The Importance of Word Choice: Terms with multiple meanings for scientists and the public

If you haven’t seen the excellent post on Mountain Beltway – Words matter – you should head over there and take a look. The post brought up some interesting ideas about word choice, and how the common definition of a word may convey a different meaning than the scientific definition. For science communicators, this may lead to confusion and misunderstanding between you and your audience.

I presented this table to my Science and Nature Writing class this morning and asked my students to come up with other terms that may also have multiple, opposing meanings. This impressive list is what they produced:

There are obviously hundreds, if not thousands of other terms that could fit this list. So, in the spirit of collaboration and crowdsourcing, I’ve created a public Google Docs spreadsheet as a repository of confusing scientific terms. Feel free to add as you see fit, but do not delete anything. Feel free to add additional “Better Choices”. Please stick to words that clearly have multiple meanings, and not just difficult scientific concepts.

The editable spreadsheet is here – Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Update: read the original paper that started this all: “Communicating the science of climate change


  1. Kevin Z · October 18, 2011

    This sort of thing could make a useful environmental wiktionary.

  2. buone · October 18, 2011

    You are stupid!!! The words which are being used in science are used for their correct meaning. Spoken language is diff from written one. It is spoken language that has diversion of meaning. Also, you do have polymorphism in spoken language like, running nose, running business, running out of money and so on. and people have no prob with that. If you have decided not to understand science no one can explain you. And it is not responsibility of scientists but there are people called science journalist, like me. We have responsibility to explain science to common people.

  3. Al Dove · October 19, 2011

    Not sure I *entirely* agree with some of those descriptions, on both common usage and scientific usage. I wouldnt have said anything, but then again this whole discussion is about semantics, so it seems worth a comment! For example, the common usage given for “antibiotic” is closer in meaning to the common usage of “antiseptic”, but I think most folks do understand the difference between these two: hand sanitizer and a course of penicillin. Besides, the suggested alternative of “sterilizer” is even less accurate. Steam is a sterilizer, but it is certainly not an antibiotic. Secondly, “E. coli” can be and is used in a scientific context to mean tainted water/food; not everyone in science uses E. coli for genetics/cloning. Indeed, the whole reason the public uses it to mean tainted food/water is that that’s how scientists measure fecal contamination. In other words, the public took the common word usage from scientists in the first place. Finally, the suggested alternative for “sensitivity” is not correct. Sensitive tests have a low false negative rate, which is not to do with accuracy, at least not in the scientific meaning of the word “accurate”, which is about how close a test result is to the actual value. Maybe the best thing to do is add “accurate” (and while you’re at it, “specific”) to this list!

    This is a fascinating topic; I’ll be interested to see how your list develops

  4. James · October 19, 2011

    Under “anti-biotic”, do NOT substitute “sterilizer”. It means something completely different. “Way to kill microbes” is a vague yet somewhat-accurate term, tho.

    • James · October 19, 2011

      “fat” and “protein” might be good additions, as well. people usually associate those with “blubber” and “meat”.

  5. John Aspinall · October 19, 2011

    Many spreadsheet writers are completely missing the point; inserting rigorous but long-winded definitions in the column for “how to speak to the public”.
    Much as most of us (I would guess) are trained for rigor, it is the enemy of simplicity and clarity here.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 19, 2011

      I agree, however we are actively curating, and as terms are added we will be better able to collectively brainstorm better choices. Getting the ambiguous terms up is an important first step, even if you don’t have a great “better choice” yet.

  6. Monica Gilligan · October 19, 2011

    The big, big hangup with the public is the word theory. To the general public it means a guess. Heck, to politicians and the media it seems to mean guess. To scientists it means a framework for organizing data. No one can clear this up for most people in the public. Love your list. Good luck with it.

  7. Denali Hussin · October 19, 2011

    If you want to see the original source of this table, you should read “Communicating the Science Climate Change,” published in Physics Today by Susan Hassol and Richard Somerville, both of Climate Communication. The full pdf of the piece, including the table of terms, is available for download at the Climate Communication website:

  8. Luke Scientiae · October 19, 2011

    Migh tbe interesting to consider setting up something like a Science Misconceptions Wiki. (Some things are already on RationalWiki, but it would be good to educate the masses more comprehensively, specifically aiming to disabuse people of the wrongful interpretations of scientific terminology. Get them to stop saying things like “evolution is just a theory” and “crystal healing energy”, etc.)

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 19, 2011

      It’s a good idea, but this list is specifically aimed not at “misconceptions” but at words that legitimately have multiple, non-overlapping meanings depending on the context of their use.

  9. Alex Dodge · October 19, 2011

    So, I see you made a table, then took a screenshot of it and uploaded that. No alt text either. Are you too good for the tag, or do you just hate blind people?

    • Alex Dodge · October 19, 2011

      That should be <table> tag.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 19, 2011

      The entire table, in glorious table form, is available at the link.

  10. Al Dove · October 20, 2011

    Putting “Species” on there is a fools errand. Even scientists can’t agree on what makes a species!

  11. Amber · October 21, 2011

    Salt. Public: “table salt”. Scientists: “any compound formed by the reaction of an acid and a base”

    Base. Public: “a baseball marker,” “an outpost”, “reliable political support”. Scientists: “opposite of acids, has a pH over 7”

    Rich. Public “wealthy,” “flavorful”. Scientists: “abundant [in]”

    Crystal. Public: “jewel-like hunk of rock, usually in the quartz family”, or “fancy glass”. Scientists: “a substance that has formed a patterned molecular structure as it solidified”

    Radiation. Public: “death rays, invisible poison”. Scientists: “energy emitted”.

    Efficiency. Public: “how fast something works” Scientists: “how little heat energy is wasted”

  12. klb8s · October 21, 2011

    Nice. I plan to steal from it early and often. But one quibble: public answer to “assay” is WTF? It’s not a word ordinary folks use at all.

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