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A Quick and Easy Guide to Understanding Scientists
Scientists don't always use normal words when explaining their research to the public. Here's a quick and easy to guide to understanding those words for people who aren't scientists.
Scientists don't use normal words when they talk about science. They use words that sound like normal words -- theory, model, significant -- but have different meanings when applied to science research. That's perfectly fine when they're speaking with other scientists, but when speaking with you and me? That's a problem. Those words started out as having specific scientific meanings, but got adopted into public speech with completely different ones. That makes them more confusing than they should be. To help clear up that confusion, here's a quick primer on the 6 most commonly misunderstood words scientists use when talking to the public:
Normal use: I don’t believe in climate change! That’s just a theory - there’s no proof.
Scientific use: We need to take action against climate change. It’s a proven theory.
Most people hear the word “theory” and assume it’s an idea or statement in need of proof. A scientist hears the word “theory” and recognizes it as certifiable fact because it’s been proven. Scientific theories from Einstein to Darwin to climate change have all moved from a hypothetical idea through repeated bouts of testing to become a proven model. They are not opinions. They are a framework for facts. Speaking of hypotheticals...
Normal use: I’m not sure what’s happening with global warming, but here’s my hypothesis.
Scientific use: I’m not sure what’s happening with global warming, but I think it’s got something to do with greenhouse gases. Here’s my hypothesis for testing it out.
You and I hear the word “hypothesis” and assume it’s an educated guess. Scientists consider a hypothesis as the first stop on an idea’s journey to becoming a theory. Basically, a hypothesis is an unproven theory - a statement that lays out the direction of an experiment. It includes ways to measure what a scientist will do in the experiment and what will happen when they do those things. It’s the framework for a test. Not a guess.
Normal use: I totally know how this thing works! See - here’s a model.
Scientific use: I don’t know how this thing works. Let’s make a model to find out.
Model is a tricky scientific word. It means different things in different disciplines. In physics, it means a computer simulation that helps them perform a calculation. In mathematics, it’s an abstract that uses mathematical language to predict a system’s behavior. The unifying theme for all scientists is that a model is a testable idea. A scientific model uses known data to create a representation of something that’s hard to easily know -- like the universe, or the growth of a particular strand of DNA given a certain number of factors. Normal people think of models as ideal versions of something, like a supermodel -- or a scaled replica of a real-world item, like a toy airplane. Basically, this one word means so many things that it’s meaning is entirely dependent upon context. It requires a quick Google for everyone.
Normal use: I don’t believe in global warming. I’m skeptical.
Scientific use: Can you reproduce this experiment? I’m skeptical of these results.
Most people think a skeptic is someone who questions everything because it’s in their DNA to doubt. Scientists use the word “skeptic” to define a practice, not a person. To scientists, being skeptical is the practice of reviewing scientific claims’ adherence to data and reproducibility. It’s a philosophy, a way to keep results honest and information clear. It’s the “self-correcting machinery of science,” as Carl Sagan put it. It’s not just an expression of doubt.
Normal use: So Jim’s officially your significant other? When are you guys getting married?!
Scientific use: We’ve run this experiment 12 times and keep getting this result. It must be significant. It keeps happening.
This word might be the most misunderstood. You and I use the word “significant” to mean “important.” To a scientist, “significant” means a result that’s large enough to matter and unlikely to occur by chance. That said, the American Statistical Association released a statement last month calling for a revision to the current means of statistical significance, so the idea of scientific significance will change soon. The key thing to remember is that “significant” isn’t an amount to a scientist; it’s a marker that leads them toward a solution. It’s just relevant, not necessarily important. Until it’s been tested.
Normal use: These muffins must be good - they’re all-natural.
Scientific use: The earthquake pattern along this fault line is natural - it has a pattern.
The word “natural,” as we’ve touched on already, is incredibly misleading. Most people think of natural things as healthy and nourishing. A natural thing like a fruit or water comes directly from the Earth and isn’t manufactured by humans. To a scientist, anything made by the universe is natural, manmade or not. Natural is a state of being, and just as easily applies to fruit and water as it does to uranium and plasma. Natural things are testable, and behave in predictable ways. Natural is a state of being, not a label.
These are just a few of many, many other scientific words that get mangled in communication. The gap between what a scientist thinks a word means and what you and I think a word means is a pretty big one. But that’s no reason to not engage in the conversation. We all care about the discovery. We just need it explained in context, with non-jargony words. Like in this video where Michio Kaku explains the Theory of Everything in language everyone can understand. Until all scientific communication is as clear as that, you’ve got the inside scoop on the most confusing words in science-speak.
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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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