You’ve probably heard of Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It purports to reveal the science of trees and forests, and to show how they’re much like humans. It’s been a huge bestseller, with critics and readers alike raving about it being a “paradigm-smasher.”
What you probably haven’t heard, however, is that—in his push to make trees seem human-like (feeling affection toward one another, experiencing pain, having a sense of taste and even maternal instincts)—Wohlleben has cherry picked data and seriously stretched scientific facts.
The book was originally published in German, where it has been heavily criticized by forest scientists. As Dr. Christian Ammer, a forestry professor at Germany’s Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, writes:
“An uninformed reader gets the impression that all [these] amazing “findings” were confirmed by science…it is no wonder that most German forest scientists, including myself, are very unhappy with this book as it is definitely not what it pretends to be: popular science. In fact it is not.”
I tried to read it, but couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. Not only did the book not have an introductory section of any kind, but the excessive anthropomorphizing of trees and forests went against all of my scientific and science writing instincts.
I was interested to read a critical review of the book, written by my colleague, plant physiologist and science writer Erin Zimmerman. She cites several issues with the book, including:
- The mixing of opinions and anecdotes with scientific fact, without adequately distinguishing between the two.
- Wohlleben’s lack of knowledge of certain research fields, such as pedology (the study of soils). He states that “researchers are only peripherally interested in the thousands of species discovered [in soil] so far,” which ignores the many hundreds of research papers focused on soil.
- His fuzzy explanations, which don’t really educate the lay reader on what is known about tree physiology.
However, Zimmerman notes that, when Wohlleben gets into more traditional aspects of forest science, such as carbon dioxide levels, overwintering, and biodiversity, the writing is less anthropomorphized and more scientifically accurate.
“Trees are remarkable without human traits, as [Wohlleben] shows when he moves to a more traditional approach for some parts of his book. With respect to the science presented, the lay reader would be well served by a disclaimer helping them to understand the book as one man’s observations on and beliefs about forests, rather than a strictly scientific read.” (emphasis mine)
But what do all of us (Ammer, Zimmerman, myself) have in common? We’re all scientists (or former scientists in my case). And as Brian Bethune at Maclean’s Magazine writes:
“German forester Peter Wohlleben’s account of anthropomorphized trees … infuriates scientists and utterly charms everyone else who reads it.” (emphasis mine)
So why are scientists so up in arms over Wohlleben’s book? Because some of the facts are incorrect or stretched into inconceivability.
Why does the public love this book? Because it’s written for them, and shows the forest in a human-like light.
I shared Zimmerman’s review on Twitter, and got this response from Jay Ingram.
Marcello di Cintio also responded via Twitter, providing an anecdote from an interview he did with Wohlleben:
These are critical questions. How accurate should science writing be? Is it more important to get people interested than it is to be accurate? Is it elitist to be concerned that people aren’t getting the actual facts, but a modified version of them? Should we just be happy that so many people have read and enjoyed the book and learned something about forests? Besides, as Zimmerman herself says above, once Wohlleben got partway through the book his science was much more grounded in reality.
Sometimes I think scientists’ (and my) negative reactions to certain types of science writing are not so much about factual integrity as they are about tone. Wohlleben turns science on its head by anthropomorphizing trees. No scientist would take that seriously. But Wohlleben’s audience isn’t scientists, is it? It’s the public.
Another example is David Wallace-Wells’ (DWW) article in New York Magazine about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth. DWW’s article—also meant for public consumption—
But DWW showed where all of his information came from, and whom he talked to to confirm the data. Again, the question appeared to be more one of tone. Scientists were upset that “people don’t respond to doom and gloom, that you have to be more positive.” But as I wrote at the time, “likely a lot of people [read it] who might not have if it weren’t deemed so controversial.” So in this case, I thought it was okay to write what he did because I believed the facts were correct, and he reached a lot of people. It was more a matter of how the story was being told.
