Sarah Lichtner

In a recent article published by LiveScience, the author calls attention to seven commonly misused science words: “hypothesis,” “theory,” “model,” “skeptic,” “nature vs. nurture,” “significant,” and “natural.” Because of the common misuse of “theory,” “hypothesis,” and “law,” Rhett Allain, a physicist at Southeastern Louisiana University, even suggested doing away with these three terms altogether, replacing them all with “model.” Doing so, however, would eliminate centuries-old distinctions based on the scientific method that enable quick classification of a scientific concept.

We have Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Big Bang Theory, and then numerous hypotheses being put to the test related to the Higgs boson. The weight of the words “law,” “theory,” and “hypothesis” varies drastically in the scientific community based on the level of scientific evidence. In more general English, it’s the distinction between what will happen in the case of a scientific law and what should happen in the case of a theory or a hypothesis, along with the amount of supporting evidence. Though some laws like Newton’s Laws of Motion don’t apply under certain boundary conditions (e.g., they do not apply to subatomic particle behavior), scientific laws are most often an explanation of what will happen under the appropriate set of conditions.

In conversation, it may be difficult to stop others from claiming something is “just a theory” when it is really a plausible explanation that needs to be tested—defined as a hypothesis—before it can be considered a theory. However, it is critical that scientific terms like these are used accurately in scientific writing, particularly when written for a general audience. When it comes to presenting results, being sure you have your terms straight is key to both credibility and reader understanding. For example, while people may claim they do or do not believe in climate change, climate change is an inarguable fact. Our climate changes naturally and has done so long before humans existed. The term global warming, on the other hand, is used to refer to the theory that humans are accelerating climate change. It is therefore a subset of the whole climate change conversation.

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of translating complex scientific ideas into terms that non-scientists, including policymakers, can grasp. But when it comes to communicating about science, you not only need to convey concepts simply, but must also do so accurately. That’s why our writers at Nexight work so closely with our technical experts. It’s critical to have your facts straight. Well, at least that’s our “model.”