How to Write a Confusing Science Story: Mix Up the Colloquial and the Technical

If you’re aware at all of the perfidy that is creationism, one of their favorite sayings–even though it’s demonstrably ignorant–is “evolution is just a theory.” As numerous biologists and other defenders of science have explained, theory in the scientific world is something that has withstood numerous challenges, while, in common usage, theory is an untested hypothesis.

A recent Washington Post article about urban sprawl is similarly confusing:

Giant urban sprawl could pave over thousands of acres of forest and agriculture, connecting Raleigh to Atlanta by 2060, if growth continues at its current pace, according to a newly released research paper from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We could be looking at a seamless corridor of urban development,” said Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the USGS and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who was the study’s lead author.

Here’s the problem. In the colloquial U.S. sense, urban means a dense city (full of those people!), like Manhattan or the dense parts of any older U.S. city. However, that’s not what the paper is talking about at all (boldface mine):

The Southeast has experienced explosive growth over the past 60 years, with a rate of population increase nearly 40% larger than the rest of the United States [14]. Over 77 million people now live in this region, where the typical new development pattern is suburban, automobile-dependent growth. This sprawling urbanization favors low-density development that requires large areas of land to support single-family housing and extensive road networks [15].

In the technical literature, urban means something very different: non-agricultural, non-wilderness, or areas with moderate human occupancy. One of the cited papers lays out the issue like so:

This perception involves a number of interlocking complaints. Cities, it is claimed, take up too much space, encroaching excessively on agricultural land. Aesthetic benefits from the presence of open space are lost, and an allegedly scarce resource, namely farmland, is depleted. Excessive urban expansion also means overly long commutes, which generate traffic congestion while contributing to air pollution. Unfettered suburban growth is also thought to reduce the incentive for redevelopment of land closer to city centers, contributing to the decay of downtown areas. Finally, by spreading people out, low-density suburban development may reduce social interaction, weakening the bonds that underpin a healthy society.

If this story had accurately portrayed the problem, it would have referred to suburban sprawl, since that is what the PLoS paper is about: too much land is used for housing and transportation per person. In a colloquial sense, that’s a suburban problem, not an urban one.

This is not helping.

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1 Response to How to Write a Confusing Science Story: Mix Up the Colloquial and the Technical

  1. jw says:

    time to write a letter to the editor, Mike.

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