The Grandeur in this View of Life

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Like many tales of disappointment, this story takes place in Walmart. I had just left behind the comforting, monotonous aisles of the grocery section to gather various “non-food items” from the rest of the store. Crossing into housewares to pick up a dish drainer, I came across a prominent and colorful display stand selling tri-fold corrugated display boards, made by Elmer’s, the glue company. As a scientist and educator, I have a sentimental fondness for such a science fair essential, but I was a little curious as to why Walmart was pushing them during summer vacation. But what really grabbed my attention was the sample poster on the side of the display stand:

The Full Sample PosterGreenhouse Effect. This simple phrase shocked me out of my Sunday morning Walmart malaise with a surprising rush of conflicting feelings. I was excited to see the topic mentioned in such a public place, and on a product for students, but my elation was tempered with anxiety about how the topic would be presented on the poster. But I was positively shocked, and morbidly intrigued, when I noticed the invitation above the poster:

Snap-A-Pic, Make-it-later!

My mind raced in an undercaffeinated educator’s panic. At first I thought they must mean, you know, “Make-a-poster-like-this-later!” Then I noticed that every single word and detail was clearly visible on the poster. We are definitely being invited to make this specific poster later. That seemed sort of … wrong.

I imagined a slightly nerdy pre-teen, maybe nine or ten, intrigued by the neatly arranged die-cut letters and cool picture of the Sun and Earth. Let’s call him Austin. If Austin were indeed able to cajole his dad or mom into this whole “Snap-A-Pic, Make-it-later!” scheme, if he went home and diligently recreated this poster, what would Austin learn about science?

I moved closer to find out, and I almost wish I hadn’t. I have rarely found so much wrong, on so many levels, in so little space. If wrongness had mass, the high concentration of wrongness on that display stand, its wrongness density, would have made it so heavy that it would have been impossible to ever unload it from whatever truck delivered it to my neighborhood Walmart. In fact, the truck never would have made it through the weigh station on I-71. That would have been a blessing. But alas, wrongness is weightless.

So what is wrong with this picture?

Distressingly, it obviously and boldly encourages plagiarism and discourages curiosity. Science project due in class next week? Interested in the greenhouse effect and climate change, Austin? Don’t bother doing any background research. Why design and conduct an experiment of your own when you can just “Snap-A-Pic, Make-it-later?” Austin would learn that doing science is basically paint-by-numbers, a craft project free from intellectual effort, but suitable for display. This is so wrong.

Worse, the actual “science” contained in the poster is disastrously, irredeemably bogus. In fact, it is so bogus, in so many ways, that if bogusness had mass… you get the picture. In the interests of brevity, I will confine myself to the three biggest problems of bogusness found on the poster.


First, while the poster correctly describes the heat trapping effects of atmospheric greenhouse gases (but without any direct mention of human CO2 production), the project described on the poster, the hypothesis and the procedure, does not actually address the greenhouse effect. Instead, the project examines albedo, comparing heat released by absorptive (black paint) vs. reflective (aluminum foil) surfaces. Greenhouse gases are not manipulated in the experiment – no alka seltzer, no water vapor. Now changes in albedo (especially due to loss of reflective polar ice and snow) are an important positive feedback into Earth’s warming greenhouse, but the greenhouse effect and albedo are in fact separate things. From this, Austin would learn that science is a game of bait-and-switch. Scientists can claim to be investigating one thing, when really they are studying something else. But as long as there are data and graphs and hypotheses and tests involved, it’s science. This is bogus.

A nebulous data graph

Second, the poster sets up two alternative treatments (the light box and the dark box – don’t get me started on replication!) but then does not make any comparisons. The graph presents temperature data for one treatment only, and it does not even identify which one. A comparative experiment without any comparisons tells us nothing about how the natural world works. Zilch! Nada! Nil! Austin would come away confused about the purpose of an experiment and how it relates to saying anything about the natural world. Genuinely bogus!


Finally, the “Conclusions” are utterly unrelated to the experiment, often false, and incredibly poorly written. The claim that an increased greenhouse will increase farm production in Africa is completely counter-factual, and the notion that melting ice caps in Greenland will lead to heavy pack ice is positively oxymoronic. Finally, while carpooling, public transportation, walking, and recycling are all good things environmentally speaking, they are not nearly sufficient for achieving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. But then again, as I mentioned above, despite the title the science on the poster actually has nothing to do with the greenhouse effect. Bogus maximus.

