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!