April 5, 2013

Should We Use These Three Controversial Science Terms?

by Christine Hoekenga

How important is a single word? In science it's critical to use precise language.  Image courtesy: MJ Ecker (Flickr CC)

How important is a single word? In science it’s critical to use precise language.
Image courtesy: MJ Ecker (Flickr CC)

One of the Wired Magazine science blogs, Dot Physics, recently ran a post entitled “Three Science Words We Should Stop Using.”  Care to guess what they were?

Hypothesis.  Theory.  Scientific Law.

Setting aside for a moment that the third choice is a phrase, rather than a word, this is a seriously flawed proposition. The author argues that these words are too confusing for the public.  They have taken on meanings in popular culture that differ from their scientific meanings, and this is confusing, especially when it comes to political issues that involve science, such as climate change. He suggests that we should replace them all with one word that will somehow clear up all the confusion: model.

It’s not clear why the author thinks model will be any clearer than any of these other terms.  Nor does he really explain why this word is immune to the same misconceptions that hypothesis, theory, and law have amassed over time.

What is clear is that there’s a better approach to the problem: Teach students explicitly what each of the three words mean and make the distinction between the colloquial, everyday use and the scientific use of each.  Explain that these words have important, distinct meanings that are not interchangeable and are not captured by any single word.

This is an especially apt solution since science itself requires the use of precise language.  Good scientists don’t hide from complexity or sweep details under the rug. They explore and document complex systems, and they work to understand the nuances of any given situation. In fact it’s counterproductive to teach budding science students (and the general public) that the answer to complexity–whether we find it in language or in the natural world–is to pretend it doesn’t exist and come up with some “simpler” solution.

So rather than getting rid of three useful scientific terms, let’s talk with our students, our colleagues, or friends and families about what they really mean–and then let’s use them correctly.  For better definitions and explanations of each of the terms, visit our module Ideas in Science: Theories, Hypotheses, and Laws.

Did you see the original post?  What do you think the solution is?

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.