Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

You know what really grinds my gears? When a news story begins with the words “A new scientific study shows…”  Whatever follows is sure to be a gross misrepresentation of science.  I think these sorts of reports do a real disservice to the public, especially when they’re related to people’s health.

I recently stumbled upon this article from Frontiers in Psychology.  It’s titled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases.”

For today’s episode of Sciency Words, I’ve decided to highlight just three of those fifty words and phrases, to give you a taste of what’s on that list.  Two of them I found intellectually interesting.  The third one was personally enlightening.

  • Scientific Proof: This is a big one. It’s actually listed in a section titled oxymorons.  According to the article, “The concepts of ‘proof’ and ‘confirmation’ are incompatible with science, which by its very nature is provisional and self-correcting.”  I’ve said before on this blog and elsewhere that legitimate scientists rarely if ever claim they’ve proven anything.  They speak in terms of statistical significance or high degrees of certainty.  Whenever someone tells me such-and-such has been scientifically proven, I stop listening.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I’ve known that “proof” is a problematic word in science for a long time.  This entry on the list was a much bigger surprise to me.  We’ve all heard about how mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but apparently that’s an inaccurate and misleading description. While brain chemistry may be an important factor in some cases of mental illness, the article explains that “There is no known ‘optimal’ level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so it is unclear what would constitute an ‘imbalance.’”
  • Closure: The word closure originally meant one thing in psychology (the ability to perceive a complete shape when parts of the shape are missing). The term has since been “misappropriated” to refer to a feeling of emotional resolution following a traumatic event.  It’s supposed to be the end-state of the grieving process, but as the article explains “[…] it is rarely if ever clear when trauma victims have achieved the desired emotional end-state.”  As someone who recently experienced a traumatic event myself, I know exactly what the article is talking about.  Grief fades slowly.  It does not come to a clear and decisive end.  Promising people that if they do this or do that, they’ll be able to find this elusive closure is not helpful.  At least it wasn’t helpful for me.

The Frontiers in Psychology article is aimed at students and professionals in the field of psychology and related fields, but I think it’s worth a look for everyone (here’s the link again).  Some entries are highly technical, but most are things we’ve probably all heard about at some point, and many of us have probably been misled about how our minds and our bodies work as a result.

At the very least, I’d say take a few minutes to skim through the list.  That way, you’ll be a little better prepared the next time someone on television (someone who doesn’t know much about science and who doesn’t care to learn) starts telling you about your mental health or about your health in general.

4 Responses to Sciency Words: Psychological Terms to Avoid

  1. Cade Johnson says:

    There is a similar issue in engineering. Young engineers and non-engineers are prone to opine “that is a big pump” or “this is a big cable”. Such adjectives, while fine for daily use, in engineering only tend to bracket the range of experiences of the one who utters them. A ten horsepower pump might be quite big to someone who is mainly involved with plumbing home fish aquariums, and quite small to someone who manages pumping stations in New Orleans. Don’t let your choice of words be an advertisement for your ignorance or lack of imagination!

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Makes sense to me. On the one hand, this article was kind of specific to psychology, but at the same time the authors clearly wanted to make a broader point. In these sorts of highly technical fields, you need to be precise about what you mean.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate Rauner says:

    Sciency words – haha – like truthiness. Sadly, if all you read is the popular press (and what else can you read as a layman?) you get the idea that scientists swing wildly from one extreme position to another. New Ice Age or Global Warming! Fat is is poison or there are good fats. No wonder the average person is cynical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      For me it was the back and forth about alien life. One news story says we definitely will find alien life, the next says we definitely won’t. I needed better answers than that for my own writing, so I started looking for better sources.

      Liked by 1 person

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