A pretty convinced article on "climate change" in the October Physics Today makes an excellent point about the unusual way scientists use words (and how this keeps them from communicating effectively to the public). They provide this marvelous table of examples.
|Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public|
|Scientific term||Public meaning||Better choice|
|aerosol||spray can||tiny atmospheric particle|
|positive trend||good trend||upward trend|
|positive feedback||good response, praise||vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle|
|theory||hunch, speculation||scientific understanding|
|error||mistake, wrong, incorrect||difference from exact true number|
|bias||distortion, political motive||offset from an observation|
|sign||indication, astrological sign||plus or minus sign|
|values||ethics, monetary value||numbers, quantity|
|manipulation||illicit tampering||scientific data processing|
|scheme||devious plot||systematic plan|
|anomaly||abnormal occurrence||change from long-term average|
In light of these ambiguities, perhaps all parties can agree on this formulation:
The theories of climate-change scientists have bias and the data themselves have been manipulated as part of a scheme growing from deficient values. Everyone is doubtful that recent actions of climate change scientists are anomalous. The Earth has witnessed a positive trend toward enhanced temperatures. The unanimity of climate-change scientists comes from an excess of positive feedback within that community.
The larger point that the article misses is that scientists, including physicists, use words with a specialized meaning all the time. Missed meanings help journalists to sensationalize and sell science to a public that's been hyperstimulated to the point of insensibility. Often this suits the scientists very well, because selling science to the public ensures government support. For example, "dimension" as in "time is the fourth dimension" is a surefire way to sex up an article. It conjures images of walking in time the way we walk down the street, whereas a dimension is really nothing more extraordinary than a parameter in a mathematical expression, and time by nature is really quite different from space.
Other times these words invade our vocabulary to such an extent that we don't even realize how they have changed our conception of the world. This is true especially in physics. Some examples follow.
Science – used to mean any sort of knowledge, now it's restricted to the modern empirical study of the natural world, especially those objects that succumb most readily to quantitative treatment and prediction and control.
Physics – from phusis, the Greek for "nature" – used to refer to all natural philosophy, now it is restricted to the mathematical principles of mechanics as proposed most forcefully in Newton's Principia, whose full title is The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (As an expression of the mechanical philosophy, it really tries to do away with nature.)
Force – usually means an external cause or power, but in physics something insidiously dissimilar. In modern physics, there is in reality no inside or outside, and forces are not really causes in the full sense. One of our most fundamental experiences of ourselves is as causes, e.g., we are the causes of our locomotion, as in walking. But since in Newtonian mechanics, self-motion is not allowed, we need to invoke "reaction forces" to "explain" animal locomotion. So the sidewalk is what pushes you along. Thus, forces are not causes in any simple sense.
Causality – in physics this word typically refers to the idea that cause must precede effect, so that two phenomenon that succeed each other in less time than it takes light to travel between them cannot have a cause-effect relationship.
Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, "Communicating the science of climate change," Physics Today 64:10 (October 2011), p. 48.
Note: Been really busy trying (fruitlessly it turns out) to save my job this semester, but figured I should post this in at least the same calendar year as the article it refers to.