The Dangers of Talking Plants

August 13, 2012 by Categorized: Natural Reflections, Science & Spirit.

Recently, a study was published in the journal Trends in Plant Science that suggests that plants “talk” to each other. The researchers observed plants making clicking noises, and when the same clicks were artificially reproduced the roots of new seedlings grew towards them. (The article itself may be found here in PDF form, for those interested.)

This is all well and good. However, the researchers then proceeded to jump to conclusions about the significance of the correlation between the clicking and root growth, even using the term “talking” in reference to the clicking, as well as other anthropomorphic language. As anyone with even a basic understanding of research methodology knows, correlation does not equal causation, and one run of an experiment does not equal a sound theory. Note also that the paper did not publish the details of the study, such as the performance of the control group (if there was one), or any statistical analyses of the results. In short, the paper can be summed up as “We played some sounds, and the roots grew this way, so we assume that one caused the other, and what’s a confound anyway?”

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

Let me say that I am not ruling out the possibility that plants may very well have a physical method of communication that we don’t fully understand. We haven’t proven that they don’t communicate, at least. But we don’t have scientific evidence of plant communication beyond some pseudoscience and a couple of similar studies that show phenomena involving stimuli between plants, with no actual proof that this entails what we would think of as “communication”. Furthermore, I am far from the only person to look askance at the conclusions being reached through wishful thinking in the fringes of plant sciences.

Why is this important to nature-based spirituality? After all, spirituality isn’t supposed to be scientific, right? And yet you would be hard-pressed to find a pagan who believes evolution is a lie, or that we’re sticking to the Earth not because of gravity but because Gaia just wants to give us all a big, life-long hug. I’ve yet to meet a pagan creationist. To one degree or another, pagans generally subscribe to the sciences, and maybe nature-based pagans even more so on average.

Which is fine, so long as we remember that our spiritual beliefs are largely subjective, and not provable in the same objective, measurable way that the effectiveness of antibiotics or explorations of the Large Hadron Collider are. You can’t measure the existence of a god or spirit (collective gnosis doesn’t count as scientific evidence, as it’s group confirmation bias), and there are no peer-reviewed, well-constructed scientific studies that undeniably prove the objective effectiveness of magic. I believe that I can communicate with the spirits of plants, and perhaps on some level I’m communicating with the physical plant itself. But this doesn’t make for incontrovertible proof that I am communicating with plants instead of just a conversation with myself and an imaginary plant being in my head.

So why hang onto spirituality? That (imaginary?) conversation has benefits that I can feel personally, and there are studies that suggest spirituality can be beneficial on a psychological level. It appeals to my love and need of large-scale storytelling as a way of connecting to the world around me in personally meaningful ways. Ritual answers the need to imagine and play, what Joseph Camobell was referring to when he talked about Huizinga’s concept “Homo ludens” in myth and ceremony. Just because the stories and myths aren’t provable in any objective way doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. My continuing exploration into plant totemism and similar eco-spirituality is just one manifestation thereof. So I keep my plant totemism in its own compartment of “real or not”, and I don’t try to extend it as proof that plants are conscious in the same way that I am.

Photo by Lupa, 2012.

If there is someday scientific evidence that plants are physically aware despite their lack of a nervous system, I don’t want that knowledge to be muddied by conjecture, to include the subjective explorations of spirituality. One of the reasons I love the sciences so much is that they open up a world of wonder based on what we know, objectively, to be true. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” wasn’t amazing to me because it talked about gods and spirits; it’s because it showed that, far from being dry and boring, science is full of some really incredible revelations. I feel the feeling of being a part of something bigger when I think of how vast and complex the universe is, from giant galaxies to the intricate structures of molecules. I don’t need an alternate spiritual reality to be able to plug into that everything-ness. To borrow from Douglas Adams, science is looking at the garden without needing fairies to spice it up.

