All posts by Alun Salt

About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

It’s our secret, the Science of Rumour

Humans are social creatures and we love to share gossip, but we share what we like, not necessarily what is true. So are you living in a golden age of misinformation? If you are how would you know? This week Aleks Krotoski discusses Whispers on The Digital Human, a series that explores how connections via modern media are changing human behaviour.

Aleks Krotowski. Photo: BBC.

Aleks Krotowski. Photo: BBC.

It’s relevant to scientists because spreading information is what most scientists hope they do. Yet it seems that social networks are fertile ground for spreading misinformation. Why is that?

One answer suggested in the programme is that it’s down to how the scoring system works on social media. There are no obvious points to be won on Facebook or Twitter, but if you look below you’ll see sharing buttons. They’ll have numbers by them and even though they’re not really a score bigger numbers are better.

There’s also evidence that we choose our own realities, which may or may not coincide with the reality happening outside our skulls.

This is going to be a problem if your research finds a reality that people don’t like, whether that’s Anthropogenic Global Warming is real, or that GMOs are not inherently more of a safety hazard than other plants.

Another problem is that evidence proving a rumour false, might increase belief in the rumour. On the one hand this might be simple conspiracy theory – they wouldn’t try disproving it unless it was true. However, there’s also evidence that the way memory works reinforces rumour when you disprove it.

It’s easy to listen to the programme and look at the issues as something that affects other people. Did people really believe a tiger was roaming the streets of London in 2011? But the counterpoint is, what do you believe that is rumour, and do you really have time to fact check everything?

You can stream the programme on Radio 4, it’s available worldwide, or download a 13 megabyte MP3 file.

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The ‘natural’ solution might not be best when your wildlife isn’t natural

Many ecosystems have been degraded or modified, and these are the sorts of systems you target for restoration. But when a system has been altered so much the original species might not be the best choice to bring it back to health. Therefore, says Thomas Jones, you need to look at alternative species.

The Dry Aral Sea

The Dry Aral Sea. Francois de Halleux / Flickr

A paper from BioScience has caught my eye. In Ecologically Appropriate Plant Materials for Restoration Applications Thomas Jones argues that restoration might go better sometimes if you bring in some novel species to a site. What I find interesting is that it tackles the question what does it mean to ‘restore’ an ecosystem? My initial reaction is put it back as it was, but the ecosystem that was there was the product of centuries of interactions. Perhaps putting the final ingredients into a place and expecting a working ecosystem is like expecting some eggs, sugar and flour to spontaneously become a cake.

Bringing in novel species might sound like giving up on restoration and replacing the ecosystem instead. Jones shows that it’s not the case. The abstract includes this section which explains:

Ecologically appropriate plant materials are those that exhibit ecological fitness for their intended site, display compatibility with other members of the plant community, and demonstrate no invasive tendencies. They may address specific environmental challenges, rejuvenate ecosystem function, and improve the delivery of ecosystem services. Furthermore, they may be improved over time, thereby serving to ameliorate the increasingly challenging environments that typify many restoration sites.

In the paper Jones says that, for some ecosystems, local has value rather than local is best. Following this way of thinking, you introduce novel plants so that you can support the local material. If you think of an ecosystem as a whole system, instead of a collection of parts, then this extra support is a success rather than an intrusion. It also helps acknowledge that ecosystems are rarely oases isolated from anywhere else. The restored system might well have novel neighbours. The new species could help make the restored system more robust to challenges from outside.

Another factor is ecosystems aren’t binary between natural and broken. They change with human activity. The longer they’ve been exposed to human activity the farther from natural they move. If the ecosystem you’re restoring isn’t strictly natural then how do you work out what natural is? Jones points out ecosystems are dynamic and not always in stasis.

If Jones is right then restoration is not the same as preservation.

This thought may be disturbing to preservationists, who may view anything less than entirely local plant material as an unwise exchange of restoration orthodoxy for a “slippery slope.” Nevertheless, one cannot continue to rely solely on local genotypes simply because they are local and theoretically best adapted if experience demonstrates otherwise.

