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Glossary

Find definitions for the terminology used throughout the Understanding Science pages.

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sample
In science, to collect information from part of an entity, with the aim of learning about the entity as a whole (e.g., to collect information on a subset of the members of a population or on cores of ice from the Antarctic). The term sample size refers to the number of repeated measurements made (e.g., the number of individuals surveyed or the number of ice cores studied). All else being equal, the larger the sample size, the more confident we can be that our sample represents the entity as a whole and the more subtle the difference between samples that we'll be able to discriminate.


science
Our knowledge of the natural world and the process through which that knowledge is built. The process of science relies on the testing of ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. Science as a whole cannot be precisely defined but can be broadly described by a set of key characteristics. To learn more, visit A science checklist.


scientific argument
A logical description of a scientific idea and the evidence for or against it. In everyday language, an argument usually means a verbal disagreement, but here we use another meaning of the term: a reasoned case for or against a particular viewpoint. Scientific arguments generally have a few basic components: What is the idea? If this idea were true, what would we expect to observe in a given situation? Is this expectation borne out? How does that reflect on the likelihood that the idea is accurate or inaccurate? To learn more, visit The logic of scientific arguments.


scientific conference
An event, usually organized by a scientific society or a group of researchers, at which scientists give short presentations describing their research. Conferences are one way in which scientists share their ideas, results, and research methods with the scientific community.


scientific journal
Publication that contains firsthand reports of scientific research, often reviewed by experts. In these articles, scientists describe a study and any details one might need to evaluate that study — background information, data, statistical results, graphs, maps, explanations of how the study was performed and how the researchers interpreted their results, etc. To learn more, visit Publish or perish.


scientific literature
The body of scientific publications that contain firsthand reports of research, often reviewed by experts. The scientific literature provides the cumulative, permanent record of scientific research that can be consulted to learn about research in a field. Because science is ongoing and builds on itself, scientists often consult the scientific literature in order to figure out what is already known about a particular topic and to keep up with new ideas and findings in their fields.


scientific misconduct
Actions that violate the expectations and norms of the scientific community and that undermine the aims of science and the success of the scientific enterprise. Scientific misconduct can include a failure to fairly scrutinize other scientists' work, a failure to report results honestly, a failure to fairly assign credit, and/or a failure to work within the ethical guidelines of the community. To learn more, visit Scientific culture: Great expectations.


subjective
Influenced by biases, opinions, and/or emotions. Scientists strive to be objective, not subjective, in their reasoning about scientific issues.


supernatural
Not of the natural world. Supernatural entities, forces, and processes cannot be studied with the methods of science. To learn more, visit our side trip What's natural?


technology
Designed innovations that serve some practical function. Science and technology frequently contribute to one another — with scientific advances leading to the design of new technologies, and new technologies enabling new observations or tests that advance scientific knowledge. To learn about how science benefits technology, visit Fueling technology.


test
In science, an observation or experiment that could provide evidence regarding the accuracy of a scientific idea. Testing involves figuring out what one would expect to observe if an idea were correct and comparing that expectation to what one actually observes. To learn more, visit Testing scientific ideas.


testable
Capable of being tested scientifically. An idea is testable when it logically generates a set of expectations about what we should observe in a particular situation. Ideas that are not testable cannot be investigated by science. To learn more, visit Testing scientific ideas.


theory
In science, a broad, natural explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable, often integrating and generalizing many hypotheses. Theories accepted by the scientific community are generally strongly supported by many different lines of evidence-but even theories may be modified or overturned if warranted by new evidence and perspectives. To learn more, visit Science at multiple levels.


uncertainty
In reference to statistics, the range of values within which the true value is likely to fall. All measurements have some degree of uncertainty. To learn more, visit our misconception on the topic.


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