Misinterpreted Terms in Scientific Research


Scientific terminology can be one of the greatest inhibiting factors when it comes to reading and understanding research studies. While scientists may be writing in English, many of the terms scientists use have definitions that differ from culturally accepted definitions used in everyday language. This leads to a great deal of confusion and misinterpretation of scientific findings.

After all, if a scientist says that researchers manipulated a variable in a controlled study that produced significant negative findings, you may assume these researchers lack ethics and secretly altered a study so that it produced a large but bad outcome. In reality, this means that  researchers introduced an intervention to a group, compared it to a group without the intervention, and that this intervention reduced the outcome in question in a way that statistical analysis reveals could not be explained by mere chance. What appears to be an unethical abuse of power is actually an adherence to scientific norms with findings worth evaluating.

To brush up on your scientific lingo, we’ve put together a table of frequently used terms that have very different meanings in science when compared to everyday language.

Term Everyday Meaning Scientific Researcher Lingo
Bias Personal motive. Tendency to distort facts. Potential for untruth. The potential for an error to be introduced into the dataset through sampling, measurement, or analytical techniques.
Confidence  Level of certainty. A range in which the findings exist.
Control (as in Controlled Study) Authority. Influencing of events and outcomes in a study. A comparison that has not been manipulated (see below) or altered in any way.
Hypothesis An educated guess. An explanation for something that can be tested scientifically.
Limitations Errors or flaws with the study. These are places where the researchers made mistakes or where the study failed. Researchers are stating the obvious about the study’s methodology and findings. Researchers chose this particular design, so be sure to keep these factors in mind when reading the findings and applying them to your field.
Manipulation Trickery. Coercion. Deceit. Tampering. Altering the normal process. Manipulation in a clinical trial involves giving a drug to a group of individuals. It also refers to processing data using established procedures.
“More Research is Needed” These researchers could not come to any meaningful conclusions and the study’s findings are questionable. The study was a failure or is incomplete. Again stating the obvious. All good research produces material upon which further research can be based. Because this statement is almost always true, thus redundant, some journals prohibit its use.
Negative Findings  The researchers did not find what they were looking for. These findings are bad. (In some cases, this may even be interpreted as: these researchers failed or this study is bad.) The effect of the exposure or intervention caused a decrease in the outcome of interest (hence the effect size is a negative number). Whether or not this outcome is bad or good depends on whether or not the outcome is desirable. It is a beneficial finding, however.
Organic  Chemical-free. Pesticide-free. Matter or compounds with a carbon base.
Positive Findings The study was good. It was a success. The effect of the exposure or intervention caused an increase in the outcome of interest (hence the effect size is a positive number). Whether or not this outcome is bad or good depends on whether or not the outcome is desirable. (See negative findings.)
Power Strength. Force. Ability. Whether or not a study is large enough to find an effect of the exposure or intervention.
Prediction A guess about the future. An estimate based on calculated and analyzed data.
Proof Absolute certainty. A final conclusion. Proof is not a scientific term; it is a mathematical term. Science produces evidence, which lead to theories, not proof.
Research Google search. Reading studies. A literature review. Reading books and findings. Conducting original experiments or statistical analyses to answer questions that have not been answered in other studies.
Sensitivity  Vulnerable. Easily affected. How well a screening tool or test finds all of the true positives.
Significant Big. Noteworthy. Large. Important. Based on statistical analysis, it is extremely unlikely that these results occurred due to chance.
Skeptic Someone who denies that a concept is accurate or correct and rejects existing evidence and conclusions on the topic. (More accurately termed a denier.) Someone who explores evidence about an idea; a self-correcting mechanism in scientific inquiry. All scientists are skeptics because they seek evidence.
Theory An explanation that I concocted in my head. An explanation that has been rigorously tested and large amounts of evidence exist to support its accuracy. Theories are accepted as truth.
Toxin Poison. Something that causes death. A substance that is capable of harming human tissues. A poison is a substance that causes death.
Validity Logical. Legally acceptable. How well a measurement instrument correctly measures what it is intended to measure, as determined through multiple statistical analyses.


Meet Dr Hawkins

Dr. Hawkins brings 20 years of expertise in the integrative health field to her role as Executive Director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences and the leader of our clinical research team.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health from Union Institute and University, a Master’s Degree in Health Education & Promotion from the University of Alabama, a post-graduate certificate in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a PhD in Health Research from Middle Tennessee State University, and is completing the post-doctoral Global Scholars Research Training Program at Harvard Medical School. She also holds certifications in numerous natural health fields including aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, herbalism, childbirth education, and labor support.