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Understanding Science
       Many people have problems understanding scientific reports, and this problem is not limited to students taking science courses in school. The same words are used in common speech and in scientific settings, but they unfortunately have different meanings which leave an unprepared audience misunderstanding what is being said.
       My perspective comes not only from my scientific background and education, but also from my experience of over forty years in the precollege classroom. Looking on the Internet, I found various lists of words that are misinterpreted when they are used by scientists. Some of those words are proof, model, genetic, exponential, quantum (as in quantum leap), natural and skeptical. I wish to focus, however, on four other words – organic, chemical, theory and significant.
       In chemistry, it originally was thought that organic compounds could only be derived from chemicals created by living organisms. In 1828, Fredrich Wohler proved this to not be true. He reacted silver cyanate with ammonium chloride to produce ammonium cyanate. By slowly evaporating a water solution of this inorganic compound, he produced urea, which is an organic compound. Since then, organic refers to any chemical built around a set of carbon atoms. This includes acetic acid (a 5% solution of which is vinegar), ethanol (drinking alcohol), sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, etc.), starch, acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and a multitude of other chemicals.
       In common speech, organic has taken on a totally different meaning. It most often is used in referring to food or farming methods. It means that food was produced without the use of fertilizers, pesticides or other “artificial” substances. Organic foods are made without the use of genetically modified organisms, but this term similarly has different meanings in science and in generic usage. To see if a food is certified as being organic, by this definition, see if the code number is five rather than four digits long and that the first digit is a 9.
       Another word that is commonly misunderstood is chemical. In common use, this word carries a negative connotation. I have seen an ad stating “no chemicals present.” However, in the scientific language, all solids, liquids and gases are chemicals! The advertisement may have been implying “harmful” chemicals, but all chemicals can be harmful under certain conditions. Too much sodium chloride (table salt) can kill, as can water – if you are submerged for too long. Even too much oxygen is not good.
       As a teacher, each year I had to clarify the meaning of theory. In the vernacular, a theory is an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action (an educated guess). People will note how evolution is “just a theory” and not a law. This issue even appeared in the comics regarding the gravitational wave theory on November 29, 2021, in Funky Winkerbean. The view is that a law has been proven, such as the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics or the gas laws. However, in science, a theory has similarly been supported by repeated experimentation.
       The actual difference is that a law can be directly observed while a theory is backed by indirect observations. We cannot go back in time to observe the start of the universe in the big bang theory. The theory of evolution spans a time period far greater than a life span, thus making it unable to actually be observed. The atomic theory deals with particles too small to see, even with the most powerful microscopes. Nonetheless, in my chemistry class, I had my students carry out an experiment at home that let them indirectly observe the parts of the atomic theory.
       The use of significant also leads to public misunderstandings. As Jordan Ellenberg noted in How Not to Be Wrong: “In common language it means something like important or meaningful.” In science, stating that something is significant means that it is measurable. The fact that a dangerous substance is present in significant levels does not necessarily mean that we need to panic. In 1989, a CBS report talked about how residues of Alar, a pesticide found present in significant levels in apples and apple juice could cause cancer in children. As a result, vast quantities of both were disposed of unnecessarily. As a frame of reference, it is now not too difficult to detect substances in parts per trillion (ppt). This is equivalent to finding one flea in a herd of 100 elephants or one grain of salt in an Olympic size swimming pool!
       As Naomi Oreskes stated in “Scientists: Please Speak Plainly” in the October 2021 issue of Scientific American: “Studies show that alien terms are, in fact, alienating; they confuse people and make them feel excluded. One study showed that even when participants were given definitions for the terms being used, jargon-laden materials made them less likely to identify with the scientific community and decreased their overall interest in the subject. In plain words: jargon turns people off.”
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