An alternative agriculturist’s guide to science

To begin, just a heads up on a couple of new things on the site. First, I’ve posted on the My Book page advanced comments about my forthcoming book that have come in from a number of interesting thinkers. It’s nice to get such positive notices. Currently, I’m pretty busy gearing up for the book launch on 15 October (21 October in the USA) and I’ll be devoting some blog posts to the book thereafter.

Also, an interesting comment has come in concerning my house rules on the About page, to which I replied here. I don’t promise to debate my rules with all comers, but I think the issues in this instance are thought-provoking, so I (cautiously) welcome further comments.

And now to work with a few thoughts on science and alternative agriculture, inspired partly by this article and partly by the themes explored in Chapter 16 of my book (“From religion to science (and back)”). I’m not going to engage systematically with either source, but instead just use them as points of departure for a few remarks concerning the need as I see it for many of us in the alternative agriculture movement to develop a more nuanced approach to science.

Let me start by invoking a distinction I made some time ago between what I call ‘science’ and ‘SCIENCE’. Lowercase ‘science’ is the everyday, generally unglamorous work that scientists do in laboratories, field study sites and the like, where they use carefully-formulated techniques to tease out the relationships between entities in the biophysical world. A vital aspect of ‘science’ in this sense is that the people engaged in it – almost uniquely in human discourse – have developed rigorous procedures for conceding when they’ve got things wrong and the evidence doesn’t support their contentions. Science involves rigorously self-critical scrutiny. There are arguments about the wider philosophical commitments involved in doing science of this sort, but for my part I have very little quarrel with ‘science’ as I’ve described it here – if you want to figure out what’s going on in the biophysical world, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

By the way, you don’t really need to be a scientist to do science. A lot of growers and farmers do ‘scientific’ experiments all the time. Being amateurs, farmers usually lack both the resources and the expertise to do science of sufficient rigour to meet the quality criteria necessary to contribute to the professional scientific record, but we can still usefully inform our practice with some rudimentary knowledge of scientific methods and a healthy dose of self-critical scepticism.

It’s this self-critical scepticism that’s missing from the other kind of science, which I call uppercase SCIENCE. SCIENCE is a political claim that the human world should be organized in a particular way on the basis of ‘scientific principles’ or what ‘the science’ tells us to do, or other formulations of that sort (some people call this scientism). It’s in play when, for example, someone counterposes ‘scientific’ agriculture (good) with peasant agriculture (bad). SCIENCE isn’t really about science and can claim little or no warrant from the work that scientists do. Sometimes advocates of SCIENCE are scientists (who, after all, are only human) but its loudest advocates are often non-scientists wishing to invest their beliefs with a patina of authority.

Indeed, SCIENCE has a strong hold on our imaginations because science has been spectacularly successful in comprehending and intervening in the biophysical world. So it’s not surprising people want to warrant their social or political beliefs in its name. But you might as well claim a warrant from God, for whom in fact SCIENCE is a modern substitute. The reason that science has been so successful is precisely because it isn’t SCIENCE.

It would be easy to detail the many ways in which scientific work has too easily become a stooge of large-scale, corporate-dominated SCIENTIFIC agriculture in the modern world, and on these points I largely agree with the article I linked above. But I’d like to look at the flipside of this in alternative agriculture, which I’d argue stalks this passage in the same piece:

It is ironic that would-be scientists insist on seeing new discoveries and work printed in peer-review literature because they really have no understanding what they are asking. Pioneers have no peers and certainly no peer publications to publish their work. When Bruno suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, he was put to death by his peers. Galileo was threatened with torture by his peers for suggesting the same thing.  …. Peer review is actually political review, designed to determine whether the work alienates the monopoly…Are non-astronauts peers of astronauts? Are non-presidents peers of presidents? Are non-pioneers peers of pioneers? I say. No. Pioneers have no peers except other pioneers. The emphasis on peer review should be secondary to results in the field. It is in the field that farmers, gardeners, and landscape “doctors” are either made or broken.

The only part of this passage I really agree with is the last sentence. Like shopkeepers, farmers have no fundamental need for scientific evaluation of their practice because the criteria for judging results in the field (or the shop) rest in their own hands. Unlike the work that scientists do that absolutely requires external validation (let’s call it peer review), the only validation a gardener or a farmer really needs is their own – “this works for me” (hence the usefulness of farmers being their own scientists to check as best they can that it does actually work for them).

So why might farmers seek scientific evaluation of their practice? Undoubtedly, often for a number of good reasons, but also sometimes I think for a less good one – they want it validated by something with a powerful social cachet. The problem is, as soon as they look to science for validation of their practice rather than as a means for self-critical engagement with it, they’re doing SCIENCE, not science. And, all too often, such SCIENCE works as a thoroughly unscientific social status claim – follow what I do and don’t question it, because my work has been proven to be SCIENTIFIC.

I’ll concede that there’s quite a lot of this SCIENCE in the world of professional science, though the institutional practice of science as self-critical inquiry usually ferrets it out in the end. But what I want to warn against here is the dangers of succumbing to the siren song of SCIENCE in the world of alternative agriculture. I’m not going to name names or give specific examples. I’ve done it in the past, and I don’t want to rake over old antagonisms again. Instead, I offer this five-point checklist that I hope might help alternative agriculturists avoid the temptations of doing SCIENCE rather than science. And, just to be clear, yes I need to learn from it myself.

