Top 10: Misunderstood science terms

By WILL WILLCOXSON

Science is everywhere in the world, and in our lives. James Madison once said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” With the abundance of knowledge, it is important to know that there is also an abundance of ignorance.

10. Natural v. artificial
A sizable population of people believes that natural is good and artificial is bad, but the world isn’t painted in black and white. There is plenty of “bad” in natural, like un-pasteurized milk. Some artificial is bad, like artificial sweeteners, but some of it is good, like insulin and prosthetic limbs.

9. Skeptic
A person who denies a scientific claim and uses inadequate evidence to void the claim does not qualify for the title of skeptic. An actual skeptic is an open-minded individual who is open to “fact check” the science itself. In reality, scientists are willing skeptics since they have to check their own claims and correct them.

8. Chemical
A common misconception is that chemicals are a dirty, glowing, radioactive and cancer-causing substance. In reality, it is just a very general term for particular sets of molecules. There are some good chemicals and some bad. You all know what water is made out of: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. There you go, you have a chemical. Is water bad?

7. “Miracle”
An event that is unlikely but well timed and positive is something called a coincidence in the logical science world. Sometimes you’ll hit the lottery, sometimes you’ll get struck by lightning. The odds are slim, but someone has to win the lottery. Think of these outcomes as “good luck” in a non-spiritual way.

6. The age of the Earth
The Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old — hard for the human mind to comprehend, granted that the first human arrived about 100,000 years ago. The age of the Earth is not fact. It is a mere calculation based on complicated evidence such as radioactive decay, meteorites, geological formations and the fossil record.

5. “Brainiacs”
Everybody has an image in their head of a “mad scientist.” Now realize that the image is just a stereotype. Not all scientific thinkers have doctorates and wear lab coats. They just use a mixture of knowledge and critical thinking, something we can all do by taking a science class, watching “Cosmos” and educating ourselves. We may not ever be scientists, but we can all understand science.

4. Hypothesis
When you try to guess or figure out something and say, “it’s just a theory,” you are really using a hypothesis. There is some fact in a hypothesis, but there are other possible outcomes. Conversely, theory is the only possible outcome based on scientific facts. In the scientific world, a hypothesis that is tested and proven can be a stepping stone to a theory.

3. Fact
A fact is a term to show that something is empirical. In order to prove something as a scientific fact, you must be able to observe it and repeat it. This usually applies to natural occurrences, such as physics. Not all facts are scientific. “Africa is a continent” is a general knowledge fact. There is a difference between evidence and fact. Evidence is used to support a claim but doesn’t prove the claim-fact, whereas a fact is a claim proved to be true.

2. Natural selection
Evolution is a widely misunderstood topic. The basic concept of natural selection should be understood first. In the Arctic Circle, imagine a hypothetical ecosystem of white and brown rabbits and wolves. Now fast forward 50 years. The population of the white rabbits will likely increase or remain the same while the brown rabbits will be nearly extinct. This is due to the lack of ability to hide in the snow from their predator, the wolf.

1. Theory
Contrary to popular belief, a theory is not “just an idea.” It is the best-supported explanation available. It is based on fact, not a “guess.” In order to form a theory, you need a good amount of fact to back it up. After a scientist forms a hypothesis, it is peer-reviewed. Some theories can take years to be published, but the beautiful thing about science is that it can change.

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