The stupid things Scientists say: What the jargon really means…

Don’t scientists talk a load of old prattle?

Put an academic in front of a TV camera, and it’s odd how many of the world’s top brains seem unable to communicate what they mean. Of course there are the exceptions, and often they are scooped up by news agencies and media outlets.

I remember being told in my first year at medical school by a doctor ‘I find it difficult to know what normal people understand’. This seemed a bizarre thing to say. But after five years of academia immersed in scientific jargon – I suddenly understood what he meant. I would find myself coming out with phrases like “Of course, the implication of that theory manifests itself in compelling ways”. No wonder friends and family thought I was quirky.

If ever you’ve wondered what scientists actually mean, this nifty table that summarises it nicely:

What the jargon really means
What the jargon really means (via BoingBoing)

A recent article published in Physics Today highlighted how academics need to think carefully about what they say and write, else they risk being completely misunderstood.

Lecturing 16-19 year olds has taught me that the fastest route to student’s boredom is pummelling them with jargon. True, it may be more correct and precise, but if it’s not understood it is meaningless.

We set up Guru Magazine to communicate science concepts and current research in a way that anyone can understand (and hopefully find engaging). It’s a tough thing to do – not compromising facts, yet staying understandable.

Of course, if we get it wrong – we’re nice enough let you put us straight.

(chart via BoingBoing)
(Homepage slider image: “Confused” By kalavinka on flikr)

Somerville, R., & Hassol, S. (2011). Communicating the science of climate change Physics Today, 64 (10) DOI: 10.1063/PT.3.1296

Article by Stuart Farrimond

November 26, 2011

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

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2 thoughts on “The stupid things Scientists say: What the jargon really means…”

  1. Hey Just for the benefit of those who would read this. Much of the so called translation is actually very wrong and hence misleading. For example a ‘positive trend’ has nothing with a trend being neccassarily ‘bad’ or ‘good’ it simply refers to an increase in observed values (e.g. number) for every increase independent values.

    Quick example: There is a positive trend in number of people who own computers over the las 20 years. i.e. numbers going up !

    1. Hi thanks for your comment!
      I think the purpose of the table is to show that the commonly used ‘jargon’ (left column) is normally misunderstood by the public (middle column) when the scientist intended a different meaning (right column). So as you point out ‘positive trend’ will often be incorectly interpreted by a non-scientist as meaning ‘good’ (middle column) when it’s intended meaning is ‘upward’ (right column) – as you have rightly pointed out!
      Looks like the table to explain confusion can be confusing…

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