So in the end, if Austin actually were to “Snap-A-Pic, Make-it-later,” he would learn that science is just a meaningless mindfuck of double speak; that our conclusions have nothing to do with our data, which in turn have nothing to do with our hypotheses, which in turn have nothing to do with the alleged topic of our research, and the whole shebang is just copied from the work of others, anyway. This lesson, if taken to heart, could kill Austin’s interest in pursuing real science. Worse, he might come away thinking there is really no way to distinguish reasoned claims from utter bullshit. I imagine Austin later in life, saying proudly, even defiantly, “I am not a scientist!” Maybe he will become a teacher, or a presidential candidate.

I shuddered at the thought – right there in the aisle at Walmart.

Then I saw the other sample poster on the opposite side of the display.


I couldn’t bear to look…


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How Do Tall Trees Move Water (GREAT Video!)

A few weeks ago, my post touched on the amazing way that trees move water from the soil to their leaves, in long continuous strands pulled under tension between the soil and the atmosphere.

Well, the wonderful vlogging team at Veritasium have put together a FANTASTIC video describing the process in clear and entertaining terms. In particular, they do a great job of describing the concept of negative pressure in liquids, noting how the water is “super-sucked” (analogous to super-cooled) and that with the introduction of any gas-phase water, it will spontaneously boil inside the plant! In fact, this is what happens when lightning strikes a tree, causing it to blow off it’s entire outside layer! They also highlight how most of the water (90%) is simply lost to the atmosphere as part of the exchange process that brings CO2 into the leaves for photosynthesis, which is how trees help make rain.

The only fact they fail to mention is that all of that water is actually transporting essential nutrients from the soil (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) to all parts of the plant. Plants make their sugars, and even most of their woody bodies, from light and air, which never fails to amaze me. But they still need mineral nutrients from the soil or they cannot survive. The solutes in the xylem sap are also used to create concentration gradients that help move the sugary products of photosynthesis around to all of the plant’s cells.

Still a beautiful piece of scientific communication! Thanks Veritasium!


Deextinction: Asking the Wrong Question

The phenomenal ecological success of humans and our cadre of partner species (livestock, crops, pets, parasites) has come at great cost to other species. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is the sixth mass extinction event, one that is shaping up to be on the order of the End-Cretaceous event that took out the non-avian dinosaurs. Our list of victims includes almost all of the non-dinosaur poster species for extinction: Wooly Mammoths*, Tasmanian “Tigers” (really marsupials), Dodos, Passenger Pigeons, maybe even our close cousins the Neanderthals*. And despite our conservation efforts and good intentions, the Anthopocene extinction event goes on, fueled by human population growth, our monopolization of natural resources (land, plant productivity, fisheries, etc.), and increasingly, anthropogenic climate change.


This is tragic, but understandable. Earth is finite, the vanishingly thin skin of its Biosphere even more so. As we take more and more, there is less and less to go around. At a very coarse level, the math is remarkably simple, and sad.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring them back; if through human ingenuity, hard-won technical know-how, and forward-thinking venture capital investment, we could revivify extinct species? Imagine the crowds of conservationists, dabbing tears from their eyes as the first new flock of Passenger Pigeons is released. Imagine yourself on a Siberian safari, trekking over the remnants of soggy, melting tundra to observe a newly established herd of Wooly Mammoths. Wouldn’t that be great?

That is the vision of “deextinction,” and it is not science fiction. It is a very real endeavor being pursued by a collection of scientists and conservationists. The biotech basics of the process have already been worked out and several projects are up and running, including goals of producing a viable cloned Wooly Mammoth and a new Passenger Pigeon. Last week’s TEDxDeextinction Event was a debutante ball for the project. For a taste, you can watch Stewart Brand’s talk, entitled “The dawn of deextinction: are you ready?”

It may surprise you to know that as an ecologist I would say, emphatically, NO (and I am not alone). Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to see a flock of passenger pigeons or a herd of mammoths as much as the next nature geek. And I marvel at the scientific insights and creativity that go into the deextinction project. These people are visionary, brilliant. But Brand’s title asks the wrong question. It does not matter whether we, as individuals, are ready. Instead, I would argue that what really matters is that we, collectively, as the stumbling architects of a new geological epoch, are not ready for this responsibility. Moreover, Earth and its Biosphere are not ready. Developing my argument would go well beyond a blog post, but the summary is rather simple.

