidence supports both human-caused climate change and Darwin's theory of evolution.
Part of the problem is that the word "theory" means something very different in lay language than it does in science: A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone's head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.
However, theory isn't the only science phrase that causes trouble. Even Allain's preferred term to replace hypothesis, theory and law -- "model" -- has its troubles. The word not only refers to toy cars and runway walkers, but also means different things in different scientific fields. A climate model is very different from a mathematical model, for instance.
"Scientists in different fields use these terms differently from each other," John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in an email to LiveScience. "I don't think that 'model' improves matters. It has an appearance of solidity in physics right now mainly because of the Standard Model. By contrast, in genetics and evolution, 'models' are used very differently." (The Standard Model is the dominant theory governing particle physics.)
When people don't accept human-caused climate change, the media often describes those individuals as "climate skeptics." But that may give them too much credit, Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in an email.