Treating Sciencephobia – Or, How to Read Real Science Without Getting a Nervous Breakdown.

For reasons that drive scientists close to despair, many media writers get science stories wrong. They make small advances look like Great Leaps Forward, and when really big steps take place they usually miss the real story.

This is sad, because real science is such a barrel of fun. But you can’t love football if you don’t understand it. Science isn’t any more complicated than football games on tv.

In the popular media scientists are never wrong, which is like saying that your team never loses a game. Boo, hiss. That means missing the real drama that goes on at the frontiers every single day.

Because media writers work under huge deadline pressure, they don’t have time to double-check and triple-check every fact. That’s why scientists always go to primary source journals, the ones where every word is triple-checked by authors, reviewers and editors. Primary journals aren’t perfect, but they have a good accuracy rate.

And — as you know, for the first time in human history anybody in the world can read the primary sources of science. Between Google Scholar and PubMed you are holding in your hands the greatest library of human knowledge. Free of charge. Ready to learn.

There’s only one barrier, and it’s in your own mind. Let’s call it lexophobia, the unreasoning fear of big words. (Yes, I just made that up.) Many, many people avoid reading good science because it all looks like gobbledegook.

Well, have no fear. As part of our MBSCi public service we solve the phobia of big words. (Should you choose to accept this mission, and all that).

Phobias are unreasonable fears, and if you can tolerate reading this blog, you, too can overcome your fear of big words!


Here is a really, really wonderful article in Translational Psychiatry.

Question: “What’s “translational”?”

Answer: Any process whereby DNA encodes RNA, which encodes protein production in cells.

But you knew that, right? It’s high school biology.

So why don’t they just say that, instead of talking in secret code?

“Translational.” Sheesh.

Here is the title.

“Translational Psychiatry (2014) 4, e445; doi:10.1038/tp.2014.85
Published online 16 September 2014

Association between serotonin transporter genotype, brain structure and adolescent-onset major depressive disorder: a longitudinal prospective study

More gobbledegook, right? Well, not really. Just use our handy little dictionary.

Translational. (See above)

Psychiatry. (Greek) Medical study of the mind. (Gk: psyche, iatros)

Association. This word is a warning to readers that the article reports a correlation between two things, NOT a causal relationships. This is the biggest mistake made by unthinking readers.

serotonin” A thingummy, doohicky, or wossname. Just fiddle your fingers and you get the idea. If you need to know more, check Wikipedia, which is good for such things.

Note: in biology, molecular thingummies always act as tiny keys to fit into tiny locks.

(Molecular = “pretty damned tiny.”)

serotonin transporter” =  A wossname that transports a thingummy. Visualize a baby key in a baby carriage and you’ve got the right mental image. Transporters move molecular keys around.

“serotonin transporter genotype” . The genetic code for the baby in the carriage, the thingummy in the wossname.

“brain structure” – the structure of the brain. (Note: this is not the function of the brain, or some process of the brain, like growth, development, damage, degeneration, etc.) Structures are fairly stable over time.

“adolescent”  A teenager.

“adolescent-onset”. Starts in the teenage years.

“major depressive disorder” – feeling sad or emotionally numb a lot of the time. A major bummer that won’t go away.

“longitudinal study” — a study over a long period of time, like years or decades. Longitudinal studies are notoriously hard and expensive to do. If one subject in such a study costs $1000 for one year, then 100 subjects for 10 years costs a million dollars. Longitudinal studies are very important, but they are big, big projects, usually with government funding.

“prospective study”  – a planned study that allows us to randomly assign some teenagers to two (or more) conditions at the beginning of a ten-year project. Random assignment often allows us to do causal statistical tests on the outcome. But in this case, we already know that the study came out with an “association” (a correlation). The authors are therefore being very careful in what they claim, which is a good thing. There are nice statistical techniques today to get the most out of studies like this, even causal evidence.

And that’s it. The whole gobbledegook sentence made easy enough for a bright 12-year old.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid of science! Most of it can be translated into ordinary words.

This work by Bernard J Baars and the Society for Mind Brain Sciences is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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