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The Unscientific Use of Scientific Terminology

The Unscientific Use of Scientific Terminology
There’s an interesting debate going on. It's over the unscientific use of scientific terminology in sport and exercise science.

There’s an interesting debate going on. It’s over the unscientific use of scientific terminology in sport and exercise science. It’s not a new debate; I read about it in August last year on Bartold Clinical [1], and I dare say it has been simmering for years. But two opposing articles published in today’s issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (May 2022) capture both sides of the argument beautifully.

The topic centres on the use of the word “load”, as in work load and training load. But other words such as force, weight, work, power, stress and fatigue are also implicated.

Staunton et al [2] contend that load is frequently used in a way that doesn’t adhere to the International System of Units (SI) and therefore should be abandoned. Technically,

… a ‘load’ is a mechanical variable which, when used appropriately, describes a force and therefore should be accompanied with the SI-derived unit of the newton (N). It is tempting to accept popular terms and nomenclature as scientific. However, scientists are obliged to abide by the SI and must pay close attention to scientific constructs.

The counterargument from Impellizzeri et al [3] is that load, work, power, stress etc are simply words and therefore cannot be unscientific.

The field of mechanics does not have a monopoly on the term load (or other common terms such as work, stress and fatigue), which are legitimately used in many scientific areas and with various meanings.

As such, it seems to be up to the scientist, author or sports medic to establish the definition being used, and for the practitioner, reader or client to understand the definition being used.

I’m not about to weigh in to the debate regarding words like load, power and stress. I’m on the record admitting to being practically illiterate when it comes to physics. One of the reasons is this terminology issue. There are a lot of words used in physics that are used in our everyday language, and they don’t mean the same thing. Words like “moment”. Colloquially, it’s an arbitrary unit of time. Scientifically, it describes a force. Force is another. In layman’s terms, if I force something to happen, it happens. But scientifically, a force doesn’t necessarily make anything happen. If I apply a force to a brick wall, for all intents and purposes, nothing happens – the wall does not fall over. (Yes, I know, equal and opposite force and all that).

And then there’s friction. Friction is a classic example of this unscientific use of scientific terminology.

As you know, I specialise in the management of friction blisters on the feet. Like the majority of people, when I thought about how friction causes friction blisters, the layman “rubbing” definition was what I pictured in my mind’s eye. Something was rubbing the skin of the foot.

However, I’m embarrassed to say, it took me several years to realise that I should have been applying the more scientific definition of friction. That is, the force that resists the movement of one surface over another. That’s what leads to blister formation.

This video shows how friction causes the blister injury. It’s not rubbing – it’s the resistance to rubbing.

Take a look and tell me, when you think about the friction in friction blisters, is it the layman’s or the scientific definition you’re seeing in your mind’s eye?

So, yes, I agree. The unscientific use of scientific terminology is problematic. Blisters are just one example of how this has harmed our understanding, and the way we manage this injury. It’s been thrown off with the widespread adoption of the lay definition over the appropritate scientific definition.


  1. Bartold Clinical
  2. Staunton CA, Abt G, Weaving D, Wundersitz DWT. Misuse of the term “load” in sport and exercise science. J Sci Med Sport. 2022;25:439-444. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2021.08.013
  3. Impellizzeri FM, Jeffries AC, Weisman A, et al. The ‘training load’ construct: Why it is appropriate and scientific. J Sci Med Sport. 2022;25(5):445-448. doi:10.1016/J.JSAMS.2021.10.013

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About the Author

Rebecca Rushton

Podiatrist, blister prone ex-hockey player, foot blister thought-leader, author and educator. Can’t cook. Loves test cricket.
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