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If Only Humans Were Like Trees!

By Shlomo Maital


Prof. Dan Chamowitz

    “A person is like a tree in the field,

       Like us, trees grow,

         Like trees, we are sometimes cut down,

         And I don’t know where I’ve been or where I’m going,

       Like a tree in the field.”


   This poem, by Israeli poet Natan Zach, and sung by Shalom Hanoch, raises a question. Are people truly like trees? Because today we know that trees communicate and work to help each other thrive.   Do we humans?

     Dan Chamowitz, Dean of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, wrote a wonderful book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. (2012).   “Plants can communicate like people,” he notes. “What does that say about us human beings?”

       What it says is: We should be more like trees.

       A BBC report on this research notes that trees have an Internet, comprised of fungi – thin threads that link the roots of plants deep underground, known as mycelia. This fungal network “helps out the neighbors by sharing nutrients and information, or sabotaging unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals”. It’s the “wood wide web”, says the BBC. “Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficient relationships with fungi.” Why? Plants provide fungi with carbohydrates. Fungi, in turn, help plants suck up water and provide “nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen….fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems by triggering release of defense-related chemicals”.   Plants do business with one another. Douglas fir and paper birch trees transfer carbon between them, through the mycelia.

     Darwin through trees are like individuals, competing for surval. But they are not. “They are interacting with each other, trying to help each other to survive,” notes Prof. Suzanne Simard, UBC Canada.

     This raises two key questions. First, capitalism. Is capitalism built on greed, on individual ‘survival of the fittest’? Because if it is, it is a gross distortion of how ‘survival of the fittest’ works in Nature.  “Let’s work together for mutual benefit,” say the trees. Perhaps that is true capitalism.

     Second: Ecosystems. Plants and trees have evolved complex highly-sophisticated ecosystems, based on mutual synergies and collaboration. We humans seem to be busy, first, destroying the fragile ecosystems of Nature, and second, destroying our own fragile social ecosystems, neighborhoods, communities and families, that build social capital.

     Humans are less and less like trees of the field. And it’s a shame.



Four Reasons Why Scientists Can’t Communicate

By Shlomo Maital


     As a professor, I’ve become keenly aware how poor we profs are at communicating our ideas to others, in understandable clear and actionable ways.   I think we economists find meaning in life by confusing the most people we can. Now an expert comes along and explains why. Tim Ward’s blog was published in Society for Conservation Biology News and a relative in NYC passed it on to me.

“Four Mistakes Scientists Make When They Communicate:

  1. Certainty. Scientists are trained skeptics, so they back away from certainty. But outside the realm of science, people interpret expressions of certainty as more likely to be true than expressions of cautious probability. It’s a losing tactic to insist on speaking of certainty only in the scientific sense. Instead, think about how you can speak with certainty in the commonly understood sense. For example, you can say with certainty: “According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree the climate is warming. I’m certain the risk is great and we need to act now.”
  2. If you don’t have a seat at the table, you won’t have a voice at the table. We learned this principle from Dr. Alan Thornhill, who now works for the US Department of the Interior. He told us that at many meetings where policy decisions were being made, he was the only scientist in the meeting. There were many times others turned to him with scientific questions, only because he happened to be in the room. During other discussions he would interject with, “Hold on a minute, we have to look at the scientific research on that before we decide.”
  3. Assuming the facts will speak for themselves: they don’t. You must advocate for the facts.   Communicating for influence is a matter of survival of the fittest. It’s not enough to deliver your information. You are competing with other voices. Use memorable quotes and messages to make your facts stick.
  4. Focusing on evidence, not on relevance.   Scientists too readily dive into the details of their research when speaking in public. But in the real world, if people don’t know why the topic is important to them, they won’t pay attention, and they won’t be listening when you get around to relevance at the end of your talk.  In sum, communication is not about output, it’s about impact.”

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital