Most-misused scientific concepts



Prove it!

“Natural” is definitely one of my biggest complaints.

Countless horrible things are natural, ranging from asbestos to radioactive elements to the ebola virus and plenty more, but that doesn’t make them good for you.


I often get into frustrating discussions where people insist that “natural” foods use “no chemicals”.


I try not to get pedantic on this topic, but then I realize that I am a layperson. I’ve just bothered to learn correct terminology, and that means if a word is used in an ad or by a politician, I understand what it should mean. That’s important because I’m protecting myself from what they may try to sell me.

It’s one thing to allow language to relax. Language does change over time. It’s a wholly different thing to just throw out the meaning of terms so that the words become effectively meaningless.


Hear, hear!

I’m a huge fan of letting language evolve and grow in unexpected directions - but as an extension of art, not as a modification of science. There is a place and a time for twisting the meaning of a word to make a point or to effect a pleasing aesthetic.

Music, poetry, literature and the like all benefit from the joyful practice of playing with words. But when I’m dealing with things like health, justice, history, and physics, the very last thing I want is for people to actively fiddle with meanings and create imprecision and confusion.


It’s a particular problem when you consider who starts actively using these “creative” forms of scientific terms. They tend to fall into a few groups: advertisers, politicians, and those supporting pseudoscience.

The goal is to obfuscate. They want to blur the information, or add to validity to a weak (or wholly faulty) claim.

When their claims get repeated, the misuse of science-y terms gets repeated, and our language is not better for it. They aren’t finding “new” or “creative” uses of those words. They’re avoiding using weaker words to say what they really mean. Once the media adopts the error, it flows into public use.

It’s really something we should better guard against.


I’m not sure what Cory means to suggest by pointing out that these misconceptions are “profitable”. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that these wrong ideas are widespread because they’re being pushed by greedy corporations or what have you. Rather, I contend that the arrow of causation points the other way—most of these are obvious-in-hindsight consequences of scientific concepts running headfirst into known cognitive biases like compartmentalization, or just plain confusion of terms. If they are profitable, that’s because you can always find a way to profit from people’s misunderstandings of important things.

Also, ‘unnatural’ is an oxymoron: everything obeys its nature.


Marketroids occupy the niche of preying on cognitive biases, and they don’t fuck around; as much disrespect for science as they may apparently display, that’s merely the side-effect of deliberate ploys… they are scientists. And engineers…

I think you greatly misunderestimate the malevolence, and mountains of moolah, involved.


Organic drives me nuts, but I finally found something worse. I was in the corporate dining hall for a major tech company the other day and there was a sign touting low carbon food. I nearly fell out of my chair.


Yeah. Personally, “organic” is my least favorite. It has a precise meaning, and always has, but the meaning that the average layperson has in mind is incredibly nebulous and a lie to boot, and most people don’t even know what the real, firm, well-defined meaning of organic is either.

Organic doesn’t mean “no pesticides” nor does it mean “grown by old hippies up on their family farm”. The only thing organic means when it comes to food, is “the food industry can charge twice as much money for the same amount of product.”

“Natural” is also one of my pet hates. Well, as far as I can hate anything connected to language, which isn’t actually that much. It’s usually far more useful to get the meaning of something, rather than focus on nit-picking and pedanticism. Unless, like @catgrin said, they are advertisers, pollies or purveyors of woo using the delightfully mutable aspect of English for their own nefarious ends.

I’ve worked extensively with assorted toxins and although man-made might cause you some grief, if you really want your day ruined, Mama Nature is your go-to gal. :skull:

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most people don’t even know what the real, firm, well-defined meaning of organic is either

Very true. I have a master’s degree in chemistry and have had plenty of arguments with equally-qualified or more qualified people about what the definition of an “organic molecule” is (there is no official one).

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That’s amazingly stupid sounding and ridiculously phrased, but it does mean something in jargon, and I’m a bit sympathetic because there is not a good shorthand substitute. The intended meaning is something like “low in contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide.” So, mostly, low petrochemical input in production and transportation. A good replacement for the silly sounding “low carbon” is urgently needed.


Okay then, what’s your definition? I’ll admit my formal education in chemistry ends at the eleventh grade. The definition of organic chemistry I was taught was: any chemistry dealing with molecules that contain carbon. That implies to me the definition of organic molecules as: molecules containing carbon.

My definition has nothing to do with whether the molecule is found in nature, or whether it’s mostly carbon, or that it polymerizes or does interesting things. Just that it’s a molecule that contains at least one carbon atom.

I’m actually very curious as to how chemists like to define what an organic molecule is or isn’t, and what points of contention there are.


OK: that’s a good start, but the carbonate ion is not considered organic despite containing carbon. The same goes for graphite and diamond (though those aren’t molecules), and carbon dioxide is also often not considered organic.

I’ve also seen people claim that a molecule must have a C-C or C-H bond to be organic, but that disqualifies urea. Urea was one of the molecules used to disprove vitalism (see below), so if your definition of organic excludes it then that’s a problem.

Historical interlude: The split between “organic” and “inorganic” molecules comes from the belief of early 19th-century chemists that organic molecules could only come from living organisms or be made from other organic molecules. This belief was called vitalism- that there was some unique “spark of life” that organic molecules had and others didn’t. One way this was disproved was when Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from ammonia and a cyanate salt, both of which were thought of as inorganic.

Back to the definition argument, another possible definition I’ve heard is that an organic molecule has to contain carbon and either hydrogen, oxygen or nitrogen- but that makes things like Teflon or CFCs inorganic when I’d say they’re organic.

The closest I’ve come to a systematic definition I’m happy with is “A molecular species containing carbon covalently bonded to either carbon, hydrogen, a halogen, or two non-metallic elements one of which is nitrogen or oxygen”- but that’s an ugly one, and I’m sure there’s some edge case which messes it up…




Evolution. Evolved. “This animal evolved to benefit from this habitat” - sounds active and directional, which is plainly false. Evolving has come to be used in an active sense, which we like, as we hate thinking about things happening without (human) intent. I think even Darwin used it that way.

Evolution is a passive process - the remainder of the mish mash ecological battle is the animal we see now. It’s what fell through the sieve.

This animal did not evolve from A to B. That’s shorthand, and misleading.


Michael Crichton doesn’t make fun of people who don’t get on the bandwagon.

I think the issue with these terms is not so much that they are solely scientific terms being misused, but that they are terms that are in general use outside of science that have very specific meanings within science.

So, for example, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I have a theory about why people enjoy shopping,” that is not an actual testable scientific theory. But, if you were a psychologist talking to a group of psychologists about your “theory about why people enjoy shopping,” then the word theory has a much more narrow definition.

What happens then is that when scientific concepts are presented in newspapers, blogs, or in marketing stuff it is conflated with the everyday definitions of the word.

This is most obvious when discussing “theory.” It’s been a big point of people who want to dismiss global warming that it is “only a theory” and there seems be a really active effort on the part of people who are trying to discredit the theory of global warming to conflate the scientific term with the everyday term.