Seeing the wood for the trees

What is plant blindness?

Take a moment to look at the image below and think about what you see. If the first thing you saw was a giraffe on a cloudy day, you might be suffering from a phenomenon known as plant blindness. That giraffe is but one of hundreds of individual, and equally important, organisms pictured in this species-rich savannah mosaic.

A species-rich savannah (📷 Credit)

Plant blindness is a term coined by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler to describe the inability to “see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” and “recognise the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs”. This phenomenon is complex and multi-faceted, and influenced by a number of factors. These range from an evolutionary pre-disposition for filtering out “backgrounds” in order to better-see potential danger, to plants being under-represented in the schooling system’s biology curriculum. In the South African system children only receive 22 hours of plant-related biology education between grade R and grade 9, and this has real-world implications from both a conservation and agrofood system perspective.

The disparities in conservation funding and attention are well documented, with conventionally charismatic animal species (such as the above giraffe) receiving disproportionately more resources than their less show-worthy counterparts. And yet, despite being the cornerstone of all ecosystems, plant species receive less than a fraction of the focus that even the most unassuming animal species receive. South Africa, as the third-most biodiverse country in the world, has over 2500 plant species at threat of extinction. As a society, we will never conserve what we don’t value, and we rarely value something we don’t see. Social media has been a powerful tool for conservation science communication to raise awareness of South Africa’s floral biodiversity through campaigns such as the Botanical Society of South Africa’s #FloralFriday series. One of the successes of is that most people would instantly understand the importance of conserving these species and their ecosystems. What I think is less common knowledge is how the conservation of these species is so important to the future of the agrofood system. In 2018 I wanted to see if my friends were aware of how many plant species they rely on in their daily lives, and used this in a short video on plant blindness that I made for a science communications course.

Ending plant blindness is as much about seeing the plants around us as it is in recognising the way we use plants in our daily lives. Food is the most obvious contribution, but plant-based susbtances and materials can be found in almost everything we use. Conserving our native species is invaluable as they act as a reserve for unique genes and phytochemicals, but this is one step in a much larger process and these plants will rely on an extensive network of plant and soil scientists to get them into your daily life. Throughout my undergrad I constantly had my degree, a BScAgric in Applied Plant and Soil Sciences, jokingly referred to as BSc Gardening. While I still find the humour in this, and absolutely do love gardening as a hobby, the joke does reflect how little most people understand about the complexity of the agrofood system that supports them. Plant production is not just about planting a few seeds and hoping for the best, but about unpacking and optimising complex living systems. We face a severe shortage of young scientists in the industry and, although social media is making it more accessible for the public to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing plants, plant blindness still affects student’s awareness of career opportunities in the industry. This is not only careers working directly with plants, but avenues such as soil chemistry and irrigation biophysics as well.

We need bright, passionate minds to keep our agrofood system resilient and diverse in the face of climate change. For any budding young scientists reading this still exploring their career options, take a look at some of the possibilities in the plant and soil sciences and don’t hesitate to reach out to scientists on social media!

@HaysHarvest

Know Thyself

Do we do enough to identify our own biases in everyday life?

Inscribed on the frontispiece of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi are three maxims. The first, and arguably most famous, “know thyself”. A simple phrase that holds the entirety of one’s existence in a few letters, and something I spend far too much time thinking about.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Credits: WikiMedia)

In April I wrote a piece on how our personal politics affects how we approach and interpret science communication. I ended the piece by saying “this requires us to introspect the political machinery that has shaped what we believe can be decoupled”. But introspection requires attention not only on the external environment that shaped us, but the quagmire of internalised beliefs and assumptions that influence our daily thoughts as well.

As scientists, we spend much of our time unpacking and deconstructing research. We’re trained to scrutinise methodologies and pick apart statistical interpretations, but very rarely do we apply the same rigour to ourselves. We hide behind the stereotype of being rational beings who function on facts and logic, without looking deeper at the invisible hands that guide how we interpret the complex, multivariable datasets we’re confronted with in everyday life. These invisible hands are cognitive biases, and although they’re the product of evolutionary mechanisms to think faster and filter inputs quicker, they are a misfiring that causes us to lose objectivity and make irrational judgments. Our own unique combinations are moulded throughout our lifetime and often difficult to recognise.

A useful resource I use to work on identifying my own biases is The School of Thought, a non-profit dedicated to critical and creative thinking, and philosophy. While there are hundreds of different types of cognitive biases, The School of Thought has a fantastic website that focuses on the 24 most common ones and where we are most likely to encounter them in out in the real world. I keep their poster permanently plastered above my desk, and whenever I’m confronted with a new argument in a topic I’m working on I try identify which biases might be influencing my opinion. If I find that I’m overtly agreeing with the argument does it align with an another argument I’m already in favour of (confirmation bias), is the argument being made by someone I respect or know (halo effect), or is the argument being made by someone similar to me (in-group bias)? Similarly if I find that I feel immediately dismissive of the argument at hand is it because I feel as though I’m being coerced into accepting the argument and want to disagree (reactance) or because my mind was already set on believing another outcome (belief bias)?

The poster of cognitive biases available for free download from https://yourbias.is/

I believe these types of exercises are important for making better choices and forming more robust opinions, particularly when we’re looking at science with a strong sociological influence such as what we’re seeing now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we debate the science that supposedly underpins policies, churn out social-media think pieces, and go to war in the comment sections it’s important that there are no easy answers and certainly no absolute answers. We would have far more effective engagements by understanding what types of blinkers are altering our worldview.