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.

Updating my blogroll

The blogroll is on the main page of my blog and links to various other sites that I consider worth reading. The sites which were on there were from many years ago and included several which I no longer read. When I noticed that, I saw that it was time to update it. Here’s a new list of blogs which are worth reading. Go check them out.

Animal Emotions

Animal Emotions is written by Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, United States and co-founder of the Jane Goodall Institute of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (ethology being the study of animal behaviour). The blog deals with various aspects of animal behaviour, welfare and ethics.

The Bowman Lab

This is the blog for the laboratory of Jeff Bowman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US. This is a blog that I started following more recently to get a wider view of microbial ecology. The Bowman lab works on different aspects of microbial ecology with many posts focussing on analytical tools as well as marine and polar microbial ecology.

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Science is universal

I’ve seen some rather disturbing reports recently that New Zealand is aiming to insert indigenous Mātauranga Māori beliefs into science classes. While there are, no doubt, many important bits of knowledge, there are also many superstitions such as the belief that “Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.” This is hardly the first time that unscientific, indigenous knowledge has been pushed in this way nor the first time that science has been, incorrectly, criticised as Western, white or European. In 2016, an infamous video did the rounds, showing a “ScienceMustFall” student at the University of Cape Town claiming that some people could use witchcraft to strike others with lightning. Mythical origin stories which claim that certain groups have always caused problems for those studying human migration in both North America and Australia. Many of these criticisms appear to be rooted in the negative way these communities have historically been treated. What becomes frustrating is that there are many legitimate concerns in those criticisms but the push-back becomes an over-correction which now demands an equal place for unscientific mythology which does not belong in a science classroom.

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Photos: New plants in the burned field

This is a short follow up to my previous post on the role of fire in the environment. I went back to the field about a month after the previous visit and after some good rainfall. While there had previously been only grasses where the field was burned, during this latest visit I saw a large variety of different plants had emerged.

This is how the unburned parts of the field looked during the latest visit. While there were a few sections of green growth, the majority was still yellow, dry and dead.

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Ecology, fire and the phoenix

A recent newsletter from the Endangered Wildlife Trust mentioned a planned burn to help save the habitat of the rough moss frog. What I found interesting about the story, is that it is using fire to help preserve a part of the environment. I think that when many people think about fire, they think it’s negative or destructive, like the recent fire that damaged the Jagger Reading Room at UCT, among other places, or the fire which destroyed the roof and spires of Notre Dame cathedral. Happily, repair work is about to start. However, fire can actually be a good thing and is necessary for the healthy functioning of many environments.

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