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One of the first things you need to realize, when dealing with scientists, is that a lot of the time words have different meanings than you are used to. This leads to a lot of misunderstandings in communications between scientists and policy-makers or the general public. No one does this intentionally, but a lot of the time they are unaware that their points are not landing as they should.

One example of this can be found in the common words 'accuracy' and 'precision.' Ideally, every scientist would like their work to be both accurate and precise, and I think you would agree that that is, on the face of it, a good thing. But what if I were to tell you that those two words mean very different things to a scientist than they do to a policy-maker?

When we say 'accurate', we normally mean 'correct' or 'true'. Scientists see accuracy as a range, and the closer their results get to reality, the better.

'Precision' is a bit more complicated. If something is scientifically precise, it means the results are repeatable, and that repetitions of the experiment will produce similar results.

The easiest way to envision this is through the analogy of a dart board. A player with neither accuracy nor precision would produce target A: the darts are nowhere near the center, so they are not accurate, and none of the darts are near each other, so they are not precise.

A player with high precision would group all the darts near each other. It is possible to be very precise, but not at all accurate, such as target B. Imagine a series of studies which all produce similar results, but which do not reflect reality.

Ideally, a dart player wants to possess both accuracy and precision, continually hitting the bull's eye. And ideally, a scientist would produce work that is both close to reality and easily repeatable.

This is only one example of the specialized terminology used in the scientific community, though it's probably the most common. Other terms to be aware of include theory, law, and hypothesis. First commenter to provide good definitions of those gets a place on my blog roll!

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Comment Preferences

  •  Theory, law and hypothesis... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, BachFan

    I'm repeating my understanding of what I've been told by my scientist wife.

    Theory: results have been repeated over and over again.

    Hypothesis: an idea that something will happen, verified by experimentation.

    Law:  incontrovertible. My wife told me that in modern scientific pedagogy, there are many people who don't teach anything as a law anymore. Even stuff like the "law" of gravity.  With a lot of the advances occurring in fields that were inconceivable 100, 50, 20, 10 or even five years ago, a lot of scientists are reluctant to say anything is a law.  

    In her words, "Theory" is generally the highest form of science.  It doesn't get much better than theory.

    Of course, a lot of people use that to their advantage.  How many times have you heard "global warming is just a theory?"  To a layman, theory is another word for "guess."  To a scientist, a theory is something that has been tested over and over and over again with the same results every time.      

    •  Ask Them If "3rd Down" Means 3 Guys Fell Over (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Calamity Jean

      on the football field.

      It shouldn't be hard to convey the concept of a "technical term."

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue May 20, 2014 at 07:10:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Correct on hypothesis (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Though almost no one ever uses it unless its bundled in a stock phrase like "null hypothesis" or "hypothesis testing."  For the

      "Law," "principle," and "theory" are fuzzy.  Law in particular still hangs on to notions that are well known to be peculiar to particular circumstances (the gas laws under standard assumptions, Newton's law of gravity in the weak field).  Theoretical and computational physicists are notorious for dropping "theory" into the title of of their papers, and even more so in reference to recent work--despite lack of experimental or observational validation.

      Long story short, it's probably good to know what is hypothetical and what is not.  Beyond that, it's just word smithy.

  •  Thanks for trying to address this difference! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rduran, AaronInSanDiego

    The dart board analogy left out option D: high accuracy and low precision: In reviewing other peer's papers the distinction between accuracy and precision is really quite easy to discern...

    and it all comes down to how fine of a resolution can you state testable findings.

    Accuracy = whether or not you are reasonable in your conclusion... Precision = the degree of resolution with which you can repeat your findings.
    When a peer says that the earth is 4-6 billion years old they are probably accurate, but not very precise--- when they say that the earth is exactly 4.54 billion years old that is a precision measurement that others may question, but it may be accurate---

    When a peer argues that the earth is exactly 6,543 years old, most scientists would say -- that based on geologic and biological evidence that you are not only inaccurate about the general time period, but state a degree of precision that is hard to replicate in any peer reviewed study.

    Truth is ever changing while dogma remains trapped in certainty.

    by tharu1 on Tue May 20, 2014 at 07:18:01 PM PDT

  •  Not in my experience (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    In fact, I've rarely heard "accuracy" used in a domain specific setting outside of control engineering, and then almost always from guidance and targeting gearheads.

    There's a wide agreement on the use of "precision," though.  Just about everyone uses instruments, after all.

    The definitions of "theory," "law" and "hypothesis" narrow inversely to the amount of time and effort you intend to waste on explaining them.  Rule of thumb is it's your idea, don't go with "theory" or "law."  It just makes you sound like a pompous ass.

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