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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    50 science words you’re probably using wrong

    Proper language is crucial to the scientific community. It helps answer questions and convey big ideas to the general public. Often, though, specialized scientific words have very specific meanings and many times get misused. When scientific words get diluted through frequent misuse in everyday language, it can bog down the original science and potentially change the research’s meaning.

    A study performed by Scott Lilienfeld in the department of psychology at Emory University looked at 50 common psychology terms that could be avoided. These terms are often misleading, frequently misused, ambiguous, oxymoronic or are pleonasms—phrases that use more words than necessary to explain something.

    Lilienfeld explained why the words were problematic and suggested new words to use in place of those frequently misued. Some commonly misused terms Lilienfeld identified were “brainwashing,” “steep learning curve” and “fetish.”

    The problem with the term “brainwashing” is that the idea of it—altering someone’s attitude—doesn’t use techniques any different than standard persuasive methods used today. There is a lack of evidence behind alleged brainwashing that says the technique may not even permanently change someone’s attitude.

    The phrase “steep learning curve” could be considered an inaccurate or misleading term as well. It is commonly used to imply a task is difficult to learn, by both psychologists and the general public. Yet the phrase, “steep learning curve,” or a curve with a large positive slope, can suggest a task is rather easy to learn.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a fetish as “a psychiatric condition marked by persistent, intense and psychologically impairing sexual arousal derived from inanimate objects or non-genital body parts.” “Fetish,” however, should not be used to describe generic preferences for specific objects, ideas or people, wrote Lilienfeld.

    The media can be part of the problem when it comes to misusing scientific terms.

    News sites will often describe someone who is violent and a criminal as a “psychopath.” But in actuality, a psychopath is someone who shows relatively little remorse and may act aggressively.

    Misusing scientific words frequently can do a disservice to everyone, not just scientists. The misuse of these words could allow people with power to manipulate others who may not necessarily understand the language. So next time you want to use a scientific term, make sure you know the meaning or find a new word.

    50 inaccurate and misunderstood words to stop using: 

    (1) A gene for

    (2) Antidepressant medication

    (3) Autism epidemic

    (4) Brain region X lights up

    (5) Brainwashing

    (6) Bystander apathy

    (7) Chemical imbalance

    (8) Family genetic studies

    (9) Genetically determined

    (10) God spot

    (11) Gold standard

    (12) Hard-wired

    (13) Hypnotic trance

    (14) Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc) on X

    (15) Lie detector test

    (16) Love molecule

    (17) Multiple personality disorder

    (18) Neural signature

    (19) No difference between groups

    (20) Objective personality test

    (21) Operational definition

    (22) p = 0.000

    (23) Psychiatric control group

    (24) Reliable and valid

    (25) Statistically reliable

    (26) Steep learning curve

    (27) The scientific method

    (28) Truth serum

    (29) Underlying biological dysfunction

    Frequently Misused Terms

    (30) Acting out

    (31) Closure

    (32) Denial

    (33) Fetish

    (34) Splitting

    Ambiguous Terms

    (35) Comorbidity

    (36) Interaction

    (37) Medical model

    (38) Reductionism


    (39) Hierarchical stepwise regression

    (40) Mind-body therapies

    (41) Observable symptom

    (42) Personality type

    (43) Prevalence of trait X

    (44) Principal components factor analysis

    (45) Scientific proof


    (46) Biological and environmental influences

    (47) Empirical data

    (48) Latent construct

    (49) Mental telepathy

    (50) Neurocognition

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