Same Words But Different Meanings

Earth scientists milling around the lobby during coffee breaks at this year’s AGU had something unusual to mull over this year.  A phalanx of colorful posters, created by a visual communicator who describes herself as a note taker on steroids, adorned the lobby of the Moscone Center. Snippets from the illustrated notes offer a fascinating look into some of the brainstorming sessions that have taken place about communicating climate science. AGU intstalled the posters at a fitting time: it’s been a disorienting month for climate scientists who have watched seemingly specious charges of scientific malpractice become a major news item.

One of the posters — called Communicating with Congress (and Everybody Else) — brainstorms some of the pitfalls that make communicating climate science such a challenge. High on the list: jargon. Scientists use such a specialized language that it can be difficult for non-scientists — even for those of us who cover the topic regularly — to distill the meaning from certain scientific presentations or articles. Complicating matters more, there are some words that have distinctly different meanings to scientists and the public. The poster highlighted a handful of them. I’ve taken the liberty of elaborating upon and defining a few of them below. 

Did you know the difference?  Have any good examples to add to the list?

The Public: Spray cans that dispense a liquid mist, many of which damage Earth’s ozone layer.

Scientists: A suspension of any solid or liquid droplet in the atmosphere. Includes dust, soot, pollen, sea salt, sulfates and more. More details about aerosols. 

The Public: Harmful material that leaks from nuclear material and is used to battle cancer.
Scientists: Energy that comes from a source and travels through some material or space. Includes electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, and X-rays.  More details about
electromagnetic radiation.

The Public: Something over Antarctica that protects against cancer-causing light waves. 
Scientists: A molecule containing three oxygen atoms that functions as a harmful air pollutant near the surface, a greenhouse gas in the upper troposphere, and a buffer against ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphere. 
More details about ozone.

The Public: Willful manipulation of facts to suit political ideology.
Scientists: A term used to describe a statistical sample in which members of the sample are not equally likely to be chosen. Also a term used to describe the difference between an
estimator’s expectation and the true value of the parameter being estimated. For some scientific analyses, a certain degree of bias can actually be beneficial.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

3 thoughts on “Same Words But Different Meanings”

  1. How about “toxins?” Often used by the public to represent “anything and everything that is harmful.” Even if what that *is* is unknown…

  2. Some more form my side:
    General meaning: inclination toward some action
    Scientific meaning: Sun's inclination to the earth or inclination between two different planes.

    Current: Some recet happenings
    Scientific meaning: anything fro Electricity to hot and cold currents found in major oceans< it remains to be seen how these currents are affected by global warming. One study pointed out the El-nino has a major impact on the monsoon phenomenon found in south Asia>

    Degradation: Decreasing standards of values
    Scientific Meaning: Worsening of environmental features or changes in topography due to actions of wind , water, ice.
    What will happen if glaciers start melting at high speed.In my view more degradation of the environment by giving rise to soil erosion in upper reaches and increasing floods in lower region for loss of precious potable water.

  3. Theory
    Public: What scientist call hypothesis.
    Scientist: An hypothesis that has successfully explained the results of numerous test and is now accepted as the correct explanation of a phenomenon.

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