It certainly bothers me. The question then becomes do you do what works, or what you wish would work? It’s a good paper and, as I write, free access so definitely worth a visit to read.


The Dry Aral Sea by Francois de Halleux / Flickr. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence.


Jones T. (2013). Ecologically Appropriate Plant Materials for Restoration Applications, BioScience, 63 (3) 211-219. DOI:

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Natural History for the Future of Ecology

Biosciences has a couple of free access papers out on Natural History. Natural History’s Place in Science and Society is a 17 author call for action by Tewksbury et al calling on some biologists to identify as Natural Historians.

Musée national d'Histoire naturelle

Musée national d’Histoire naturelle. Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr

The concept puzzled me slightly. I come from a History of Science background and I’m used to thinking of Natural History as the thing that’s not quite Science in the ancient world. Tewksbury et al have a better definition:

[N]atural history is the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central.

It’s the second half of the definition that makes the paper interesting and distinct from Biology. The paper gives a number of examples to explain why they think Natural History has a contribution to make in the 21st century, but at the heart of them all is the focus on organisms and their connection to the environment. The connectivity and inter-disciplinary character of Natural History should be part of the zeitgeist, but the authors show this is not the case.
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Erotic Botany wins National Poetry Competition

Botany is sexy. To prove it, Bernard and Cerinthe by Linda France has won the National Poetry Competition in the UK.

Cerinthe major Purpurascens

Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ by gnomicscience / Flickr. CC BY-NC.

The Guardian reports the poet saying:

It was the end of August and there was a plant I’d never seen before – Cerinthe major Purpurascens – and I was just astonished by it. It’s a very intense blue and the leaves are a silvery green … they’re quite thick, almost waxy, fleshy. That’s one of the things I’m drawn to about plants – they express this tremendous ‘otherness’, but they just stay there and let you respond to them, unlike a bird or animal that disappears. A plant remains for you to give your attention to.

You can read the poem, or hear Linda France recite it at the National Poetry Society’s page.

You can also read more about her work at Botanical: Poetry and Plants.


Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ by gnomicscience / Flickr. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.

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Randy Olson on the ABT model

Scientists want to share their research and the public want to know what they’re up to but sometimes it doesn’t seem they share a common language therefore some help in communicating could be useful.

Connection Book cover

I tried liking Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy Olson seems like a fun guy and the book was likeable but there was something unconvincing about it. I’m not sure if the title highlights part of the problem “Don’t…” is rarely helpful feedback. That thing you’re doing? Try doing it again but don’t do that, might be a good idea but it’s not easy advice to follow. It was a good book, but not quite a great book. It was far better at pointing out there was a problem than identifying a solution. I’m now working through Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking and, so far, I’m finding it much more helpful.

For this book Randy Olson has teamed up with two colleagues from acting and storytelling and the result is there are helpful positive steps you can make. At the core of the book is the need to tell a story. If you’re researching something presumably there’s some point to what you’re doing, and this book helps illustrate what that is.

The core is the W-S-P Word, Sentence, Paragraph scheme. The paragraph is the story in a nutshell and the word is the whole thing compressed down into a single kernel. What’s catching my eye at the moment in the book is the middle scale, the sentence. The model Olson proposes for the sentence is what takes a fact or research and turns it into the basis of a story, the ABT model.

ABT is based on three key words, as used in the first sentence:

statement and statement but statement therefore statement.

What I like about this is there’s progression built into the sentence so there’s a sense of direction. The but marker also helps put in a reason why the thing you’re talking about matters.

I am wary of rigidly sticking to any narrative model. I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and liked it, but there is a growing body of opinion that over-reliance on the model is hammering Hollywood movies into the same mould. It could certainly explain why I find most films tedious. However, ABT isn’t over-used yet and as a starting point for organising your thoughts, it looks to be very helpful. It also doesn’t usually work purely by itself, making the madlibs effect less obvious.

There is also a companion app available for iOS and Android. I don’t know how much help they are yet as I won’t buy them till after I’ve finished the book.

If you want more of a flavour of the ideas in the book, Randy Olson recently gave a talk at TEDMED introducing ABT and storytelling as communication.

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