A plea for more humility about what we ‘“know”

…we can’t help turning up our pattern-making instinct to 11–when life offers only a 5. Too often, we make bold claims about big forces with law-like effects, but with culpable overconfidence that leads us to waste time, money, talent and energy, and detract from real progress… I’d like our claims to be more proportionate to the awkwardness of the task. Every new generation needs reminding of the overconfidence of every previous generation, of how much there is still to know and do, and, above all, how resistant the raw materials of life can be.

Reading books like Thinking In Bets, The Lady Tasting Tea and The Drunkards Walk, it’s hard not to be thoroughly disaffected with the deterministic model of the universe most of us carry in our heads.

Green tea causes weight loss, your aunt tells you. You should try get into that school cause it’s the best, they say.

In fact, it’s tempting to draw this back to school, where we’re taught to find the right answer, not the best approximation of one. Confounding, selection, randomness and the dozens of other thorns in simple causation aren’t even really hinted at.

It’s like a civilisation-wide Dunning-Kruger effect. We engage in pattern matching, fuelled by ascertainment and confirmation bias.

And, most importantly for The Hidden Half, where these excerpts are form, we try to boil all of this down into iron laws. The “noise” that inevitably screws up these simple heuristics are willed away or ignored, to be settled later.

But it’s here where author Michael Blastland really shines – in a plea to embrace the beauty of that which confounds our attempts at simplification.

I’m only a couple of chapters in but it’s already a rollicking ride.

I’ve no desire to dismiss or discourage genuine, careful and humble efforts to understand, and no desire either to knock down robust houses of brick alongside the mansions of straw. It would be easy, but deluded, to see this book as part of an anti-science cynicism that says everything is uncertain, and therefore nothing can be done. I reject that view entirely. On the contrary, I want more robust evidence precisely so that our decisions and actions can be more reliable. I sympathize entirely with how difficult it is to do that well. I applaud those who devote themselves to the problem conscientiously and carefully. This is why we must recognize our limitations, try to understand how they arise, tread more carefully and test what we know vigorously. It was once said that at certain times the world is over-run by false scepticism, but of the true kind there can never be enough. 20 This book aspires to the true kind. The goal is not cynicism; it is to do better.

As always my emphasis.

Never look at trees the same

When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.

I cannot remember a book that has affected me as much as the hidden life of trees.  Written by a German forester Peter Wohlleben, it contains stories of pain, opportunity, luck, loss, sharing, community, interdependence and equality. A tree is not just a tree, it seems.

Unfortunately, there is some controversy, and I am not capable of separating fact from anthropomorphic embellishment. Are trees really somewhat “conscious” (my word) of, and looking out for, their “children”? I don’t know.

But given reasoning, Wohlleben’s firsthand experience, and the numerous studies he cites, there must be a grain of truth to the notion that plants are more than I had imagined. That my tendency to rip up leaves as I walk along is not a victimless crime. That the “pain” compounds through generations.

Probably what struck me most were the descriptions of community, of interdependence. Passing on nutrients, creating shelter for one another. Partly because it requires the least blind belief – of course trees are better off together than alone. But also because it provides examples for the rest of us.

 

Scientists in the Harz mountains in Germany have discovered that this really is a case of interdependence, and most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.

I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but of course this could describe us, with a few tweaks. That it doesn’t is a choice. Would trees be the same if given a choice?

A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old…

…To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer…

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping aroundfor as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.

(My emphasis)