Words are hard to get right, particularly in science. Not only do the same words mean entirely different things whether you’re using them in regular conversation or in a scientific context (hello, "theory"), but the more we use certain words and phrases, the faster they can lose their original meaning, or be simplified so much, they end up being just plain wrong.
And the scary thing is, misunderstanding the meaning of particular terms in science isn’t just something laypeople do - experts, such as scientists, researchers, PhD students, teachers, and lecturers, also mess up, and this can be very dangerous when you’re working in a field that relies on truth and facts.
While some bad scientists deliberately use big words and inscrutable jargon to hide the shortcomings of their research, most of us use words incorrectly because we simply don’t know any better.
So psychologists from universities across America have teamed up to educate us all on the 50 most inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases in psychology, genetics, and science in general.
Publishing in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, the paper is open access, so we highly recommend giving it a read, or even a skim, because we pretty much guarantee that you’re going to learn something.
And what’s amazing about this list is that rather than just telling us to never ever use the phrase "a gene for" again, or that the "scientific method" doesn’t mean what you think it means, the researchers explain why each term is problematic to begin with, give examples showing how it’s often misused, and even offer recommendations for better, more accurate alternatives.
Basically, this paper will make all of us better people, so have a read.
For those of you who want the condensed version, here are 50 of the most commonly misused terms in science in psychology, with explanations for some of the worst offenders.
Inaccurate or Misleading Terms
1. A gene for: Because genes code for proteins, there are no "genes for" phenotypes per se,the researchers explain - the root causes of medical and psychiatric disorders are far more complicated than that. "[G]enome-wide association studies of major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggest that there are probably few or no genes of major effect," they write.
2. Antidepressant medication
4. Brain region X lights up: Those bright red and orange colours you see on functional brain imaging scans? They’re not real, and they don’t actually reflect neural activity like we’ve been told.
6. Bystander apathy
7. Chemical imbalance: "There is no known ‘optimal' level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an 'imbalance'."
8. Family genetic studies
9. Genetically determined: Few, if any, psychological capacities are genetically "determined". Most things that happen in our bodies, from developing Alzheimer’s disease to living to 100, comes down to a mysterious combination of genetic factors, lifestyle factors, and plain old luck.
10. God spot: We hadn’t come across this one before, but it’s as bad as it sounds.
11. Gold standard: "In the domains of psychological and psychiatric assessment, there are precious few, if any, genuine 'gold standards'.
12. Hard-wired: While oversimplified explanations for certain behaviours might lead you to believe that your unique neural make-up determines certain character traits, "remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired", say the psychologists. "[Virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences."
13. Hypnotic trance
14. Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X
15. Lie detector test: Someone tell Jerry.
16. Love molecule: We need to stop calling the hormone oxytocin the "love molecule", the "trust molecule", the "cuddle hormone", or "moral molecule".
17. Multiple personality disorder
18. Neural signature
19. No difference between groups
20. Objective personality test
21. Operational definition
22. p = 0.000: P-values don't mean what you think they mean.
23. Psychiatric control group
24. Reliable and valid: "This test is reliable and valid," says you!
25. Statistically reliable: As we reported last month, it's time to stop using p-values and statistical significance on their own to test hypotheses and determine whether results are important - it doesn’t work.
26. Steep learning curve: We’ve got it backward. Mastering Dark Souls isn’t a steep learning curve - unless you mean it’s fast and easy to hand the Stray Demon’s sizeable ass to him.
27. The scientific method: As eminent philosopher of science, Karl Popper, once remarked, "As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that the scientific method does not exist."
28. Truth serum
29. Underlying biological dysfunction
Frequently Misused Terms
30. Acting out
31. Closure: Someone tell Oprah
37. Medical model
39. Hierarchical stepwise regression
40. Mind-body therapies
41. Observable symptom: "This term, which appears in nearly 700 manuscripts according to Google Scholar, conflates signs with symptoms," the researchers explain. "Signs are observable features of a disorder; symptoms are unobservable features of a disorder that can only be reported by patients. Symptoms are by definition unobservable."
42. Personality type
43. Prevalence of trait X
44. Principal components factor analysis
45. Scientific proof: "The concepts of 'proof' and 'confirmation' are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting."
Pleonasms (uncalled-for words)
46. Biological and environmental influences
47. Empirical data: As the researchers explain, "empirical" means based on observation or experience, so when we’re talking about data from psychological studies - and other observation-based studies, it’s inherently empirical. Because, "What would 'non-empirical' psychological data look like?"
48. Latent construct
49. Mental telepathy: All telepathy is mental..