Every species is part of a larger ecosystem. This is the fundamental fact of ecology. Many, perhaps even most extinct species belonged to ecosystems that were either coopted by humans, or have changed irreversibly in their absence. The forest/grassland mosaic that was home to the Aurochs (another deextinction target) across Europe is now home to some of the densest human populations on Earth. The world of the Aurochs is gone. The glaciated home of the Mammoth is gone, and we are marching in the opposite direction, climate-wise. The world is not ready for them to come back. Every revived species would need to have a place, and yet, we cannot even seem to make room for the species that are still here. If we cannot responsibly manage the extant species, do we really want to take on reviving extinct ones? I argue that we are simply not ready, not competent enough as a species to handle this task.

I have no illusions. Some form of deextinction will occur, with sad solitary animals, maybe even small populations consigned to zoos and reserves. And I have no doubt that the projects that lead to these breakthroughs will yield tremendous insights, both technical and conceptual. Some of those insights might even help rescue extant threatened species.

And that would be great.

But my fear is that news of these big ideas, of this optimistic, technologically advanced project will be interpreted as a solution to the biodiversity crisis. No need to worry about Tarzan’s Chameleon, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the Pygmy Three-toed Sloth, or any of the other 100 most threatened species. Just freeze some DNA, and we’ll bring them back later.

Species need space and food, a functioning ecosystem, not just a genome and a zoo. Perhaps the visionaries of deextinction have fallen prey to the most common form of hubris in science, solving the problem of how they can do it without thinking deeply enough about the questions of why or whether they should do it.

What do you think?

*The role of humans in the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna and the nature of our interactions with Neanderthals are still subject to investigation. But while correlation is certainly not causation, extinction, particularly of large vertebrates, does seem to have followed in the wake of the migrations of evolutionarily modern humans, whether in Eurasia, Australia, Oceania, or the Americas.

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The Anthropocene gets its own journal!

My last post was on the dawning (and a bit about the conclusion) of our own geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Now a new open access journal launched that is dedicated to the science of the Anthropocene: Elementa Science. The journal is produced in collaboration with BioOne, Dartmouth, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington. They will begin accepting submissions in a wide variety of scientific disciplines this April, and best of all, all of their published papers will be freely available to all!

As a teaser, they posted this slick little video. To me, the most important part is the words at the end, which largely echo my last post – “Let’s make it count.”


IBS, part 3: The Anthropocene: Biogeography from the Far Future

At a scientific meeting like the IBS, most of the presentations detail specific, narrowly focused studies, the bricks and mortar of the scientific edifice. But sometimes there are fora in which we get to explore BIG IDEAS. One of the Saturday sessions at the IBS meeting delved into an important recent big idea by examining The Biogeography of the Anthropocene.

So what’s the big idea? The Anthropocene.  It has been proposed as a new geological epoch reflecting the emergence of humanity as a global force of nature, on a par with the other phenomena that shape the planet, things like asteroid impacts, glacial cycles, massive volcanism, and plate tectonics. You get the idea if you take a look at our global transportation system. We are big.


But what is the evidence for the dawning of the Anthropocene? That was the topic of the first talk of the session, by Tony Barnosky from UC Berkeley. For you see, the Anthropocene is an epoch that does not yet officially exist. It is being considered by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which, after careful consideration, will deliver a verdict on the status of the Anthropocene in 2016. Barnosky is part of the working group doing that careful consideration.

What was most interesting for me was that Barnosky’s talk was not about the abundant current evidence for human impact, but about how those stalwart stratigraphers would go about delineating the boundary of the Anthropocene. He emphasized that while we think of epochs as periods of time, and thus ultimately intangible, they are in fact defined by the most tangible of earthly things: rocks. Each age in the geological time scale corresponds to specific rock strata deposited during that period in Earth’s vast history, and the boundaries of the period must be clearly defined by globally observable stratigraphic zones. In particular, biostratigraphic zones, delineating particular changes in fossil assemblages, have been instrumental in defining distinct geological epochs. And like any other epoch, the Anthropocene requires a stratigraphic definition.

Listening to Barnosky, I imagined a time far in the future, tens of millions of years after the last human passed away, our species extinct, a ghost glimpsed in fossils, artifacts, and fragmented, indecipherable texts and codes. If some newly sentient and scientific creature were to arise on Earth (or, if you prefer, arrive on a spaceship) equipped with rock hammers and microscopes, how would they recognize the fact that a single species of (at least semi-) intelligent primate had come to dominate the biosphere and change the planet?

