In a book review on a NPR site the word "civilian" is used to describe non-scientist people (emphasis mine).

His new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, is all about communication — and miscommunication — between scientists and civilians.

That formulation gave me the impression that the author wanted to show scientists like a tight group with a tendency to use brute force to impose their point of view (like the police and army are allowed to do by definition). The definitions of civilian are all primarily related to the army or police fields, Webster, Collins.

Is there a word –not formed with negative suffix, such as non-scientist– that could replace civilian to describe non-scientist in the sentence below without any of the following:

  • any military/police force connotation,

  • "us against them" vibe

  • negative connotation against either "civilian" or scientist?

(Outsider does not fit either, it also feels too polarized.)

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and XXXXX

  • 3
    Anecdotal, so NAA, but I've used 'civilian' to imply the difference between people with domain knowledge and people without that knowledge who are both on the same team. Importantly, 'civilian' doesn't imply the expectation of knowledge or skill (as in, you really should know this), so it's less of a put-down. Finally, perhaps because there's a certain amount of military in my family (mother, brother, uncle, etc.,) I use 'civilian' without any implications of violence or brute force, and I'd feel comfortable using it in a non-military situation.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 22:10
  • 3
    Webster's definition 2b and Oxford Dictionaries definition 1.1 are not explicitly military (though admittedly military-derived). I'm pretty sure that's what the author was after, rather than invoking imagery of brute force. Civilians are not an "against them" for the military, instead they are just bystanders who just happen be around while the military is doing their thing. I'm guessing that was the intent, to draw the distinction between the people doing science and everyone else who are uninvolved bystanders to the process of science.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 22:18
  • @r.m. I agree, the author probably intended this use as in the secondary definition, but I want a word that have a more neutral connotation.
    – P. O.
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 1:05
  • 5
    between scientists and the public is very widely used. Of course scientists are also part of the public but in context the meaning is clear. Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 7:20
  • 1
    Your comment about "a tendency to use brute force" etc. makes me wonder if there was a misunderstanding about the word civilian, i.e. you think scientists are not supposed to be as "civil" as civilians. But that was not what the author meant to convey.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 8:43

5 Answers 5


The word that you want, and that the article should have used, is layperson:


  1. a person who is not a member of the clergy; one of the laity.

  2. a person who is not a member of a given profession, as law or medicine.

(Link and definition from Dictionary.com)

In this case, we are using the second definition, in the sense that scientists are talking to others who are not members of their own profession, i.e. science. In the article, it might be best to pluralize. The result would be:

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and laypeople.

  • 2
    Hmmnn...idle question: is the plural of layperson laypeople, or laypersons? Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 18:21
  • 2
    @Cascabel- My link (from Dictionary.com) gives only laypeople. M-W gives both. As does Collins. For me, that's enough to say it could go either way, just like the word person itself.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 18:27
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    This is certainly an alternative with the desired meaning, but I don't know that the author should have used it. Using civilian instead might well have been an informed choice, perhaps to lend connotations that scientists are "in the trenches" in the figurative sense, or to avoid invoking religious terminology in a scientific realm.
    – 1006a
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 4:31
  • 2
    Let's not forget how many researchers these days are in fact under government orders not to divulge a lot of what they are doing. If they have top secret clearance it is not a stretch to imagine them as distinct from "civilians". Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 13:53
  • @DarrenRinger it's a pretty big stretch. Having a clearance doesn't change whether you're a civilian or not, any more than hair color does.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:07

Other synonyms apart from laypeople for non-scientist in your phrase could be:

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and ordinary people

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and the general population

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and science amateurs

His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and those unknowledgeable in science

  • Even non-scientist would be okay as term describing everyone but a scientist. How would one call everyone but a cook, everyone but a taxi driver, everyone but [insert profession here] without using a negative conjunction? Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 13:43
  • I like the first two you listed. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 6:11

It's difficult. The Internet has brought together like-minded people, and amplified countless specialties and subcultures. Our "circles" have become Venn diagrams. The concept of "outsider to our circle" has become more important, but the language hasn't caught up.

As cobaltduck says, "layperson" is probably as good as you're going to get. It's not as well known as its sexist root, "layman". The reporter saying "civilian" was probably trying to avoid "layman" but grasping at straws.

However there are countless terms within the subcultures. The Amish call others "English". Fen called others "Mundanes", until the word was wholly replaced by the irrestible term "Muggles" -- thanks to the wit of J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series (where it was used for that very purpose). Of course, those terms are only meaningful to insiders, not useful to a reporter trying to describe the difference to the outsiders.


Sounds like exoteric.

From Oxford:



Intended for or likely to be understood by the general public.

From MW:

1 a : suitable to be imparted to the public the exoteric doctrine — compare esoteric

1 b : belonging to the outer or less initiate circle

2 : relating to the outside : external

His new book is all about miscommunication between scientists and the exoterics.

  • it does not answer the question "His new book, is all about miscommunication between scientists and exoteric"? Nice as a comment though.
    – P. O.
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 17:51
  • His new book is all about miscommunication between scientists and the exoterics.
    – Davo
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 17:52
  • Non-usable as in most people would read it as "scientist and the esoterics" which does not make sense in the sentence ) but nice.:~) +1
    – P. O.
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 17:57

Sadly no, there isn't. The easiest way to tell that is to look again at the very idea of police versus civilians.

Police are civilians, aren't they? To many people it seems reasonable to group police with the armed services and lump everyone else into the civilians category and then what should we do with fire-fighters? What about ambulance personnel or nurses, doctors and the like? What about civil servants?

With police the actual distinction probably should be against citizens. Yes all police are citizens and some people are neither… which isn't much more complicated than, for instance, the idea of police arresting and sailors after a bar-fight.

Given that for nearly 200 years no-one has come up with a widely-adopted term for everyone else compared to the police it's not very likely anyone will today, either.

  • 4
    The idea that police are not civilians grows out of a long tradition in western culture where the police, like the military, are the agents of the state's monopoly on violence. This is somewhat odd to a modern citizen of the USA, where everybody can and does carry guns, but historically, it was only the police and the military (if they were even two distinct forces, which they were often not) that could carry weapons around in public. Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 1:09
  • 1
    In many places, there are branches of the military that perform exclusively police duties (and are not military police): Gendarmerie Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 10:58
  • 1
    Related to "military vs police vs citizen vs state" politics.stackexchange.com/questions/19538/… Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 16:11

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