7 Most Misused Words in Science

If there’s one thing scientists hate is to see and hear terms being misused by the general public, because of a bad education during their school years or simply being too lazy to look up the meaning of something they look to throw out of their mouths a bit too often when it comes to discussions like the current climate debate.

Even in the scientific community, some terms have different meanings, all depending on the context they’re being used in. Nothing causes more debates or teeth grinding among the more educated branch of societies than the next words.

Science vs Religion


What is it really? A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for something that can actually be tested. What people think it means? The general public so widely misuses the words hypothesis, theory and law that scientists should stop using these terms. If you just ask anyone what a hypothesis is, they just immediately say ‘educated guess.’


What is it really? Well, it depends in what field you’re using it. A climate model is very different from a mathematical model, for instance. Using  ‘model’ instead of theory, hypothesis and law doesn’t 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.

Natural (and Organic)

The term has become synonymous with being virtuous, healthy or good. But not everything artificial is unhealthy, and not everything that’s natural is good for you. Natural’s sibling “organic” also has a problematic meaning. While organic simply means “carbon-based” to scientists, the term is now used to describe pesticide-free peaches and high-end cotton sheets, as well.

Nature vs. nurture

Scientists hate when this term is being used, because it radically simplifies a very complicated process. According to Dan Kruger an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, Genes may influence human beings, but so, too, do epigenetic changes. These modifications alter which genes get turned on, and are both heritable and easily influenced by the environment. The environment that shapes human behavior can be anything from the chemicals a fetus is exposed to in the womb to the block a person grew up on to the type of food they ate as a child. All these interact in an unpredictable way.


In statistics, something is significant if a difference is unlikely to be due to random chance. But that may not translate into a meaningful difference, in, say, headache symptoms or IQ. It’s all in how you use that term.


What is it really? True skeptics are open to scientific evidence and are willing to evenly assess it. True skepticism is the ‘self-correcting machinery’ of science. What people think it means? Simply denying mainstream science based on flimsy, invalid and too-often agenda-driven critiques of science.


What is it really? A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. What people think it means? A theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.