In science, a theory is more than a theory

Have you ever read a scientific paper? Not a popular science article in a magazine, or a 400-word column in a newspaper, but an actual paper from a scientific journal?

As researchers we spend a lot of our time writing scientific papers - it's how we share our work. Promotions, grants, awards all rely on us publishing papers. Yet, aside from a small handful of other scientists, no-one ever really reads them. And I can understand why. Scientific writing and communication is often inaccessible to a general audience. I've been a scientist for quite a while now, and sometimes even I wonder what the heck other scientists are talking about.

Science has its own language. First of all there's all the technical jargon. You know, all those specialised terms we spend years at university learning. When my mum proof-read my PhD thesis she'd highlight these and say "I don't know what this means, I think it must be one of your sciency words, so I'll assume you spelled it right".

Then there's all the everyday words and terms, things everyone knows, but that we use differently in scientific fields. For example, as a geneticist, when I'm talking about "expression" I'm not talking about someone looking happy or sad, or talking about our feelings. I'm talking about whether our cells are making a protein from a particular gene! One word can have many different meanings, even between different scientific disciplines.

The different ways we use language in science can create misunderstandings when scientists are communicating with non-scientists. Take the word "theory". For most people a "theory" might be a way you describe a hunch, or a guess - like your friend Karen sharing her theory about where COVID-19 came from.

But for scientists, a theory is something different. A theory is a well-substantiated explanation for something. It's something that has been questioned, tested and found to hold up over time. The theory of evolution wasn't just Darwin having a guess ... it's a theory, supported by evidence, which has been tested over time and is universally accepted.

Scientific discoveries can change our understanding of the world, and improve people's lives. So it's important that we tell people - aside from other scientists - about our work. When scientists are communicating with non-scientists we need to think carefully about the language we use.

Otherwise, all that hard work we do? Well, it might just get lost in translation.

  • Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England
This story In science, a theory is more than a theory first appeared on The Canberra Times.