And I think sometimes modern pagans are so focused on trying to find the fairies in the garden, and use questionable science to try to prove that those fairies are really, really real, that they ignore scientific protocol. It would be great if we could find ways to communicate with plants, just as we’re finding ways to communicate with some species of animals on their own terms. But we do ourselves no favors if we grasp at the straws of bad research and confirmation bias instead of being more patient and waiting for more incontrovertible evidence. Articles like the aforementioned are the equivalent of the Cottingley fairy photos–they do nothing but discredit the people and efforts associated with them, and make it more challenging to sort the wheat from the chaff.

So we can continue to have plant spirits and totems, and gods of the harvest and field. There’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s not use half-arsed studies about “talking plants” to try to prove that the spirits of nature paganism are more real than any other. Better to have no proof and only have our spirituality be true in our hearts, than to root our proof on a crumbling cliffside, only to have the tree fall over in the end.

(Note: if you’re interested, I wrote more about scientific methodology and its importance to spirituality on my own blog a while back)

Comment Feed

10 Responses

  1. Really interesting, Lupa! You’ve given me a lot of food for thought! (My mind is working through all the implications of placing the scientific worldview at the heart of the spiritual life, and the use of metaphor in scientific and spiritual language…. Hmmm….)

    Quick note: your link to the .pdf of the study published in Trends in Plant Science doesn’t seem to be working, but by doing a quick Google search I was able to find this study. It has all the details of their research (done by the same group of scientists, as far as I can tell), including how they set up their control group and controlled for different variables. This particular study doesn’t focus on plant bioacoustics specifically, but on exploring the possibility of alternate means of plant communication other than physical contact, light and chemical exchange.

    • Aha–thanks for the heads-up. I just fixed the link so the PDF should be available now.

      • No problem! I thought that was the paper you were referring to. We covered the story back in May on Faith, Fern & Compass — and of course, all of the mainstream media sources that jumped to conclusions far beyond the actual topic of the paper, which basically just boils down to “hey, plant bioacoustics is a new area of study we should look into because nobody’s really looked into it very much yet….” Which is why I thought the more extensive research they published might be of interest for people who want to know exactly what their methods of experiment and analysis are. :)

  2. Thank you so much for putting this out and about. It so clearly calls us to recognize and embrace the cosmos of our senses as the incredibly wonder that it is. It reminds me that the old saying, ‘What is the purpose of life? Life.’ still sings in blog, heart and mind.

    • You’re very welcome! I love mythos and spirituality primarily from an artistic and aesthetic perspective, but the earthiness of the senses is its own gloriousness.

  3. Wonderful post. Completely unscientific of them to jump straight into words like “talk”, I think.

    The link posted by Alison to “Alternative Means of Communication in Plants” looks like it was released more recently, too, by a couple of months. Probably related to the same set of studies. Adding them to my “to read” list for tonight!

    • Thank you; I had a friend of mine surmise, too, about whether the clicks had anything to do with other factors like soil density. There’s just so much not accounted for, and the original publication is a classic case of confirmation bias.

      Happy reading :)

  4. There is SO much bad science in religion. The fundamentalists are bad, with creationism and intelligent design, but the New Agers and some Pagans can be just as bad.

    Both of them come out of the mistaken idea that the only “real” knowledge is literal, material knowledge. They are looking for the wrong things with the wrong tools.

    I talk to the spirits of the land. They talk back. Our conversations are real. But the day I hear them with my physical ears is the day I get myself checked for brain tumors.

    I’ll repeat my favorite line from the Harry Potter books: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

  5. Thank you very much for this post, Lupa! I think that greater acknowledgement of science is needed in modern paganism. Although, as you said in your post, most pagans do believe in evolution and subscribe to the basic findings of science to some degree, I find that many pagans also tend to characterize science as taking away wonder and awe from nature. My own personal experiences studying science in university have been anything but. Science has informed and enriched my spiritual practice in many, many ways. But I think that because some pagans believe that there needs to be an adversarial relationship between spirituality and science, they don’t really understand the science that exists and then they end up supporting pseudo-sciences – which just leads to them not being taken seriously by scientists and makes the situation even worse.

    Like many pagans, I also have spent time in communications with the spirits of nature, but I also firmly believe in balancing this with an understanding of the science of those plants and animals as well. Both the spiritual and the scientific are equally valid ways of understanding the world.



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