As scientists, we need to stop using harmful and misleading terminology

Like many scientists, my educational background taught me to consider science to be rigorously technical and objective. However, many scientific terms actually stem from societal assumptions and stereotypes, and this can communicate misleading messages to both scientists and the public. 

Despite this reality, when I started graduate school, I thought my job was to learn the textbook definitions for terminology in my field, rather than to question any alternative connotations or associations they may carry. This perspective led me to ignore the harm caused by scientific language, and therefore, to perpetuate this harm through my own research. I now understand that using offensive terminology in a scientific context does not erase its potential for harm. In fact, scientific usage can actually do more damage by lending legitimacy to these words and the ideas that they represent. 

Scientific usage can actually do more damage by lending legitimacy to these words and the ideas that they represent.

To illustrate what I mean when I say that some scientific terminology can be harmful, I will provide examples of common terms from the fields of ecology and conservation biology. I organized these examples into three categories that describe the common ways in which scientific terms can normalize offensive language and imply misleading conclusions about humans and the natural world.

1. Terms that are used in offensive or insulting ways outside of science 

As an ecologist, I am used to hearing the words “exotic” or “alien” applied to plants or animals that have been introduced by humans into a new range. Outside of ecology, these words have a long history of being used to disparage and attack entire groups of people simply because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or citizenship status. These terms continue to be used in highly offensive ways today, while at the same time, ecologists continue to apply them to plants and animals without regard for how this language could perpetuate racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This practice can also make scientific spaces even less inclusive to members of groups that are already underrepresented in STEM. Despite these issues, highly value-laden and pejorative terminology persists in many, if not most, fields of science. 

2. Terms that reinforce false assumptions about science 

Ecotoxicologists frequently study the effects of endocrine disruptors—chemicals that mimic or block the actions of hormones—on humans and wildlife. As sexual traits can be altered by these compounds, scientists often refer to affected animals as being “feminized” or “demasculinized,” or conversely, “masculinized” or “defeminized.” This terminology sends misleading and harmful messages for two main reasons: 

  • These terms are inherently gendered as they stem from “masculinity” and “femininity,” and gender is a social construct, not a biological trait. Applying gendered terms to non-human organisms or to humans with particular sexual traits harmfully reinforces a false equivalence between gender and sex. 
  • These terms misleadingly imply that “female” and “male” are discrete categories, which is not true, as well as that intersex characteristics are inherently unhealthy, even though they are common in humans and animals, and often carry no negative health consequences

The use of this terminology by scientists—which I am guilty of, and deeply regret—can therefore reinforce inaccurate and prejudicial assumptions about human gender and sex. As biologists are often perceived as “experts,” such inaccurate language is especially dangerous and may contribute to the widespread marginalization and erasure of trans people as well as the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of intersex people.

As biologists are often perceived as “experts,” such inaccurate language is especially dangerous and may contribute to the widespread marginalization and erasure of trans people as well as the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of intersex people.

3. Terms that are associated with extremely harmful processes, actions, or ideas

Ecologists often refer to the natural movement of a species into a new geographic area as “colonization,” despite the clear association of this word with racism and imperialism in human societies. Colonization has arguably been one of the most destructive processes throughout human history, with a long-lasting legacy of oppression and human rights violations. However, despite this history, ecologists use this same term to refer to a process that is generally considered to be neutral or even positive (i.e. when species avoid extinction by “colonizing” a new habitat). Therefore, the use of the term “colonization” in ecology implicitly minimizes the past and present harm caused by human colonization. 

Another example in this category is the term “evolutionary suicide,” which refers to situations in which adaptations to particular environmental conditions drive a species to extinction. This unnecessary use of the word “suicide” as a metaphor is likely to cause trauma while simultaneously minimizing the experiences of people who have been affected by suicide. 

Can this terminology be changed?

The examples I highlighted above are only a few of the many harmful terms that permeate our scientific literature. While some terms may be easily replaced by well-known synonyms (i.e. replacing “alien” with “introduced”), others are entrenched in the scientific literature and thus incredibly difficult to avoid. Furthermore, unequal power dynamics in academia can create an environment where early career researchers who question traditions and advocate for change are not listened to or accepted, especially if they are members of marginalized and underrepresented groups. Even for researchers with very open-minded colleagues and supervisors, impostor syndrome can impose a formidable barrier to speaking out. 

Unequal power dynamics in academia can create an environment where early career researchers who question traditions and advocate for change are not listened to or accepted, especially if they are members of marginalized and underrepresented groups.

However, recent efforts to rename awards, journals, and even animals that carry names commemorating racist figures in science make me hopeful that there will soon be a greater awareness of the harm caused by misleading and offensive terminology. Indeed, some scientists, including graduate students, have already been speaking out about harmful terminology in their own fields of study. For example, Earyn McGee has encouraged herpetologists to refer to a common lizard-catching method as “lassoing” instead of “noosing,” as the latter term is both threatening and offensive. Similarly, Danielle Hoefele has fought back against the tradition of referring to unmated female insects as “virgins,” which is a gendered term that perpetuates sexist ideas. These kinds of initiatives are incredibly important if we want science to become safer and more inclusive, as well as to contribute positively to society rather than reflecting and reinforcing prejudice. 

I am personally committed to continuously reexamining and altering how I talk and write about my research so that I can avoid using terminology that makes scientific spaces unsafe or that promotes fear or hate while under the guise of objectivity. This will likely be a life-long learning process, and I do not doubt that I will continue to make mistakes along the way. However, I refuse to ignore the potential for harm in scientific language, or to remain complacent with it, and I invite other scientists to  join me in this commitment.

Sara Zlotnik
Sara Zlotnik

Sara Zlotnik is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Florida. Her PhD research focuses on the development of feeding behavior and morphology in insects, and she has also previously studied amphibian ecology and conservation biology. You can follow Sara on Twitter @Sara_Zlotnik.

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