What words mean different things in ecology vs in everyday speech?

When I teach, I often note to students when there is a word that is used differently in ecology than in everyday speech, since I think this can contribute to confusion for students. So, I found this tweet really interesting:

This would be really interesting to try with ecology students!

I think one of the biggest ones is “competition”. In my experience, this is one of the most difficult concepts for students to grasp, and I think it’s because, for most students, “competition” evokes thoughts of a basketball game or boxing match or something like that. I think this leads to two sources of confusion: first, competition is often subtle (at least, from our human perspective). As I told my students last week, you might not look at a field of plants and think, “Whew! That is some fierce competition going on out there!”, but the competition is, indeed, fierce. Second, in competition, both players suffer, even when we talk about one species “winning”. My guess is that the idea of something like the Super Bowl being a competition that has a winner is part of why that idea is hard to grasp.

Another word that immediately came to mind as one that means something different in ecology (or science more generally) than in everyday speech is “regulation”. I think it’s often difficult for students to grasp that a factor that regulates a population has to be able to push in both directions (down when the population is high, up when it’s low). I’m not sure how much of that relates to a difference in how the word is used in everyday speech vs. in ecology, but I emphasize to students that the meaning in ecology is very specific.

“Adaptation” is another word that immediately sprang to mind – I emphasize to students that an individual can acclimate, but only populations can adapt. “Theory”, of course, is another word that has a different meaning in science than in everyday speech. “Prove” probably would be another, though that one is different because it’s a word that is used in everyday speech but not scientific speech. And, as sciencegurl pointed out on twitter, “plastic” is another word that is used differently in ecology than in everyday speech.

What would be on your list of words that have different meanings in ecology than in everyday speech? And have you had students try to assemble such a list? I’d be really interested in what they came up with!

24 thoughts on “What words mean different things in ecology vs in everyday speech?

  1. Good topic! Our communication is frequently hindered, even within ecological sub-fields, because we forget to explain our terms. Here’s a few that spring to mind:

    Significant, dynamic, chaos, invader, selection, community, neutral, niche, filtering, scale/scaling, variance, gradient, mediated, colonisation

    To be fair, many of these were explicitly adapted for the analogy, but the ecological meaning is far more specialized now.

    Of course, the biggest ones would probably be ‘important’ and ‘interesting’…

    • Hehe, exactly what I was going to say: “ecology” is the very first candidate!

      My experience is actually even worse: I’ve been hired as Assistant Professor in “Landscape Ecology”, and both words have completely different meanings in our world vs. their everyday meanings! Now I’m being contacted by people for advice on how to mow their lawn… That says a lot!


      • @mathieu: Regarding the questions about how to mow lawns: oh dear! The main thing I run into if I say I am an aquatic ecologist is that many people think that is synonymous with marine biologist.

  2. Maybe it’d be more efficient to ask which everyday words mean the *same* thing in ecology vs. everyday speech! 🙂

    Ok, in seriousness, I’m most interested in the ones for which everyday usage gets in the way of students’ grasp of the technical usage. For instance, I *don’t* think the everyday use of “niche” gets in the way of students’ grasp of the technical use (but then I’ve never taught intro ecology, so I could be wrong on that). Whereas I agree that the everyday meaning of “theory” gets in the way.

    Never occurred to me that “competition” could be an example of everyday usage getting in the way of technical usage. Interesting.

    • Just finished my intro course, and I would have to say niche seemed to be a pretty tricky one for my peers to grasp. Even though our lecturer gave a pretty precise definition, they couldn’t depart from the initial conception of “niche = habitat.” What surprised me, was that in everyday use we don’t even mean habitat, like when we say “your business filled a niche in the market,” we definitely don’t mean a particular type of building. Strange.

      Pollutant, resources, selection, pressure, stress, advantage, equilibrium, evolve, cascade, heat, metabolism, (any physics terms). It’s quite extraordinary learning intro bio; I feel like I have been learning a new language with the same words.

      On a similar note, it was only the week before the exam, at a review lecture, that someone asked the difference between alleles and Allee effects (to most of the class’ relief).

  3. For Earth and space sciences, we have entire sections of our website and presentations devoted to this. For example:

    Dating, cycling, positive/negative feedback, mean, modeling, driver, displacement, cell (more bio obviously), shear, and bonding.

    I think this is a very important topic. Grasping the different meanings of words like this not only help students learn in an academic and scientific sense, but also allows them to recognize when to use said words in certain situations. For example, in the scicomm community, we talk about words with dual meanings as jargon. Understanding your audience is important as words like “dating” or “modeling” have very different meanings in scientific vs public contexts.

    • Oh, yes, modeling is another good one that I should have thought of! Dating hadn’t occurred to me, but that makes sense, too.

