MRK Science

9 science words that even smart people get wrong

"I do not think it means what you think it means."

FIONA MACDONALD
4 MAR 2016
 

We all do our best to be accurate, responsible users of the English language, but despite our best intentions, we’ve all had the occasional slip up ("literally" or "ironic", anyone?)

It's particularly easy to get things wrong when it comes to science, because words often have a different meaning for scientists than they do for the rest of the population - and we're pretty sure we're not the only ones who've made at least one of the mistakes below. If not, you definitely know someone who does it regularly. Read on to make sure you never get it wrong again.

 

1. Theory

In regular conversation, people toss around the word "theory" almost like it's meaningless (I have a theory that Katy Perry is actually JonBenét Ramsay), but in science, theory is pretty much the highest honour you can give an idea.

The long process to establish a "theory" in science goes a little something like this - scientists make an observation, come up with potential hypotheses to explain it, and then experimentally test each one. Once they have enough scientifically verified hypotheses, they can begin to put them together and come up with a theory, and by that stage it's pretty well accepted by the scientific community.

So next time someone argues that: "Yeah, but [insert rigorously tested idea here] is only a theory," don't take offence. Little does your opponent know that they actually just gave science a compliment.

2. Natural

"Oh don't worry, it's natural." That's something we hear a lot these days, with society's obsession for all things "organic" and "chemical-free" reaching all-time highs. 

But all "natural" means is that something exists in nature... which doesn't mean it's good for you - take arsenic, for example, which is totally natural but also totally deadly. And Botulinum toxin, better known as Botox, is the most acutely lethal toxin known, and also totally natural. Don't believe they hype.

3. Dinosaur

What's your favourite dinosaur? Pterodactyl? Plesiosaurus? Wrong. Many people don't realise that the word "dinosaur" only refers to ancient reptiles that lived on land, not marine or flying reptiles. 

And you think dinosaurs are extinct? Wrong again. Look out your window - all those birds descended from the common ancestor of dinosaurs. So "just as humans beings are a kind of primate, birds are a kind of dinosaur", says Mark Norell, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. 

4. Poisonous/venomous

People often use the words poisonous and venomous interchangeably - and although they're both toxins, there's a big difference in the delivery process. A poison is inhaled, ingested, or absorbed, while a venom is delivered via something else, commonly fangs.

It's an important distinction to make if you're deciding whether or not to eat something (or whether or not to freak out about something that's bitten you), but keep in mind that some animals can be both poisonous and venomous at the same time - and they're the ones you want to look out for.

1dda022871e711f5a02d9470d9ede59eBeatrice the Biologist

5. Comet/meteor/meteorite/asteroid

They're all rocks hurtling through space, right? What's the big deal? Actually, there are important distinctions between the four terms, and it's important to understand them just in case one of them ever happens to be heading your way.

  • Comets and asteroids are both types of celestial objects that orbit the Sun - they're way smaller than planets, but can range anywhere from 10 metres to 578 km across. Both comets and asteroids formed around 4.5 billion years ago, during the earliest days of the Solar System. But asteroids are made up of metals and rocky materials, while comets are made of ice, dust, and rock. As comets approach the Sun, some of that ice melts and vapourises to form a tail.
  • Meteors are small particles of debris that are under 10 metres in diameter that burn up in Earth's atmosphere as they pass through. When you look up at the sky at night and see a shooting star - that's a meteor.
  • Meteorites are anything that survives Earth's atmosphere to hit the planet's surface (and, very rarely, humans).

6. Fossil

Despite what you might think, fossils aren't just the remains of hard parts of animals, like bones and shell. They're any traces that have been made by an organism, and that includes imprints of soft tissue, such as skin and blood vessels, as well as footprints, burrows, and nests.

But to qualify as a fossil, a specimen must be more than 10,000 years old. Anything younger is called a sub-fossil, as Lowell Dingus from the American Museum of Natural History explains.

7. Significant

This is one of those red-flag words for researchers. The problem is that people regularly use the term "statistically significant" to show that a finding is important or note-worthy. But it actually means something pretty specific - that a result is unlikely to occur by random chance - and doesn't necessarily reflect how meaningful the finding is.

"If a scientific experiment is set up correctly, then a statistical significance might reveal a lot," writes Futurism. "If the experiment is set up poorly, as is the case with many pseudosciences, then significance doesn’t mean anything because all of the variables weren’t controlled."

8. Hominid

You've probably heard the term hominid used to describe humans and our ancestors, and until recently, that was correct. But around the start of this decade, researchers began to reclassify the way we define primates, and started using the term "hominin" to describe the group of modern humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors.

Hominid isn't technically wrong, but it's just a broader term that also includes the other great apes and their ancestors.

9. Nature vs Nurture

This one isn't a mistake so much as an extremely simplified phrase that scientists dislike. "This is something that modern evolutionists cringe at," evolutionary biologist Dan Kruger from the University of Michigan told LiveScience.

Because while we're born with a defined set of genes ("nature"), scientists know that certain genes can be turned on or off throughout our lives thanks to epigenetics. And it's becoming increasingly clear that our epigenetics are influenced heavily by our environment and the experiences we go through... AKA "nurture".

The distinction between genetics and environment is definitely not as clearly defined as we once thought, so let's all do our best to stop using the phrase, okay?

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