When scientists describe how non-specialists misunderstand their language, there’s often a note of sadness in the discussion. If only the United States public was more enlightened than it is today, some bloggers say, then people would understand the language of science.
A recent Scientific American blog post described how non-scientists in the United States misunderstand the scientific meanings of words like “theory,” “significant,” “hypothesis” and “natural.” A post on the Science 2.0 website provides a longer list of words that are often misunderstood.
What’s wrong with hoping the public will understand scientific language someday? Nothing. But we live in a society where scientists are a specialized group, often socially distant from many of the people who misunderstand them. If scientists want to eradicate misunderstandings and strengthen public awareness of the value of science, better communication and more social interaction is the best solution.
There are tips available online for scientists who want to do a good job of communicating their research and ideas in the classroom. I’ve edited some of these tips myself. When I was working at the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), I edited two book sections showing how scientists can respond to misunderstandings immediately when talking with students. Here’s a shortened excerpt from one of the sections:
Problems of Terminology
1. Confusing the technical meanings and the ordinary meanings of words.
Some scientific terms have technical meanings that are very different from their common sense meanings.
2. Using words that have technical meanings and not realizing it.
Some ordinary English words are used as technical terms, as explained above, but experienced scientists (such as graduate students and lecturers) are so used to using these words that they often forget that these words have special meanings. So the scientists don’t define the terms and then are surprised when the students don’t know what they mean.
3. Getting confused when using similar but not identical terms.
Certain pairs of terms seem to be difficult to distinguish – for example, “gene” and “allele,” as well as “chromosome” and “chromatid.” To make it worse, some of these terms are synonyms in common speech, such as “inhibition” and “repression.” A good way to clear up confusion is to compare and contrast; compare what the two terms have in common and contrast their differences.
A second section covers the various types of misunderstandings that can occur.
Preconceived notions are popular conceptions rooted in everyday experiences. For example, many people believe that water flowing underground must flow in streams because the water they see at the earth’s surface flows in streams. Preconceived notions plague students’ views of heat, energy, and gravity…
Nonscientific beliefs include views learned by students from sources other than scientific education, such as religious or mythical teachings…
Conceptual misunderstandings arise when students are taught scientific information in a way that does not provoke them to confront paradoxes and conflicts resulting from their own preconceived notions and nonscientific beliefs. To deal with their confusion, students construct faulty models that usually are so weak that the students themselves are insecure about the concepts.
Vernacular misconceptions arise from the use of words that mean one thing in everyday life and another in a scientific context (i.e., “work”). A geology professor noted that students have difficulty with the idea that glaciers retreat, because they picture the glacier stopping, turning around, and moving in the opposite direction. Substitution of the word “melt” for “retreat” helps reinforce the correct interpretation that the front end of the glacier simply melts faster than the ice advances.
Factual misconceptions are falsities often learned at an early age and retained unchallenged into adulthood. If you think about it, the idea that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place” is clearly nonsense, but that notion may be buried somewhere in your belief system.
Correcting science misconceptions requires a sophisticated understanding of both communication and science. Investing more resources in science education can help improve public science literacy. But scientists may also need to consider using alternate words for concepts that most people misunderstand.