In an ideal world, founts of knowledge would be readily available for the general population. Academics and industry specialists would posit ideas, the media would report the information fairly and accurately, and the masses would be exposed to the latest and greatest (or worst, as the case may be).
Alas, that’s often not the way it actually happens. Instead, academics and specialists posit ideas, the media often either misinterprets or fails to adequately vet said ideas, and the masses lap up erroneous information.
With a nod to this human failing, writer Annalee Newitz recently asked some scientists which words the public has all wrong. Here are three of the most maddening:
Physicist Sean Carroll says many people seem to interpret proof simply as "strong evidence," but in science, it has a strict technical definition that is rarely met (he says that “science never really proves anything, but simply creates . . . reliable and comprehensive theories of the world”). The result? People want “proof” of complicated phenomenon like evolution and human-caused climate change that rely on many pieces of evidence to create a general picture, rather than one smoking gun incident showing utter infallibility.
Biologist Terry Johnson notes that when a genetic variation is correlated with something, news articles often use "gene" for the given outcome, and misunderstand the level of causality. We all have the same genes—these common genes are what make us all human. Differences come from specific ways these genes are expressed—called alleles. Moreover, Johnson notes that the “language suggests that 'this gene causes heart disease,' when the reality is usually 'people that have this allele seem to have a slightly higher incidence of heart disease.'" It’s a less exciting editorial clencher, but it’s also much more accurate.
3. Statistically Significant
If you thought the actual meaning of genetic correlation was a let down, wait until you hear how meaningless the phrase “statistically significant” is! Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg notes that this sounds like a given variable is important, dammit. But in reality it simply means the variable can be measured at all. Yikes. He suggests the use of a less confusing term like “statistically noticeable.” Again, doesn’t have the same oomph, but at least it means what it sounds like.
So now when you read articles in which reporters use these terms, you can decipher their accuracy and note it vociferously in the comments section. Maybe (most likely) they’ll dismiss you as a troll, but maybe—just maybe—they will see the error of their pseudoscientific ways. Just don’t hold your breath for similar enlightenment from Congress.