Friday, August 7, 2015

Science writers, don't use these words or phrases

Frontiers in Psychology has a list of 50 words and phrases that are often used incorrectly.

Here are a few:
(1) A gene for. The news media is awash in reports of identifying “genes for” a myriad of phenotypes, including personality traits, mental illnesses, homosexuality, and political attitudes (Sapolsky, 1997). For example, in 2010, The Telegraph (2010) trumpeted the headline, “‘Liberal gene’ discovered by scientists.” Nevertheless, because genes code for proteins, there are no “genes for” phenotypes per se, including behavioral phenotypes (Falk, 2014).
(4) Brain region X lights up. Many authors in the popular and academic literatures use such phrases as “brain area X lit up following manipulation Y” (e.g., Morin, 2011). This phrase is unfortunate for several reasons. First, the bright red and orange colors seen on functional brain imaging scans are superimposed by researchers to reflect regions of higher brain activation. Nevertheless, they may engender a perception of “illumination” in viewers. 
(26) Steep learning curve. Scores of authors use the phrase “steep learning curve” or “sharp learning curve” in reference to a skill that is difficult to master. ... Nevertheless, from the standpoint of learning theory, these and other authors have it backward, because a steep learning curve, i.e., a curve with a large positive slope, is associated with a skill that is acquired easily and rapidly (Hopper et al., 2007). 
(45) Scientific proof. The concepts of “proof” and “confirmation” are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting (McComas, 1996). Hence, it is understandable whyPopper (1959) preferred the term “corroboration” to “confirmation,” as all theories can in principle be overturned by new evidence. Nor is the evidence for scientific theories dichotomous; theories virtually always vary in their degree of corroboration. As a consequence, no theory in science, including psychological science, should be regarded as strictly proven. Proofs should be confined to the pages of mathematics textbooks and journals (Kanazawa, 2008).

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