What is actually organic in “organic food”? Can it be “proven” scientifically? And is “energetic frequency” frequency, energy or sheer nonsense? Words that help us understand scientists.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
- Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”
Similar words sometimes have different meanings depending on their context and limitation of their use. This ambiguity can sometimes be comical or sometimes cause miscommunication. The gaps between scientific language and that of everyday language may be extremely apparent at times, such as organizations that are trying to scare us about nutrition, or market products or inspire us to spend up for some treatment or another.
Here we have collected some of the words that the public and media use quite differently compared to the science and medical communities. Understanding their correct meaning, in context, is important for an accurate understanding of science articles and science in general, and essential for anyone who wants to be protected against frauds and marketing tricks that exploit the differences in the meanings.
Scientific use: Organic matter consists of carbon-based compounds, such as plastics or alcohol. Not all material containing carbon is organic (e.g. carbon dioxide), and pure carbon (e.g. diamond) is not an organic material. Something is usually defined as organic material if it contains at least one carbon atom and if that atom is connected to at least one other carbon or hydrogen atom. Most organic materials originate from living organisms such as urea (a component in the urine of some animals), sugar, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and many more.
The term comes from alchemy and vitalism – a centuries-old misconception that states there is a fundamental difference between animal materials and other materials. According to this belief, there is a life force that creates living things - organic materials. The idea was disproved when the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler, known as the "father of organic chemistry", created two organic compounds in the laboratory; oxalic acid and urea (urea).
Everyday use: From a marketing standpoint, today “organic” refers primarily to products of plant origin supposedly grown without using pesticides and by means of an “environmentally friendly” method. In Israel, organic products are products made and grown by the rules and regulations set by the Ministry of Agriculture, and they receive an appropriate label, similar to the kosher label, but in contrast to the way organic products are displayed are not necessarily more environmentally friendly or healthier.
The term organic is associated with “natural”, which can also mean “not created by man” but over time has become code for “good and healthy”. " In practice, there is no fundamental difference between a natural molecule and its synthetic version, and the idea that there is such a difference lies in the mistaken belief created from vitalism. Also, not everything “natural” is good, and not everything that is synthetic is bad, for example tofu is a nutritious processed product, while snake venom, Ebola and uranium are all natural but deadly.
Tip for life: Products marked as “organic” or “natural” are not necessarily healthier than regular products or better for the environment, but what is certain - they are more expensive. It is better to use other criteria when you are considering buying products, unless you are carrying extra weight around your wallet.
Scientific use: In science almost nothing is absolute, it is almost impossible to answer a question with full confidence, and scientific ideas are constantly updated and sometimes even refuted when new findings are discovered. However, research usually reduces the uncertainty. When a researcher uses the term “uncertainty” they refer to the range of how confident they are in their findings or their measurements.
When measuring values like body temperature or the speed of sound in air, uncertainty represents the inaccuracy of the measurement. In trying to gauge a true value, values are obtained from repeated measurements and are often scattered around the true value; this is the uncertainty of measurement. Also, uncertainty may represent the probability that something will happen, for example, the chance of rain coming tomorrow.
In quantum mechanics, uncertainty is a fundamental principle called “Heisenberg's uncertainty principle”. This principle states it is impossible to know simultaneously and precisely the position of a particle and its momentum. If you know the first property accurately, the uncertainty of the second grows.
Everyday use: The conventional meaning of uncertainty is something I do not know or am not sure about. Uncertainty is a way to acknowledge doubt, lack of knowledge, ignorance or lack of confidence regarding the future unknown. For example, uncertainty refers to whether one should attend one university or another, or about the names of the football players or if Real Madrid was in the Champions League in 1957.
Tip for life: If you are talking or writing about a scientific subject, it is better that you refrain from talking about “uncertainty”. Instead say “unlikely”, “likely”, “beyond reasonable doubt”, etc., according to your level of uncertainty.
Scientific use: Energy is a physical quantity that is measurable with fixed characteristics. It has the characteristic, or condition, where it can be passed from one thing to another. There are many known forms of energy and one form can be transformed to another. Energy forms include kinetic energy (energy of motion) or potential energy (such as stored energy in the body, or a book on the table), among many others. For example, if we push a book from the table, it falls under the influence of gravity and its potential energy becomes kinetic energy. Other forms of energy are thermal energy, chemical energy, elastic energy, nuclear energy and more.
One way to transfer energy is through performing an action or exertion - for example, pushing the book sitting on the table. Energy itself is always retained - it is not created and does not disappear, rather it changes position or shape. For example, gas in your engine is chemical energy that is converted to heat energy and ultimately movement and kinetic energy (some of which becomes heat energy due to friction).
