Language issues in science

My ultimate goal here is that when you are done reading this you understand the importance of respecting scientific terminology. When reading a term used in a professional field context, that does have an everyday meaning, do not assume it has that same meaning in every day life.

I just received an email regarding a form of therapy where, the question came down to a problem of words….One of the problems I have noted throughout the years in psychology is our use of language as a field. We tend to use somewhat, and the key here is somewhat seemingly accurate language that describes a highly technical concept. Furthermore, the term does have an everyday meaning (i.g. defensive). of which is sometimes radically different than what we do mean in psychology or any professional field for that matter. For example, “social comparison theory,” well upon reading it at face value a person may say something like, “you compare things in a social setting,” vague I admit, yet accurate. However, it has a very specific meaning in psychology, whereupon a person compares their situation or self worth to others around them, to determine how they should be feel or how they are doing. An example is a professional athlete. They may come from a poor area, then get a 10 million dollar contract. They feel great for a moment. Then they now find out they are the lowest paid player on the team, and feel bad. The key is due to social comparison they went from feeling great, to bad! Yet, in reality they are in the top .01% of the nation.

In medicine on the contrary. They use old latin and greek words or complex compound words to describe relatively easy to understand concepts. They will use hypertension. This word we mostly known as being “high blood pressure,” which is a more easily understandable combination of words to describe a medical condition. As a side note… hypertension actually when broken down means increased tension generally, medicine just coined the term for themselves. You could argue and you are technically using the term correctly, that your calf is hypertensive. Yet medically this is wrong. So, they could simply say high blood pressure for people to have a fast grasp of the concept. I remember having an inflamed taste bud on my tongue. The resident in training gave a complex multi word statement I can’t even remember (in front of the training physician to show she knew the term), yet it was a damn inflamed taste bud.

There are many terms in psychology a few examples are…Plus examples of words people think are psychological but NOT…

Therapeutic relationship (as can be read about in a previous post)
Demented (very different meaning in psych)
Crazy (actually was a legal term and don’t even use in psych)
Insane (again not in psych, we have psychotic)
Genius (Very Superior Intellectual Functioning)
Stockholm Syndrome (never heard it even uttered, at the MA level, PHD, or at Vanderbilt)
“OCD” (People really mean Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which focuses on details and such that take over the purpose of the task)
Hard-wired (misleading at best, I’m unsure what it means)
Obsession (very specific again in psych)
A person HAS a mental disorder yet they ARE smart (logical inconsistency when saying has vs are)
My Theory (a theory is well developed, with usually hundreds of studies over decades, not your armchair psychology, over night)
Positive Punishment
Negative Reinforcement

One conceptual thing that is most disturbing for me is when someone calls any disorder X, a “medical issue,” when actually dealt with as well in psychology. So, technically it is in both arenas. Sometimes, the disorder is exclusively dealt with in psychology, and NOT in medicine at all like the personality disorders. There are no effective drugs or medical treatments for these, but we do have therapies.

One of the terms in psychology that tricks up people yet does use normal every day terms in simple combination is “negative reinforcement.” It has a very precise behavioral meaning, yet at first blush puzzles many people thinking its a contradiction. The reciprocal example “positive punishment” has the same effect, puzzlement.

In all fields you will find this happening… Anthropology, politics, engineering, physics, etc. One of my favorites is debit vs. credit, in accounting, very confusing, look it up.

In conclusion, I wonder myself who is to blame, psychology or other fields. Some use latin/greek, or other terms from languages to describe a concept. All in all, you can use as psychology does, actually somewhat accurately worded concepts, that do describe what we are talking about. Yet when done the general public thinks, they have the concept not only down pat, but can utilize it actively in a situation. Yet, many of these concepts take months of clinical training to be used effectively. I have had to deal with physicians who make errors in diagnostics. As the saying goes they have enough knowledge to be dangerous, just like the general public.

All in all, as Bill Nye pushes. We simply need more science education.

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