I am a zoologist, ecologist, ornithologist, and professor; I am, bottom line, a scientist. One of the things that makes science and engineering such successful as well as rigorous fields, is terminology. Without precise terminology, one cannot define or solve many problems. The laws of thermodynamics, the principles of genetics, the oxidation-reduction reactions of chemistry simply cannot be explained with everyday terms with any accuracy. So when I taught at the university, I taught specific terms. In field biology and ecology, we studied soil, not dirt. Big difference.
There are many terms that the general public tends to confuse and often lead to major misunderstandings. Supreme Court Justice Scalia, in a 1987 ruling, equated evolution with the origin of life. Wrong; evolution does not deal with the origin of life, only how life changed. And there are important arguments about abortion and when life begins (it doesn’t begin or end, it just continues.) But I digress.
One of my pet peeves is hearing the phrase “birds and animals.” A quick surfing of the web turns up the website birdsandanimals.com, and a wikianswers question “Are birds animals?” An economic blog site talks about huge numbers of “dead animals, birds, and fish.” Even an EPA website refers to the birds and animals of wetlands! Of course birds are animals, and what these references really mean are birds and mammals. Birds, mammals, cockroaches, starfish, worms, protozoa, leeches, etc. are all animals. Everything else belongs to one of the other four (or more, depending on the classification scheme) kingdoms of life, the best known of which is plants. If you say birds and animals, you are implying that birds are not animals (and so must be plants or bacteria or fungi.)
And there are lots of other misconceptions. Bats are mammals, not birds. Porcupines do not throw their quills. Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. Toads do not give you warts. Birds will not abandon their nest or eggs if you touch them and birds won’t explode if they eat rice thrown at weddings. There is little evidence that birds mate for life. They won’t choke if you feed them peanut butter. Pigeons are not a health hazard.
It’s incredibly easy to find misinformation and misinterpretation on the internet now. Problem is, without doing a little digging, you don’t know who the source of the information is and whether he/she has any credentials. As a result, even though there is exponentially more information available to us, we don’t seem to be getting any smarter. I get lots of questions about birds via e-mail and 95% of them are perfectly reasonable. The other 5% either mangle the English language so badly they are almost unintelligible (and I don’t mean texting acronyms or English as a second language issues – I mean semi-illiterate), or they ask questions that are simply unbelievable.
So I continue in my modest way to educate the public about science. Hope I can make a dent. Don’t say birds and animals, please.