Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”

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The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.

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Short story: The Moralbiont

Earlier this year, I entered the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) writing competition. The goal was to write a flash fiction story (not more than 700 words) for the prompt “How Microbiology will Change our Future.” While I did not win, I was very happy to be shortlisted in the top 10 submissions and my story, The Moralbiont, is now available on the FEMS website. Additionally, you will be able to read the story below. As the story was written for a microbiology audience, not everything within may be common knowledge. In a follow-up post I will explain the references, technologies and terms which are important for the story.

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ESM 2022 poster: Patterns of bacterial-fungal co-occurrence in European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood

For those that were not able to attend the Ecology of Soil Microorganisms 2022 conference (which ran from 19-23 July in Prague, Czech Republic) I got permission to upload the poster which I presented. Being a scientist can also mean doing a bit of public speaking and graphic design. Below, you will find the abstract and poster.

Patterns of bacterial-fungal co-occurrence in European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood

Jason Bosch, Ema Némethová, Vojtěch Tláskal, Vendula Brabcová, Petr Baldrian

Deadwood represents an important nutrient source and microbial habitat in forest ecosystems. Its decomposition is one of the key processes of global carbon turnover considering that European natural forests can contain up to 1200 m3 of deadwood per hectare. This deadwood is primarily decomposed by saprotrophic fungi but bacteria also have a role to play, particularly in the provision of nitrogen. Previous work has shown that the first fungi to become established will physically prevent further colonisation by other fungi. As bacteria and fungi can interact in both synergistic and antagonistic ways, we expect that these fungal zones of control will also influence the bacterial community composition at local scales.

We investigated the patterns of microbial diversity and co-occurrence in 1 cm3 blocks of European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood collected from the Žofínský prales National Nature Reserve in the Czech Republic, using 16S and ITS amplicon sequencing. Compared to previously-collected “whole log” communities, the small-scale communities showed less diversity both individually and in combination. By correlating fungal and bacterial species, we were able to expand on previous work which showed that fungi influence bacterial community composition. As small-scale microbial communities collected from the same log can differ dramatically from one another, we advise caution when interpreting “whole log” microbial community data as the results may not reflect the actual interactions which take place in the deadwood.

If you would like to cite the poster, you can use the abstract book citation:

Piché Choquette S., Slaninová Kyselková M., Pospíšek M., Baldrian P. (Eds.), 2022. Ecology of Soil Microorganisms – Book of Abstracts, Prague, June 19 – 23, 2022.

Photos from Prague

I’m ashamed at how little I have written this year, even though I have had several ideas for blog posts. To help assuage some of my guilt, I will share a few photographs I have taken.

I’m rather lucky to be living near the Krč forest where I can, regularly, go walking. At the beginning of the year it was still winter and most of the trees were bare.

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2022 Book List

We’re now in mid-March and I still haven’t written down my thoughts on the two books I read in January. A lot has been going on recently but, the longer I take to write these down, the worse my recollections become.

2021 Book List
2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

The Philosopher and the Wolf (2008) by Mark Rowlands

In this book, Rowlands shares several of his experiences moving between countries and building a career in philosophy, all while raising a wolf. The anecdotes about Brenin, the wolf, invariably serve as the starting point for some sort of philosophical digression. While several of these digressions are indeed interesting, I was seldom convinced by his arguments (see my blog post on what makes a person evil for an example).

I would’ve preferred much more of a focus on the stories involving Brenin, but those that are there do provide some fascinating insights on animal behaviour and training. While not all of the methods will probably be approved of by everyone, Rowlands does make the point that wolves and dogs are quite different and, from the stories he gives, he managed to have a wolf which was much better behaved than many dogs. It’s also clear that he cared deeply for Brenin, and his other dogs, and, especially towards the end, many of the stories were quite emotional.

If you were planning to read The Philosopher and the Wolf to hear about what is like to have a wolf as a pet, you will probably be disappointed. I’d estimate that that about two thirds of the book are given over to his philosophical musings which, if nothing else, at least serve as food for thought. I can’t say that I agreed with most of them but I did still enjoy the book and think it is worth reading.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

There’s really little to say about this one. It’s an old story and, if you have any contact with Western culture, you have likely seen an adaption, homage or parody of this. I am, of course, familiar with the story but not the original work. In fact, I think this is my first time reading Dickens’ own words. I have no complaints but, given how well-known the story is, there were no real surprises.

What was special was that I was reading a copy which, I believe, had been my maternal grandmother’s. I can’t recall the exact printing date of the book but it was around 80-90 years old. While not as old as the story itself, it’s still quite a bit of history and all of the people who originally bought and read it are now dead. Yet the book is still there, can still be read and provides a tangible link to the past. Plus, a physical book has no battery issues or file type compatibility problems.

What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

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A literary return to the Namib Desert

I managed to finish off two more books for my 2021 Book List. It’s still fewer than I had hoped for this year but it’s better than nothing.

The Sheltering Desert (1956, translated 1957) by Henno Martin

This is a memoir which recounts the story of two German geologists stationed in South West Africa, now Namibia, which I bought during my trip to the Namib Desert. When WWII broke out, they wanted no part in it, nor did they wish to be interned by the police, so they resolved to hide out in the Namib Desert until it was all over. The pair of scientists and their dog travelled into the desert and remained there for two years until malnutrition forced them to abandon their plan.

Along with the descriptions of life in the desert are several philosophical musings on human society, evolution and the nature of man. A lot of it feels quite dated but I really enjoyed the discussions on the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Even back then, many people living in cities and towns had little actual contact with wild, or even tame, animals; meaning no familiarity. Martin observed that, after time in the desert, with only the wild animals as their neighbours, they began to see the complexity in their behaviour and recognise the animals as being as unique as other people.

As the pair are scientists, the story is more than just a tale of survival. Scientific curiosity is evident in many observations and trips which include one to investigate why the rocks of a distant mountain were so white. If you’re at all interested in outdoor activities or the Namib, I think it will make for a great read.

Why Vegan? (2020) by Peter Singer

Why Vegan? is a collection of essays by the controversial, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I had already read his classic book Animal Liberation but only after already becoming a vegetarian. These essays also revolve around the topic of animals and diet and span several decades, the earliest from 1973 and the most-recent from 2020. It’s a quick read, with some essays being incredibly short, but a very important topic.

Singer’s ethical approach is about avoiding causing unnecessary suffering, so several essays discuss cruelty in farming. In his introduction he does note that several practices documented in older works, such as Animal Liberation, have now been outlawed but not all problems have been fixed. In an essay from 2006 on chicken farming, he describes how many chickens are still kept in cramped conditions, standing in their own filth, where some starve to death and many others are boiled, alive and conscious, due to failures of the stunning system and manual oversight. These are things we ought to know if we are to be informed consumers.

If someone has never thought much about the practice of eating animals, because it is usually an unquestioned aspect of human society, then this collection will serve as a good introduction to the topic. This collection doesn’t go deep into details (I would recommend something like A Plea for the Animals to expand on the topic.) but it raises many of the questions and concerns which everyone should keep in mind. Regardless of the answers we eventually settle on, this is a pressing topic which we must think hard about and not allow the suffering of our fellow creatures to be hidden behind the veils of tradition and ignorance.