  4. Perhaps we should begin all classes by telling our students that virtually every term used in ALL scientific discussion has a /special/specific meaning, different from the ‘everyday’ usage. particle physics has charm, beauty, color, strangeness , etc.[ mere whimsy here]. The students job is to master the technical usage.
    Maybe the bigger question is why the public discourse appropriates terms [ ecosystem is very widely used], or why the science appropriates everyday terms in very special ways. In Sociobiology/Behavioral-Ecology we have many terms used in specific ways, terms that have plenty of emotional impact when first heard. perhaps altruism in the best example. I suspect that any attempts to invent new/neutral terms that refer to behavior, animal, plant or other, without appeal to commonly used rhetoric, are doomed to failure and simply will not catch on [ someone tried to have ‘social donors’ substituted for altruism…without success].
    By the way, Behavioral Ecologist use ‘adaptation’ to refer to attributes of individuals, not bigger units like populations/ species etc. See GC Williams 1966 book ADAPTATION AND NATURAL SELECTION.

  5. You have to be careful about some terms even among professional ecologists. Stability, resilience, resistance, can mean many different things to different people.

  6. I think “random” (or “random variable”, along with its derivations) is one example. Many understand it loosely as “without cause or pattern” (“…that’s completely random…”, “random selection”), while we use it in the statistical sense (random variable from probability distribution), where there is often a lot of information in the probability distribution (so outcomes are predictable to some extent). This is a statistical issue though, and not specifically connected to ecology.

  7. Population and community are used differently in ecology than everyday speech. In everyday speech, a community often implies a local group of people that interact regularly, while population is often more of a “technical” term used in a demographical context. To illustrate the difference, you you never use the phrase a “close-knit population”. On the other hand, in ecology, population and community describe a specific hierarchical structure with a population being an interacting group of individuals of the same species, and a community being an interacting group of populations of different species. I don’t know whether this makes the concepts difficult to grasp for students, though.

    • To pick some even more low-hanging fruit: “Population” to most people is closer to “population size” for ecologists. Many people don’t recognize that a population is a collection of individuals which can be described by many parameters, of which size is just one.

  8. Certain philosophers of science and science studies types make a big deal about how the technical meanings of certain scientific terms is contaminated by their everyday meanings. By extension, they argue that research on entire topics is driven by subtle but pernicious biases reflected in our choice of which everyday words to use in a technical way. “Selfish” gene and “invasive” species are probably the two most prominent examples.

    I don’t know a lot about this work, and confess that with what I have read I find it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. My impression was of a highly disputed topic dominated by warring camps making extreme, opposing claims.

    • The term ‘selfish gene’ has not misled any behavioral ecologist, nor has it pushed the field in ‘pernicious’ way. This rhetoric is just part and parcel of the early attack on Human Sociobiology…undermine the general field and one can undermine its use towards humans, so the argument goes. vast amounts of polemic literature filled the ‘airways’ to this end in the early days after Wilson’s big book.
      As for misleading either students or the general public, the
      term(s) is(are) not really the the issue. The issue is the concepts. Its takes a lot of work for students [ or anyone] to begin to think as a behavioral-ecologist does, and the terms are not the main barrier. Everybody perks up at the terms fitness, altruism, selfish this/that, but it really does not matter if one says ‘forced copulation’ or rape, the concept is hard to grasp/accept till its placed in a bigger context, …using ‘individual natural selection’ to understand behavior [ see, I avoided selfish gene]. 35 yrs of teaching behavioral ecology to 3rd yr undergrads convinced me of this.
      The mechanics of building materials , aka construction engineering, has the terms stress and strain; physics has force; chemistry attraction, etc. My undergrad advises don’t complain about the terms, just the d**n concepts. Oh yea, the math too. maybe mostly the math.

  9. Pingback: Humanities vs Science. 4. Semantics and Semiotics – Ecology is not a dirty word

  10. Relevant to this topic: “The Language of Conservation” memo from The Nature Conservancy (2004, ed 2013). https://www.conservationgateway.org/Files/Pages/language-conservation-mem.aspx. Here’s the overview: “Since 2004, the Conservation Campaigns Team (CCT) at The Nature Conservancy has commissioned 3 national political polls from the bipartisan duo of Lori Weigel, Public Opinion Strategies and Dave Metz, Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin, Metz & Associates. Following each national poll, CCT has asked the pollsters to synthesize other regional and state polls conducted within the same time frame and propose language recommendations. This is the third edition: Language of Conservation 2013: Updated Recommendations on How to Communicate Effectively to Build Support for Conservation. This memo provides language and messaging recommendations in a list of easy-to-follow, broad “rules” for communication. Some of these rules reinforce long-standing communication guidelines that we have tracked over time. Others reflect today’s changing political and economic context. Across the country, the pollsters have found few exceptions to these guidelines, although they note that it is important to test language and messages to ensure their effectiveness in a specific state or local area prior to investing in public.”

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