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Glossary

glossary

Here are the definitions of some of the technical terms that come up in our discussions. If you’d like one added, just contact us.

Adjuvant – a substance that is added to a vaccine to increase the immune response.

Antigen – a substance that causes a body to have an immune response. Often, an antigen is a part of an invading disease that causes the host body to respond/

Association – scientists often use the word “association” when describing a correlation between two variables that are not continuous, such as “dichotomous” variables male/female or smoking/nonsmoking. For example, there may be an association between being male and smoking tobacco, i.e. men are more likely than women to be smokers. Like correlation, association says nothing about whether one thing causes the other.

Confirmation bias – a kind of cognitive bias that we all suffer from. It’s when we tend to search for, or give more credence to, evidence that confirms our existing opinions.

Confounding – a systemic error in research design in which a factor either creates the illusion of a relationship between an exposure and an outcome, or it masks an actual relationship between an exposure and an outcome.

Correlation – a relationship between two continuous variables, such as age and height. Good positive correlation happens when, as one goes up, the other also goes up, and as one goes down, the other also goes down. Negative correlation happens when, as one goes down, the other goes up. Correlation says nothing about whether one thing causes the other.

Dichotomous – having two levels. We often use this word to describe variables, such as sex, which is typically man vs woman (yes, yes, there are gender fluid identities in between, but let’s be simple for the sake of argument). Sometimes we create dichotomous variables out of continuous ones. For example, the continues variable “age” can be reduced to two levels, old vs young. Similarly, the continuous measure “income” can be reduced to poor vs rich.

Fermi Paradox – named for physicist Enrico Fermi, the paradox is essentially a question: given that it seems mathematically inescapable that the universe is teeming with intelligent, presumably starfaring life, why have we not heard from them yet?

Incidence – technically, an incidence rate refers to the proportion of new events occurring over a period of time. A population might have a seriously high number of people with a particular disease, for example, but if the number of new cases arising each year is small, then we say the incidence rate is small. Incidence is statistically what we mean by “risk”.

Panspermia – the theory that life on Earth originated from an extraterrestrial source, e.g. via microorganisms arriving here inside of meteorites.

Phatic communication – conversational speech used to communicate sociability more than information

Pili – the plural of “pilus”, which is Latin for “hair”, pili are stringy appendages found one some single-celled organisms, like bacteria.

Risk – the probability of gaining or losing something. Technically, risk is the rate of incidence of something. For example the risk of smoking among poor teenagers is higher than that of rich teenagers, meaning that the proportion who will take up smoking in the near future is higher in the poor group than in the rich group.

Significance – when scientists talk about “significance” there are several things that they can mean. One is “statistical significance”, which essentially mean that the observed results are likely not due to chance. Another is “clinical significance”, which has to do with the magnitude of the effect being observed. For example, a new pain management drug might show statistical significance, meaning that its effects in reducing pain are likely not due to randomness or luck. But the amount of pain relief it offers might not be worth its expense, rendering it clinically insignificant.

Surveillance – a system by which disease information is regularly collected… it has nothing to do with Big Brother violating our rights