I don’t like the Big Bang Theory, and there’s reasons for that which others have illustrated better than I can, however it has brought a lot of attention to the communication methods of scientists and how that communication is different than it is for non-scientists. This is also known as the “seriously why can’t you just speak English” problem. Well, today, I’m going to give you some tools and vocabulary to speak with scientists, hopefully to cause less confusion overall for both the scientist and the victim person they are talking with.

Watch out for Science! Photo by Pascal

Scientists Use Words Funny

As scientists, we’ve redefined many words that you think you know. My personal favorite is “theory”. In plain English, theory is usually an idea about how something might work. In science, however, a theory is an explanation that has been tested rigorously over time. You can see how this causes no end of confusion. “Law” is another good one, at least when talking with mathematicians or physicists, because they probably mean a fundamental rule of nature and not something that communities agree to follow. When we say “research” we probably mean experimentation, not using the library (that’s a literature search) and when we say “sources” we mean other scientists published research, and very rarely the internet. Our “Doctors” probably have PhDs and not MDs. When we say “significant” we can back that up statistically with a p-value (of 0.05 or less).

How can you handle this? Well, ask for definitions if you think there is a musunderstanding. To help you out, here is a list of even more words that scientists use funny from our friends at Southern Fried Science.

Scientists Question Everything

It’s not that we don’t trust you. Really! In fact, one of the highest compliments I can pay someone is to say, “can I see your sources” because it means that I think you are intelligent enough to have good sources. However, I still need to see them. There is no such thing as taking someone’s word in science, there is only data, experiments, and peer-reviewed literature. I may question what seems like something really simple to you. I may also try to take what seems like an obvious process and take the time to break it down into it’s component parts and be certain that I know how exactly each one works.


I had to include one of my favorite crazy scientists!

So, how can you handle this? If you are talking with a scientist, never assume something is a personal attack. Sheldon might get quite indignant with different ideas, but most of us are just out to get to the bottom of the debate and not out to destroy someone. I just want to know for certain! You can also feel okay to say, “hey, let’s look that up.” Most scientists, when presented with the evidence, will concede the point.

Scientists Get Excited About Their Research

Do not ask me a question about stream microbiology unless you want to be having a conversation for the next half hour at minimum. There’s just so much cool information and so few people know about it! As a scientists, I want to educate others; I want to disseminate the facts. When I’m on my topic, it’s something that I know a ton about and it’s often hard to filter effectively when there’s just so much great stuff to talk about.

I suppose I mention him, I should throw in a picture.

I suppose I mention him, I should throw in a picture.

How can you handle this? Well, you could just learn what topics to avoid around your local scientist, but really, you never know what might set them off. Most of us don’t realize what we’re doing. It’s just geeking out but I know I usually get lost in the excitement and jargon without realizing it. You can just agree, nod along, and let it roll. You can also try one of my favorite lines to slow it all down: “that is beyond the scope of my understanding”. Scientists like “scope” and we don’t mean mouthwash!

Scientists Are People Too

Basically, I just want you know that even though we tend to talk funny and get excited about silly things and ask too many seemingly unimportant questions, we just want to hang out and be friends! So, thats how to talk with your friendly, local scientist. We’re not all Sheldon, I promise.


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