What Scientists Say and What the Public Hears

There are many barriers to public understanding of science and scientific research, ranging from low levels of science literacy in the general population to frequently  poor communication skills among scientists. I recently ran across a pithy summary of some common technical jargon used, in this example, in discussing vaccine safety, and the corresponding interpretation non-scientists are likely to give these terms. I have adapted it slightly from the source, an excellent book on the question of vaccine safety titled Do Vaccines Cause That?! A Guide for Evaluating Vaccine Safety Concerns by Martin G Meyers and Diego Pineda. Many of these kinds of confusion come up a lot when I am discussing the scientific evaluation of medical therapies with non-scientists, and they are a perennial source of confusion and frustration for all concerned. I’m sure you can all think of many others, so feel free to add as many as you can to the list and I will eventually try to compile something more comprehensive.

Expression/Word What Scientists Mean What the Public Hears
Adverse event Something that occurs at the same time as a medical intervention, which may or may not be related Something bad caused by the intervention
Bias Systematic error that could lead to mistaken conclusion. Not having an open mind
Favors rejection of the hypothesis The data suggest the hypothesis isn’t true, but you can never wholly prove a negative We still don’t know
The findings won’t go away We couldn’t find an alternative explanation We’re trying to fudge the data
Inadequate to accept or reject the hypothesis The data do not allow a definitive statement We don’t know
Naïve Not previously exposed to X Unsophisticated, stupid
Plausible Theoretically possible Likely, probably true
Relative risk The difference in risk between two groups or populations or conditions in an experiment The risk
Safe Insignificant risk No risk
Significant Not due to chance Important, real
Not significant Due to chance Unimportant
No evidence for X No definitive conclusion about X is possible X may be true we just can’t prove
No evidence against X No  definitive conclusion about X is possible X probably is true
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10 Responses to What Scientists Say and What the Public Hears

  1. Squillo says:

    This is brilliant.

    I want to send it to every news outlet to hand out to their (non)-science writers.

  2. Jim says:

    What Squillo said.

    Also, every scientist speaking to to a scientifically-naive (uh, that’s on the list – let’s use the ‘public’ meaning!) audience needs to orient their vocabulary. I have seen a number of slow-motion train wrecks in TV interviews caused by a scientist using jargon and being oblivious to its effect on the audience. Sometimes, the scientist is facing a woo-meister who is *very* aware of the public’s perceptions, and who willingly manipulates them.

  3. Bill F says:

    Having reported on medical news for several years, I spent many hours consulting my Science-to-English dictionary.

    Look at “what the public hears” when scientists say “bias”, “naive”, “safe”, “significant (or not)”. These are, in fact, all perfectly valid and accurate definitions of those words. Perhaps some of these problems could be avoided if scientists used language the way the rest of the world does. If something has an ‘insignificant risk’, why not just say that – instead of a word that Webster’s defines as ‘free of risk’?

    I’m all for more scientific literacy on the public’s part, but a little basic literacy on scientists’ part would help. If you’re going to leave the lab and visit the real world, please attempt to learn the language.

  4. skeptvet says:

    There’s no question that scientists are often ineffective at communicating about their work outside of their field, and if they were better at this some of the confusion might be avoided. Carl Sagans and Neil de Grasse Tysons are rare.

    Still, there’s a reason why physicists become physicists instead of journalists, and why journalists write for newspapers instead of working in physics labs. It is probably not reasonable to expect those in such different fields to have the same skill sets. It is no more apropriate to say “scientists should just communicate better” than it is to say “journalists should just understand math better.”

    And jargon is not arbitrary or purposeless. It develops because, within the field that generates it, it has a function–it communicates an idea with greater clarity and precision, and often brevity, than ordinary colloquial English. I can say “the results of the Student’s T-test show the difference in means between groups is not due to chance,” or I can say the difference is “statistically significant,” or even just “significant.” When talking to colleagues, it is clearly more efficient to use the shorthand, and it is understandable that having to then translate this into longer, clumsier language for the benefit of the lay public can be an irksome or difficult chore for many scientists.

    My purpose in posting this list was not to lay blame for the often poor communication between scientists and the general public, but to point out some examples of one phenomenon which contributes to this problem; the variable meaning of words in quotidian and technical usage. The same kind of meaning variability applies to language in general, and it is probably unavoidable. Different groups, defined by class, ethnicity, region, education level, profession, and many other such criteria, will use the same words in different ways, and confusion may result. Hopefully, in the case of scientists communicating with non-scientists, making both sides aware of the way some words differ in their general and technical usage can help to mitigate the communication problem a little bit.

  5. Zen Faulkes says:

    I like this list. I particularly agree with how the word “significant” gets used.

    While I’m here, I’ll briefly comment on skeptvet’s “Carl Sagans and Neil de Grasse Tysons are rare.”

    They’re rare NOT because there are few good science communicators. They’re rare because that level of fame is the product of a zillion quirky and unpredictable details.

    That few musicians reach the level of public consciousness achieved the The Beatles or U2 doesn’t mean good musicians are rare.

  6. skeptvet says:


    Great point, you’re absolutely right! I guess it is hard to know what proportion of scientists are good at communicating what they do to a non-science audience since we are only likely to hear about the few who reach media prominence or are near us personally. I still suspect it is a minority, but I don’t have any real evidence for that, only my personal impressions. Thanks for catching that.

  7. Rob Monkey says:

    Excellent post! Another thing about the rarity of Sagans and Tysons: there’s no money in trying to get Republicans to understand science, so more of them aren’t needed 😉 Come on, CNN’s gotta hire Erick Erickson for his brilliant analyses, we don’t need no steenkin’ science!

    How about “theory?” Scientists mean “a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.” People hear “something I pulled out of my ass.”

  8. strumpfhosen says:

    As the United States falls farther behind in promoting quality science and engineering education, it doesn’t help when science and engineers have trouble communicating. Similarly, with all the challenges facing the U.S. in the areas of energy and environment, we may find it difficult to make headway. But it’s not just that scientists and engineers have trouble talking to each other. The public is confused, too. And their support is needed to pass legislation, fund development, and challenge officials and businesses to make progress.

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