The wrong word: widely misunderstood scientific terms

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Posted by Matthew Stibbe

People have a horrible tendency to use the wrong word in press releases, especially when using scientific terms they don’t understand. Hype words and frankenquotes make them almost unreadable. For example, people often use words like science loanwords ‘quantum leap’ wrongly.

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I was thinking of that when I read this on Callan Bentley’s blog. (Hat tip: Communicating the Science of Climate Change.)

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific Term Public meaning Better choice
enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurence change from long-term average

The wrong word for the wrong book

PS. When I was a teenager, I worked in a bookshop in Bath. A woman came into the shop and asked for ‘one of those books where you look up a word and it tells you other words that mean the same thing.’ I said, ‘Ah, yes, a thesaurus.’  She said, ‘No. It’s not that. What’s another word for it.’ Really.

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