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“Is the Wood-Wide Web Real? Scientists Debate Whether Trees Really Talk.” - The New York Times:

Few recent scientific discoveries have captured the public’s imagination quite like the wood-wide web — a wispy network of fungal filaments hypothesized to shuttle nutrients and information through the soil and to help forests thrive. The idea sprouted in the late 1990s from studies showing that sugars and nutrients can flow underground between trees. In a few forests, researchers have traced fungi from the roots of one tree to those of others, suggesting that mycelial threads could be providing conduits between trees.

But as the wood-wide web has gained fame, it has also inspired a backlash among scientists. In a recent review of published research, Dr. Karst, Dr. Hoeksema and Melanie Jones, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, found little evidence that shared fungal networks help trees to communicate, swap resources or thrive. Indeed, the trio said, scientists have yet to show that these webs are widespread or ecologically significant in forests.

The science aside, I think this theory has gained such a strong foothold in the popular imagination because it would seem to confirm what a lot of people want to believe about how the world works 1.

If you believe that we are all connected, that the decisions we make and the actions we take have an impact on the people around us and the wider world, that we would all be better off if more people took that into account, and that we have a responsibility in that regard, that’s great. I agree with you!

You don’t need to have feel-good scientific theories to support that, though, and I am skeptical that pointing to trees in the woods and what they may or may not be doing is going to convince anyone. Maybe it’s useful as an analogy, but it’s far too easy to start sliding down the slope into assuming that it evidence. I think this sort of appeal-to-nature argument for one’s belief does a lot more harm than good.

  1. There is also the pernicious influence of TED talks, but that is an issue probably best left for a different post. ↩︎

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