The great physicist Richard Feynman, said that “energy is the money of the universe”. Like energy, money can make changes or cause work to be carried out, by its passage from place to place. One must pay for any performance they want. Money, as a rule, is not lost but moves around and can take many different forms - banknotes, coins, gold bars, Bitcoins etc.
Everyday use: In popular language, energy is often used as a synonym for vigor or the strength to do something. In many cases “energy” also describes moods, emotions or mental states. For example, “negative energy” is associated with melancholy or pessimism. Energy in science cannot be negative, of course.
Various swindlers use the term “energy” to give a scientific touch to something that is actually utter nonsense. You can find them talking about a “smile that is energetic”, ”energy that can heal”, or “energy of the universe”. A special favorite is the combination of energy and frequency, for example: “The universe is built in layers with different energetic frequencies”. All this is sheer nonsense, of course.
Tip for life: People who offer “energetic” treatments or diagnose with terms like “energy”, “energy network”, “hidden energy channels” and so on, most likely want to transfer, not energy, but money from one place to another, preferably into their own pockets.
Scientific use: Everything to do with genes. Genes are sequences of genetic material, usually DNA, that contain instructions for making proteins. They are also passed on as individual units from an organism to its offspring. There is no fundamental difference between human genes to genes of petunia flowers or any other living creature.
Everyday use: Genes are not solely responsible in determining most of the features of an organism, as we often hear people say, “she inherited her humor, it’s in her genes,” or “he is the son of a thief, it's in his genes” – one’s character, man or animal, is not only dependent on their genes. Genes can determine the potential of a person, for example, what is the maximum height they can reach or what might be their IQ, but also environmental factors such as living environment, food and education can determine how much of this potential is realized. Some of which occasionally get passed down to future generations, in a process called epigenetics (“beyond the genes”).
Therefore headlines referring to “the gene for homosexuality” are misleading. Even when features are truly “genetic”, they still involve many other factors other than genes.
Tip for life: Supplement the headlines when you read the word “linked”. For example, “found a gene linked to breast cancer” or “found a gene linked to high IQ.”
Scientific use: In science there is no proof, only an indication or evidence to support or disprove a hypothesis. There are only proofs in philosophy - in mathematics and logic, the validity of a claim must be determined according to a certain set of laws and rules of inference. A proof must demonstrate the proven claim is always right, without exception.
Everyday use: Evidence that infers the complete truthfulness of something, indisputable testimony.
Tip for life: If you're talking about science, do not talk about proof. Proof suggests that something is completely resolved, while science is constantly evolving. Instead of writing “scientists have proven that Einstein was right,” it would be more accurate to state, “scientists have shown that Einstein was right” or “scientists confirmed Einstein's prediction.”
Professional use: In medicine, trauma is physical damage or injury. It can be caused by a car accident, stroke, animal attack, shooting or in many other incidences. In psychology, trauma is emotional damage or shock following distressing events. For example, shell shock after witnessing the death of a friend or trauma caused by childhood abuse.
Everyday use: The psychological interpretation of the word is the most dominant, if not exclusive, and has deeply penetrated popular culture through books, movies and even police and hospital series on television.
Tip for life: When we talk about scientific and medical experiments it is best referred to as “harm” or “injury” for clarity. All in all, one should try to avoid both types of trauma in general. Basically, they are not pleasant.
Scientific use: A chemical is an element or compound with a fixed composition. Oxygen is a chemical, as well as table salt and distilled water. Everything is made up of chemicals – salt water, for instance, which is a mixture of two chemicals – salt and distilled water. Simple fruit like bananas consist of several dozens of different chemicals, including water, linoleic acid, thiamine, glucose and more. See the list of chemicals below:
Image by James Kennedy, a high-school chemistry teacher from Melbourne, Australia.
You cannot avoid chemicals because everything is made of them. There is no meaning to a label with the statement “no chemicals”.
Everyday use: When you say “chemical” it is usually referring to something artificial or harmful (see “organic” section). In practice it is clear that harmful substances are made from chemicals, but the chemicals themselves, even if they have long strange names or numbers with the letter E in front of them - are not inherently harmful.
Tip for life: If you talk or write about harmful substances, call them “harmful substances” or “harmful chemicals” and not just “chemicals”. And remember: those who try to intimidate you with “chemicals” or offer you products “without chemicals” are ignorant – or they hope you are.
Scientific use: Statistical significance is the probability that the result obtained in an experiment or sample is genuine and not random. Significance does not say anything about the meaning of the result. For example, flu treatment can speed up the recovery from the disease significantly. But if the difference compared with a fake treatment is negligible, for example, shortening the recovery time by one hour on average, the significant results do not have a practical meaning. In addition, if the experiment was not designed properly, one might obtain a significant result that would not be obtained in a properly controlled trial. This phenomenon is common in many studies in those fields posing as science or medicine: pseudoscience such as acupuncture or homeopathy and many more.
