Last week I attended the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference in Guildford, Surrey. The conference explored a number of avenues, from the role of design and data visualisation through to the relevance of the whole academic field of science communication. As you might expect for a conference populated almost entirely by communicators, there was as much discussion on twitter (under the umbrella of #SciComm14) as there was in person.

This tweet gained instant traction. It demonstrates neatly that in order to understand scientific reporting, one must first learn to speak the language of science. The image comes from a 2011 feature in Physics Today on communicating the science of climate change.

There are arguments for and against using ‘accessible’ alternatives, depending in part on the desired outcome of your communication. In a more formal educational setting, for example, it may be best to use these ambiguous words along with their scientific definition, so that they can be used in their full scientific context in future. Conversely, some words are tainted by association – chemical and nuclear both have negative connotations, so a push towards their scientific use may help to break that stigma. Whatever good intentions one has, insisting that ‘the public’ use ambiguous language in a certain way seems patronising and ultimately doomed to fail (after all, we still hear that evolution is ‘only a theory’). Protecting scientific language in this way may, therefore, reinforce the dividing line between ‘scientists’ and ‘the public’.

Thinking that now would be a good time to extend this list, I asked what other words people would like to see added.


This was a very good start. Control is a word with a number of definitions and wide breadth of meanings. The person in charge is ‘in control’, you might ‘take control’ of your career or fly a remote control aeroplane for a hobby. Conversely, an abusive partner is ‘controlling’ and a fire may become ‘out of control’. This emotionally weighted word means something very different to scientists; usually a variable that is kept constant to allow researchers to see the true effect of an experiment or model.

More suggestions came in throughout the conference:






I’ve put these into a table, along with my suggested alternatives. Can you add some more of your own? Put them in the comments below and I’ll update the table over time.

Scientific term Public meaning Alternative choice
Chemical Additive, unnatural Substance
Control Exert influence over Comparison
Mutant Monster New variety
Implies Insinuates, suggests Leads to
Protein Dietary category Amino acid chain
Estimate Guess Approximation
Organic Without pesticides Carbon-containing
Abstract Strange, non-physical Summary
Nuclear Energy or weapon ?
Inert Motionless Inactive
Vacuum Suction or cleaner Absence of anything
Elements Weather Types of atoms
Experiment Play around with Test
Expression Turn of phrase ?
Chemist Pharmacist Chemical scientist
Stress Tension, worry Forces (in physics)
Significance Relevance, importance Measure of likelihood
Radiative Radioactive Transmits energy
Novel Book New/unique
Base Solid foundation, lair Alkaline


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One word, many meanings, 8.5 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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