Media Twists Specialized Meaning of Science Words

Published June 12, 2014

The specialized meaning of science words can lead to public confusion when the media apply scientific terms out of context. A poignant example recently occurred when the media reported the Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing and stated the phenomenon will raise sea level and inundate cities. 

There are often important difference between the public perception of the ordinary meaning of words and the very special definitions used in scientific discourse. A quick look at the science reveals how the media twists science words to spread unwarranted alarm.

What Is a Sudden Collapse?
Geologists deal with changes in the earth that occur over epochs of millions of years. Anything that happens in less than 10,000 years is “sudden,” and something happening in only 1,000 years is “instantaneous.” To geologists, the word “collapse” is appropriate for a 10,000-year process.

A hot-topic in the media these days has to do with the West Antarctic Ice Shelf (WAIS), a region comprising about 8 percent of the ice covering Antarctica. Within that region, there are two glaciers that are sliding down to the sea at a steady pace, as glaciers always do. They constitute about 10 percent of the WAIS, less than 1 percent of the total of Antarctic ice. This descent has been in progress for several thousand years, and is neither new nor, of course, man-caused. It will go on for a few thousand more years, after which the two glaciers will be gone. In the parlance of geology, those two glaciers are collapsing.

If that doesn’t sound to you like the usual meaning of the word “collapse,” you’re absolutely right. It’s a specialized geological term.

Generalization and Misapplication
Unfortunately, the major media overlook these distinctions between meanings, and they then make the further generalization from two specific glaciers to the entire WAIS, and moreover to Antarctica in general and indeed to the entire planet. Scientists who point out the small actual glacier size (and volume of ice) are brushed aside in the rush to produce a headline or a flamboyant sound byte that will keep the viewers tuned in. Words like “unavoidable collapse” carry a sense of foreboding.

This problem isn’t confined to geology. Confusion over the meanings of words used in science crops up frequently. Laws of physics (e.g., conservation of energy) are said to be true “in general,” meaning “always true.” But if a physicist says “that is generally true,” a nonscientist hears “that is usually true”—meaning “most of the time, but not always.” Neither is aware of the other’s interpretation.

Unfortunately, attending to precise definitions takes time and seems boring. The media don’t want to run the risk of being boring, and so they take shortcuts and oversimplify. Consequently, a lot of people are misled by statements that use scientific words incorrectly.

Tom Sheahen, Ph.D. ([email protected]is vice chairman of the Science and Environmental Policy Project Board of Directors.