According to Barnosky, ample fossil evidence will point to big biogeographic and biogeochemical changes centered around our present geological instant (mid to late 20th century). For example, one future paleontologist, a specialist in fossil seeds, will note not only a global proliferation of maize seeds out of what was once North America, but also a synchronous differentiation of many new forms in the lineage, like the super sweet varieties we enjoy every summer here in Ohio. Another paleobotanist will note that in the same strata, so many newly introduced plant species appear in Australian fossil assemblages that they come to outnumber the previously recorded native species in a geological instant. In a separate publication, an invertebrate paleontologist will observe over the same period a global homogenization of marine fossils, transported worldwide by our shipping fleets. Bivalves isolated to the western Pacific in earlier strata will appear in north Atlantic deposits or on the coasts of the Indian Ocean. The title of her paper might be “Suddenly, everything is everywhere.” Another rock hound will note that in many marine deposits, this change in the invertebrate assemblage is associated with another sort of biostratigraphic zone, a horizon of microscopic shards of plastic, as dazzling in its array of colors and chemical composition as it is notable for its depth. The flattened remnants of our settlements and road networks, even the radioactive traces of our flirtations with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, all of these stratigraphic features will coincide. Slowly, those strange and wonderful new scientists will piece together a story, chronicling the biological evolution, cultural emergence, and perhaps inevitable decline of our species, the authors of our own geological epoch.

But as I listened to Barnosky’s presentation, I started to wonder not about the strata at the base of the Anthropocene, which he seeks to define its beginning, but about those layers of rock yet to be laid down. What story will they tell of humanity after its global emergence? Will they document a cataclysm of geological upheaval and mass extinction, like those that followed the Great Oxygenation Event or the Chicxulub impact? Or will those layers tell a new story, one never before seen in the history of life on Earth, of a species that sought to mitigate its newfound global impact in order to maintain a sustainable planet? What will those future paleontologists read of our own future?

Recognizing the Anthropocene is a sort of coming-of-age for our species, an acknowledgement that we can no longer live as simple children of nature, grabbing what we need or desire and discharging our waste without regard for our impact on the rest of the planet. More than just a new box on the geologic time scale, it is a first step towards “putting away childish things” and taking responsibility for our collective actions. We have a choice, and the future is watching.

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IBS, part 1: Scientific meetings are not just for sun in winter…

There has been a delay in my posting, in part because biogeocoenosis has been on the road. With family in tow, I have traveled to Tucson, AZ, where I will be doing some sabbatical research with members of Brian Enquist’s lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona (more on the work we are doing in an upcoming post on biodiversity gradients). After spending the holidays in Tucson (and believe me, there is nothing like xmas eve (or any other day) at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum! See the photo below…), I’ve come to North Miami, FL, for the meeting of the International Biogeography Society (IBS).

After my last post I got several comments (hooray!) reaffirming my claim that in order to combat science denialism (as well as scientific illiteracy and plain old ignorance and indifference), it is very important for everyday, non-science folk to understand how science is done. And by this, I mean how a reasoned but tentative narrative, supported by verifiable, repeatable observations, arises from the collective efforts of a large community of researchers.

Those comments got me to thinking that it might be useful for me to blog about my experience at the IBS meeting. Of course, the idea of blogging a meeting is nothing new but most cases I am aware of are either blogs targeting other researchers in the same field, so that meeting highlights can be shared with colleagues, or “news” type blogs aimed at bringing the latest scientific breakthroughs to the broader public. My hope is to do a little bit of the latter, but to also reflect on what it is that we are doing as scientists, when we get together at a meeting like this. My hope is that doing so will help to illuminate a little more, what it is that scientists do.

So just as a start, I’ll give you a brief outline of my schedule for the meeting:

Today (Wednesday) I am attending an afternoon pre-conference workshop on “Writing Science for the Public” led by Sarah Perrault from UC Davis. So hopefully, you will see a vast improvement in my posts, starting tomorrow!

Stay tuned!

Thursday is the official opening of the conference. There are two symposia (series of talks dedicated to particular subject areas), on the biogeography of islands and the biogeography of species’ traits, as well as a longer talk on the biogeography of the Caribbean. Ecologists and biogeographers generally like to learn a bit about the particular places they are, even if it takes time away from more academic scientific discussions. There is also a poster session; during lunch and a pre-dinner cocktail hour, researchers gather in a large room with posters describing a research project. Folks circulate among the posters and engage the authors in discussion. My poster, describing research testing the “Tropical Conservatism Hypothesis” is one of 135 presented during that session. I will let you know how it goes.

On Friday there are two more symposia, one on paleontology and biogeography and another looking at biogeographic implications of climate change; so we are looking both deeply into the past as well as into the near future. There will also be more posters, 137 to be exact. There will also be a lecture from an award-winning biogeographer, Miguel Araújo, and, later, a “beach party” at the resort that is hosting the meeting.

