Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Terms to Avoid: A List with Corrective Information

Environmental & Science Literacy, Literacy
Edward Hessler

Gifted class
By White House photo by Shealah Craighead
 (The White House Office of the First Lady) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
PZ Myers, is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He writes a blog I read regularly, Pharyngula.  The blog's byline is "Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal." Pharyngula is also found at ScienceBlogs (under Life Science).

Here I share and thank him for one of his recent finds, an entry about a review paper on scientific terminology. The aim of the paper is accuracy in usage.The article is Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous and logically confused words and phrases.

Accuracy of Several Scientific Terms
Many of the terms are found with some regularity in media releases and news articles/reports. The list begins with "a gene for" and includes "gold standard" (#11), "statistically reliable" (#25), "the scientific method" (#27)*, and "scientific proof" (#45)**.  Myers makes some useful comments about #45.

*A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas uses the term "practices" instead of "the scientific method." Very briefly, this term was chosen because "it minimizes the tendency to reduce scientific practice to a single set of procedures," emphasizes that there is not "a single 'scientific method,'" and the long confusion about the process of inquiry.  New (to science education) are practices "such as modeling, developing explanations, and engaging in critique and evaluation (argumentation)." The section on scientific and engineering practices begins on p. 41 and may be read on-line.

"Proof" vs. Evidence
**"Proof" is an idea that many people seem to have about science and what scientists do.  It is quite resistant to going away.  Annalee Newitz at Io9 asked scientists about scientific terms that are used incorrectly.  Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at CalTech, commented about proof.  He noted that it has a technical definition (certain conclusions directly follow from certain assumptions), that science never, ever proves anything.  What science does is develop "more and more reliable and comprehensive theories of the world that nevertheless are always subject to update and improvement." (Underline, my emphasis)

Science is empirical and evidence-based (more, better, strong, multiple-lines). The late science educator Mary Budd Rowe suggested questions that should be routinely asked by science educators. Those grouped under evidence included what do I know, how good is the evidence, what are the reasons I accept/reject the evidence, what is the evidence, where did the evidence come from and how good is it?

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