Something similar is true of a recent article by Eric Holthaus at Grist, called Ice Apocalypse, about sea level rise and the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Holthaus uses current research to suggest that sea level rise could be faster—and a lot higher—than we’d originally thought. Of course, scientists took issue with his article. As with the DWW article, there was the chorus of people saying no one listens to doomsday framing. But there was a rebuttal by Tamsin Edwards, a UK researcher, who basically said that the science was mostly correct but that Holthaus took it too far. One of her key criticisms? She called it “an emotive article.” She also said:
“I think his article is too pessimistic: that it overstates the possibility of disaster. Too soon, too certain.
And there’s the rub. Scientists are used to writing about cold, hard facts with no emotion. They have it drilled into their head that they can’t predict anything with certainty because of the very nature of science (and when studying ice sheet response to climate change, there are some serious uncertainties). They even criticize their own, like James Hansen’s huge climate change paper from 2016 (funnily enough, also about sea level rise), for going out on too far of a research limb.
Good science writers, however, use the facts as the backbone of an article, then decide what tone they’ll take and what emotions they’ll infuse it with (as seen in both the DWW and Holthaus articles). Once you add emotion, it puts the facts in a different light. And the narrative can no longer be controlled by scientists alone.
This tweet from Ingram really sums it up—the idea of “thinking beyond the data.”
Science writers are looking beyond the data to the story, to what it means for society and the environment (at least in the two examples I’ve provided here). Scientists rarely look beyond the data unless they’re trying to figure out the next stage of a research program. And yes, some scientists are gatekeepers, who don’t want non-scientists to write about their research in a way that they, as scientists, wouldn’t.
I want people to get excited about science—especially environmental science. But I want them to be excited about accurate science. Nature is amazing just as it is, and I don’t want to twist facts to make it seem even more amazing. As Zimmerman said: “trees are remarkable without human traits,” and as Richard Fortey wrote in his review of the book for Nature: “Trees are splendid and interesting enough in their own right without being saddled with a panoply of emotions.”
The challenge for the science writer is to generate enthusiasm based on our knowledge about (in this case) trees, while using good storytelling to draw people in, and trying to avoid “changing” facts to make them more appealing to readers.
This is similar to an earlier Twitter discussion I had with Ingram. I suggested that facts are the most important aspect of science writing and science communication. He replied that you can’t have good scicomm without entertainment value.
I had to clarify that I don’t think it’s a case of either facts or good entertainment value. I think it’s a case of bringing them together in one excellent package.
It’s a question not just of credibility, but of skill. It’s easy to write a clickbait headline that’s scientifically inaccurate (see IFLS for an example of this). It’s harder to take the scientific facts and spin them into a compelling narrative that draws the reader in and quietly shows them something new. This is what science writers at the top of their game, such as Ben Goldfarb and Rebecca Boyle, do every day.
It’s important to remember that, when you’re doing science writing or science journalism, you’re representing a scientist’s work to the world. It’s your responsibility to them, whether it’s an individual scientist or an entire field of science, to get it right. But at the same time, you get to choose the tone you use and the storyline you follow, and that may make some scientists uncomfortable because they think that facts and story don’t mix.
You don’t want to write a boring recitation of facts. No, as Ingram says, storytelling requires “color, context, and entertainment value.” But not at the expense of getting the facts right.
Some argue that this is a romanticized view of science communication. That you can’t reach a critical mass of people with just hard facts. That insisting on sticking to facts ignores the social science that tells us how best to communicate with people and keep them engaged. But if you don’t have to abandon facts to write great stories.
Even fiction writers are careful about getting their facts straight, when it would be easy for them to just make things up. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, read journal articles about climate change to make sure that some of the aspects of his latest book, New York 2140, were plausible. My colleague Kim Moynahan used to write a regular Friday blog post about ‘fiction facts,’ some of which have been her most popular posts.
Yes, I want to see people enjoying and discussing scientific topics they’ve learned about via popular media and books. But I also want what they’re talking about to be accurate. We do people a disservice if we think that they only want entertainment value, and if we assume that the real story isn’t entertaining enough.
Note: Cover photo is a Garry oak tree at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, photo taken by me.