Saturday is the last day of the meeting. In the morning and afternoon, there will be four concurrent sessions of contributed talks; 15 minute presentations of research followed by short question periods. Finally, in the evening, there will be a keynote address by James H. Brown, a past president of the IBS, distinguished ecologist and biogeographer, and one of my graduate mentors.

So it’s a busy week coming up. I will learn a lot, meet a lot of new people and see some old friends. I will see old ideas overthrown (or maybe revitalized) and new ideas presented for critical assessment and discussion. For biogeocoenosis, and other scientists like me, this is NERD PARADISE!




Pwnd is Not Enough.

A few days ago, along with almost 7,000 other folks, I shared this figure on Facebook:


The figure is drawn from the wonderful DeSmogBlog, which seeks to eliminate “PR pollution” from the public discussion of climate change. The guest post from which the figure is drawn is by James L. Powell, an emeritus professor of geology from another liberal arts college just a bit north of the one where I teach, a former member of the National Science Board (under Reagan and G.H.W. Bush), and currently executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. You can read more about the details of Powell’s survey of the scientific literature in his original post, and on his website, he even takes the trouble to list the 24 scientific papers he found that reject anthropogenic climate change.

Like many scientists, I am frustrated by the misinformation-fueled denial of human-caused climate change, and “science denialism” more generally, from climate change to evolution, vaccines, and GMOs. In fact, it is profoundly sad to me that science denialism has become not only a recognizable aspect of our culture, but a potentially lucrative profession. So when I find information like Powell’s figure, I like to spread it around.

But over the past few days, since I shared the pie chart, I have been thinking that, as satisfying as it is to share information like this and say, “The debate is over,*” this sort of action actually does little to build a public consensus on climate change to match the scientific consensus – which is presumably, the underlying goal. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud Powell’s efforts and those of DeSmogBlog. I just feel that it is important to note that it is not enough to slap the deniers with the facts.

The problem is that most people don’t understand how science works. The popular conception of science is generally limited to interesting and unusual collections of facts (think Discovery channel) and perhaps some conception (or misconception) of the “scientific method” that underlies observation and experimentation. But science is not just facts or individual experiments, it is a collective, cultural process that allows humans to constantly revise and refine our ideas about how the world works based on reason, logic, mathematics, and evidence (data). If the results of even the most profound experiment sit mouldering in some notebook (or on some flashdrive), never shared with the community of researchers, they are not really science, because they are not part of the discourse, the narrative of science. I would argue that most non-scientists, even many primary and secondary science teachers, don’t understand this cultural aspect of science; it is simply not part of their education. We are so busy stuffing our students full of the facts and methods of science that we never give them the bigger picture of how all that knowledge manages to fit together.

And if you don’t understand the culture of science, how its stories are written iteratively by generations of researchers, it becomes all to easy to dismiss the findings. Without this knowledge, those 24 contrarian papers might be seen as representing a small number of stalwart researchers courageously challenging “climate change dogma,” as can be seen in the comments on Powell’s post. In reality, scientific discourse always involves contrarian and critical contributions, and if these do indeed demonstrate substantial holes in the developing theory, they end up garnering a lot of attention and precipitating substantial revisions of scientific knowledge. The point is that during the long history of research into anthropogenic climate change, which dates at least to the greenhouse calculations of Svante Arrhenius in 1896, loads of scientists have been contributing to the story, putting forward, confirming, and refuting a variety of hypotheses – and together, through this contentious, argumentative, and incomplete process, they have composed a theory describing the climate system and our interaction with it. “Scientific consensus” is not a matter of researchers lining up behind an idea that they like, it is the outcome of a systematic, but messy collective struggle to understand how nature works.

Individual scientists, like any other human being, may or may not be trustworthy, but the fundamentally skeptical basis of the scientific process gives it additional gravitas. Its claims, from the most mundane to the most outlandish, are always challenged. Powell’s figure is powerful because: 1. it dispels the myth of censorship and publication bias by showing that one can in fact publish an article denying global warming in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and 2. it demonstrates the hard-won, skeptical scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a well-supported scientific reality. But those points can only be grasped if the person looking at the chart actually understands not just the scientific method, but the culture of science.

As scientists and educators, we have a lot of work to do. I argue that the major challenge is not to convince the people that we are “right” with facts and figures (though I will continue to accost my friends with graphs like this at every opportunity!), but to equip them to understand it for themselves by teaching them how science works.

*Or choose your own exclamation: “We win!”, “Pwnd!”, “Facial!”, etc…