Everyday use: Something significant is considered meaningful, important and clear.
Tip for life: Not everything that they say is “significant” is really meaningful, especially in science.
Scientific use: Metals are a large group of compounds – elements or alloys – that easily conduct electricity and heat. Most metals are solid at room temperature and shiny, and at this state of matter their atoms are arranged in a grid-like structure that is ductile and malleable. Most elements in the periodic table are metals.
Everyday use: A metal is perceived as an almost always solid and shiny material, often silvery in color. There is a big overlap between this concept and the scientific definition, but most metals are not typically used in everyday language, probably because it is rare to see them in nature at their purest form, for example sodium or calcium.
Tip for life: The intimidating term “heavy metals” is often heard in the media in relation to toxicity, but there is no scientific basis for the term, which refers to any metal with a density of more than 4-5 grams per cubic centimeter. Among “heavy metals” that are considered toxic, there are also essential metals such as iron and copper, or other non-essential but not dangerous metals, like gold and platinum. So the fact that a metal is termed “heavy” does not imply anything about its toxicity. In addition, it is the dose that determines toxicity. At a high enough dose, even water can kill water.
Scientific use: A theory is a well-founded and comprehensive explanation of a certain phenomenon in the world. The explanation is backed by a generous amount of evidence, and the hypothesis was reinforced by studies and observations, done repeatedly over time. Theories are not “guesses” but explanations that are backed with facts from the real world. In addition, they make it possible to develop predictions about phenomena they explain.
Theories are the pinnacle of scientific knowledge and are considered the most correct explanations that exist in the scientific world. A theory ceases to be correct if it is refuted, namely it can be demonstrated that it is incorrect or some hypotheses on which it is based are incorrect. The steady state theory, according to which the universe is static and does not change, competed with the big bang theory, according to which the universe is expanding and has a starting point. The steady state theory has been refuted repeatedly by showing its predictions do not hold in reality. Theories may also become more refined: they are updated and become more accurate.
Everyday use: People often say “theory” and actually mean hypothesis (see previous) – a feeling, a hunch or idea that has not been verified. “I have a theory that my sock disappeared from the washing machine because an elf stole it.”
Tip for life: If someone says about their scientific theory that it is “just a theory”, they are revealing their ignorance in matters of science, and therefore what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. When you talk about a real theory, it is better to call it a “scientific theory”, whereas when you use it in an everyday sense it is better to use synonyms like “guess” or “belief”.
Scientific use: Frequency is the number of times any periodic phenomenon occurs per unit of time. It is measured in units called Hertz – the number of periods per second. For example, when a wheel makes 50 revolutions per second, its frequency is 50 Hz. In many cases frequency is used to describe waves, like water waves, sound waves or light waves. Waves have a wavelength, which is the distance from one wave crest to the next one adjacent, and the number of wavelengths per second is the frequency of the wave.
Everyday use: In our spoken language frequency is a radio station, or way of thinking, as they say, “we are on the same frequency.” But careless people use the same term as a fancy explanation of an invented treatment and how it supposedly acts. Again and again we hear meaningless phrases like “frequency medicine”, “emotions are producing energy at different frequencies,” or best of all: “energetic frequency.”
Tip for life: People who offer medical diagnoses and treatments based on “frequency” are just trying to ride the wave of a scientific-sounding word.
Positive or negative result
Scientific use: Results that are obtained in an experiment or test. A positive result is a result where something is found, for example, an HIV test shows if a human subject is infected with the virus that causes AIDS. A negative result in this test means the identifying protein is not found in the material tested.
Everyday use: A positive result is a good or desirable result. For example, a positive test result. A negative result is considered bad or undesirable, for example, a positive result in the scientific test to detect hepatitis is considered by most people a negative result.
A similar situation occurs for the terms “positive trend” or “negative trend”. In science, a positive trend is an upward trend in a graph (for example, the number of deaths of children) and a negative trend is a downward trend (a decline in cases of measles with vaccination against the disease). However, in everyday life a positive trend is an improvement and a negative trend is a deteriorating condition.
Tip for life: When we talk about scientific findings we should not talk about a positive or negative result, but simply say that something was found or not.
Language is a wonderful thing, but it is important to use it correctly. To convey an idea is not enough to use words, but to choose the right words and ensure the meaning is clear to all parties. In the case of science, the responsibility for this falls on those who present science to the public – the scientist or science journalist – however, the education system is also to blame; how can one graduate from high school without knowing important basic terms like “theory” or “significance”? Understanding the dual meaning of terms has another advantage – humor. For example, one can hand someone an empty plate if they ask for food without chemicals or not add salt to food for those who ask for organic only (salt is an inorganic material).
What other words with different meanings in science compared to everyday life would you add to the list? Write us in the comments or on Facebook.