Rambling in the brambles

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew claim today that there are 390,900 species of plants on Earth with 2,034 new species being discovered in 2015. The total number excludes algae, mosses, liverworts and hornworts and includes 369,400 flowering plants. 21% of known plants are at risk of extinction and the unknown will become extinct in private.

What do you make of that? The BBC’s written report actually says that there are 390,900 plants now known to science, but I had to correct that being a stickler for accuracy; one big field of wheat could contain that many plants, but only one species. Over two thousand new species discovered last year? Isn’t that amazing? My scientific brain clicks in again. Distinct species arise through the process of natural selection (the report doesn’t include genetically modified species) and given that the flowering plant group emerged at least 160 million years ago most species could not be described as new. Why are the so-called lower plants excluded from the total? Is it a fit  of pique among the Kew community or have they got a good reason, like they’re only uncluding vascular plants? Never mind, let’s move on, most people overlook liverworts anyway.

Lists and tidy minds

Putting things into groups is a fundamental human activity. At home it’s called sorting out the spices and condiments cupboard in the kitchen (am I showing my 1960s roots here?) and in biology it’s called taxonomy. In assembling their totals the people at Kew found that some plants had been separately described and listed more than once. That’s like putting cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon on different shelves, not good. I studied taxonomy as an undergraduate botanist at a time when biology was levitating up and away from its fascination with lists and reinventing itself as the science of what organisms do and how they do it, the functional approach. We were lucky enough (remembering we were scientists and knowing that I studied joint hons. Botany and Zoology would be useful here) to have recently deceased exhibits from the Regents Park Zoo to examine; a penguin, the head of a hippo, a lion cub and a three-toed sloth all turned up to our surprise and delight. We looked for clues about functionality. Did you know that the hair on most mammals parts at the midline of the back and points downwards to throw off water, whereas the sloth which spends it life dangling upside down from trees has its parting in the midline of its belly? I didn’t until I saw it in front of me. That took a few wet summers to evolve, I bet.

Since the dawn of time putting things in groups has been the main achievement of humankind and with the Enlightenment it became the proud ambition of the new science to list everything. Even today it makes the world more manageable to have a list of only 390,900 items rather than the billions of individal plants that cover much of the world’s surface, still.

In case you’re wondering where this story about science and education is going, I’d be honoured to introduce my next character, well known to our friends at Kew and to you, Sir David Attenborough.

A man of his time

He went to Cambridge to study natural sciences in 1945 with the taxonomic approach still alive and well and undergraduates being taught that things were either this or that, not both at the same time. In those days science was a process of piling up factual evidence in order to write proper lists. If you didn’t already know that our great TV explainer was a trained scientist you do now and I would guess that it makes you respect him even more. But I bet you didn’t know that in the hippy 60s he took himself off his work schedule to study social anthropology at LSE. Social anthropology! That’s not science! If you’ve now got your head in your hands, I know where you’re coming from.

That’s where all this flying out to discover new tribes of people comes from, only we and he knew and know that they weren’t new to themselves, they’d been doing quite nicely until the film crew arrived. And things did look strange to them too, even with the film-maker in a sarong, just as they looked strange to us, seeing people who lived happily in the heat without the use of a single fridge between them. This scientist/social anthopologist commissioned The Ascent of Man’ with all that social anthropology and hours of films on the TV to gawp at and then went back to search out every nook and cranny of this wonderful world to watch things never before seen by anyone without a highspeed camera and a wet suit.

We watched and are still watching. Watching what? A mockup in a lab, like the woodland sequence in ‘The Life of Plants’, a film of a humpback whale feeding on herrings, a cave full of bats and their enormous pile of dung? Is it evidence? Is it science. Is telling stories on film merely anecdotal voyeurism?

The Ascent of Attenborough is a story of transcendence. Science has broadened and expanded to offer us evidence of different types, always with the same scientific mission, to reduce uncertainty. Different strands of science investigate different realities through different approaches to evidence, what is is and what it means. It’s obvious that social science explores a different reality to those fielded by genetics or robotics or physics or psychology. Evidence can be numerical, descriptive, analytical, narrative, constructivist, even imaginary in the quantum world and it’s characterised by the type of reality it emerges from. And to make things more precise and more complex scientific philosophies themselves vary, cause-effect science in the concrete world of things, stratified critical realism in the world of social mechanisms.

Brass tacks. Getting down to.

It’s one thing to slump on the sofa watching a school of killer whales surge across the screen as a spectacle and quite another to maintain a critical relationship with the evidence in front of you. That takes some degree of scientific literacy, knowledge and balanced judgement. Killer whales aren’t whales, they’re dolphins and they’re predators, like spiders and bats, not killers for a start.

In education there seem to be people with a lot to say about research and evidence but no good grounds for saying it.  I think this is because some cover up illiteracy with stridency, others are playing a political game and a few do both. Yes, randomised controlled trials are a useful tool for reducing uncertainty in the concrete world of things. No, this doesn’t mean that descriptive, narrative science in the world of socially constructed reality is rubbish, no more than slight anecdotes. Yes, in some cases it makes sense to guess how physical things work, hypothesise, test your hunch and build a theory out of the findings. No, that doesn’t mean that carrying out a social action like teaching and writing a descriptive account of it, with the reader being invited to make their own contextualised interpretation of its meaning is a waste of valuable time, just idle chat over coffee till the bell goes.

As a scientist I know the importance of discussing ontology and epistemology, as a realist I know if I mention it here some people will accuse me of talking down to them, talking through my ivory hat. As a relativist I know that blood is thicker than water and as an anthropologist I know I can choose my friends but not my relations. And in the end all this might be no more than finding a way to spend a wet morning in Wales before I go to see the dentist.

But.

To have a realistic hope of improving education, learning, teaching, schooling, we do need to share a common language and understanding and the current arguments about testing, assessment, zero-tolerance, mental illness, the magic of academies, bad grit and good stress, are all set within their own ontological contexts and spoken in their own epistemological terms. We need to know that and feel at ease in talking to each other about it.

So my message is this; For those who get it, keep on keeping on. For those who don’t, keep an open mind, keep asking the questions, we’ll help you get to the solutions. And then we can all relax and enjoy the sunshine together, fridge or no fridge.