Is there any example of major controversy in the scientific community caused due to poor wording and/or misinterpretation of words?

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    $\begingroup$ I recall that a famous scientific paper published by a group of scientist describing the complex structures and movements of our hand. However, at one instant the authors alleged that the hand was an art of god (not sure if this was the actual statement) and it caused a major controversy but it turned out to be a poor translated statement which was intended to be the word "nature" instead of "god" $\endgroup$
    – SPARSE
    Oct 10, 2021 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Did the Nobel committee get the physics wrong? Science 2016 $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Oct 10, 2021 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ Fermi's paper on beta decay was rejected by Nature in what the journal later described as one of its greatest editorial blunders of all-time. In mathematics, Galois' papers were famously indecipherable and rejected by Cauchy and others at the Academy. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Oct 11, 2021 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ Do controversies coming for badly summarized scientific papers in the news count? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Oct 11, 2021 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ The infamous rejection by Nature was not due to linguistic issues and was actually due to the fact that the paper was deemed to be ''excessively theoretical'' and ''divorced from reality''. This was indeed perhaps the biggest editorial blunder of all time. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2021 at 22:38

3 Answers 3


Giovanni Schiaparelli ...
He wrote in 1877 about his telescopic observations of Mars. He described some features using the Italian word canali. English translation would be channels. But the term was mistranslated as English canals, which was taken to mean they were artificial constructions. This led to much controversy about whether Mars was inhabited!

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    $\begingroup$ Many other astronomers saw lines on the surface of Mars, and some described them as canals. Percival Lowell wrote whole books about the lines he saw and his interpretation of them as artifical irrigation canals made by the Martians. That was based more on his observations and interpretatins of them than on the word used to translate Sciaparelli. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2021 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding Lowell only got involved in 1890s. The public frenzy started in the early 1880s, and the translation of canali as canals at a time when Suez was recently completed and Panama was under construction definitely had something to do with it. This is documented e.g. by Slugg's 1882 letter to Manchester Guardian. No astronomers described the "lines" as canals before English and French "creative" translations spread, and several suggested that Schiaparelli depicted boundaries of color shades as lines, see e.g. Sheehan. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Clearly he had channels rather than canals in mind (with its connotation of artificial construction). Indeed, in his 1878 Memoir, in which he discusses the observations in detail, he tends to use the terms canale and fiume (or river) rather indiscriminately, and all of his canali are given the names of rivers. But of course it was as canals that the term was translated..." Btw, Schiaparelli was color blind, which explains why he saw color shades differently. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ Well, a "canal" is merely a man-made "channel," so there's that! $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2021 at 11:22

Airborne Contagion and Air Hygiene by William Firth Wells was one of the earliest works on disease transmission through air. There was research in there showing that droplets in general will tend to stay airborne the longest if they are around 100 microns in size. There was also a specific study included which showed that tuberculosis in particular is infectious if the droplets are under 5 microns (note that tuberculosis specifically needs to reach a deep section of the lungs in order to infect someone--deeper than other diseases). But apparently people skimmed over the 100 microns part and fixated on the 5 microns part. Fast forward to 2020 and now we have an article explaining how this misunderstanding lead to COVID guidance such as "3-6 feet apart". (Further reading: Wikipedia article.)

What must have happened, she thought, was that after Wells died, scientists inside the CDC conflated his observations. They plucked the size of the particle that transmits tuberculosis out of context, making 5 microns stand in for a general definition of airborne spread.


Paxos Algorithm by Leslie Lamport comes to my mind.

I submitted the paper to TOCS in 1990. All three referees said that the paper was mildly interesting, though not very important, but that all the Paxos stuff had to be removed. I was quite annoyed at how humorless everyone working in the field seemed to be, so I did nothing with the paper.

See paper [123] from his webpage.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to HSMSE. What you wrote does not suggest any type of controversy or of poor wording. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2021 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ But it does suggest that Lamport’s words were being misinterpreted. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2021 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TheAmplitwist It only suggests that "We TOCS referees have no sense of humor of which we are aware" :-) (with apologies to MIB) $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2021 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 - that was then, now we know some have a sense of humor and that all the humourless types gravitate to SE where they populate plenty of the stacks here, especially scifi. $\endgroup$
    – davidbak
    Oct 11, 2021 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ It is very difficult to see the controversy you mention. After reading the [123] section you cite, it is still not clear what Paxos means, why the referees wanted the Paxos stuff to be removed. Not being native speaker, am I missing some English wordplay? Rather than generating controversy, the poor wording is generating confusion (showing how the "marketing" of science, with tricks to prove it more appealing and spread the knowledge instead can fire backwards). $\endgroup$
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 13, 2021 at 8:39

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