  1. Welcome nay-sayers. Nay-saying is why science has achieved so much. You think outcome x results from practice y? Great, but perhaps you’re wrong and somebody who’s questioning you might put you on a better track. There’s no need to be browbeaten off your chosen path by nay-sayers, but every reason to listen and maybe learn from them instead of simply nay-saying their nay-saying. Nay-saying can be beautiful!
  2. A complex, real-world practice like farming or gardening involves innumerable variables that are extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming to tie down scientifically. And there are places where science can’t really go, at least not yet. So it’s OK to farm by hunches and intuitive results. A lack of scientific warrant for your practice doesn’t necessarily mean it has no virtue. But it might mean it has less virtue than you thought, and it’s as well to be alive to that.
  3. Farming can be context-specific. Person A seeking farm outcome B in place C might hit upon some novel and elegant solution D which they believe should be practiced more widely. However, if person E seeking farm outcome B or similar in place G implements solution D on the basis of a superficial applicability, there’s a good chance it won’t work out so well. In these circumstances, it’s tempting for person A or their followers to fault person E, but that’s probably not the first place to look in order to understand where things went wrong.
  4. Please don’t, just don’t, compare yourself to Galileo and berate others for ignoring your peerless originality. It’s true that the institutional structures of scientific validation are conservative, and a downside of this is that false negatives do occur, with the odd Galileo slipping through the net and failing to get the hearing they deserve. Regrettably, though, there are many, many more people who consider themselves to be latter-day Galileos but, um – how can I put this delicately? – actually aren’t, and an upside of scientific discourse is that it filters out most of these false Galileos and saves the rest of us a lot of time.
  5. To put this another way, there’s an enormous danger of hubris in considering oneself a pioneer whose only peers are other pioneers. If you consider yourself to be pioneering new ways of farming or gardening, I’d suggest that your peers are neither other pioneers nor scientists but ordinary, common or garden farmers and gardeners like me, along with innovators of the past who slowly worked out the tried-and-tested methods we’ve inherited. If you’re truly onto something that they can’t appreciate, well, too bad for them. The world will probably catch up eventually – as when the Vatican finally admitted that Galileo was right in, er, 1992. So I’d urge you to do your pioneering with humility and a measure of self-doubt, using the scepticism of others to inform further reflection and improvement. If you can do this, then, truly, you’re a scientist, whether or not you have the PhD to prove it. And this is a rare and precious thing. SCIENTISTS, on the other hand, are ten a penny.

Finally, despite directing my comments here towards alternative agriculture, let me concede that they apply all the more forcefully to mainstream agricultural discourse and its numerous idols of the moment – vertical farming, industrial eco-gloop and so on. False Galileos are everywhere.

20 thoughts on “An alternative agriculturist’s guide to science

  1. Your checklist brings to mind a recent post at Crooked Timber in which Henry Farrell asserts that “serious criticism is probably the most valuable contribution we [public intellectuals engaged in collective reasoning] can make to the cognitive division of labour.” Drawing on recent book by two cognitive scientists, Farrell writes:

    “The problem is that our individual reasoning processes are biased in ways that are really hard for us (individually) to correct. We have a strong tendency to believe our own bullshit. The upside is that if we are far better at detecting bullshit in others than in ourselves, and if we have some minimal good faith commitment to making good criticisms, and entertaining good criticisms when we get them, we can harness our individual cognitive biases through appropriate group processes to produce socially beneficial ends. Our ability to see the motes in others’ eyes while ignoring the beams in our own can be put to good work, when we criticize others and force them to improve their arguments.”

    I suspect that Farrell would find much to agree with in your emphasis on the value of humility, self-doubt, and nay-saying in the farming community, and he closes with a metaphor that, for those among your audience with an eye towards sustainability, is quite literally the goal: “In the long course of time, all of our arguments and ideas will be broken down and decomposed. At best we may hope, if we are very lucky, that they will contribute in some minute way to a rich humus, from which plants that we will never see or understand might spring.”

  2. I recently read a biography of Galileo, and learned something. Which is not very surprising, because Galileo is a Hero, and consequently his story gets told in a very short and stylized way.

    What I learned was that Galileo was an expert lens maker, and ran a shop that made the best telescopes in Europe. His shop made hundreds of telescopes, and Galileo gave them as gifts to kings and popes and nobles, so that they could perform their own astronomical observations.

    The prosecution of Galileo was entirely a political vendetta, and everyone knew it at the time.

  3. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit science advocacy organization in the US, founded in 1969 by faculty and students at MIT [Wikipedia]. I was curious about what type of science they advocated regarding agriculture, and found that they promote “science-based farming practices” which are compatible with a small farm future.

    From their report, “Climate Change and Agriculture — A Perfect Storm in Farm Country”, published in 2019:

    “The industrial model that dominates our nation’s agriculture—a model that neglects soils, reduces diversity, and relies too heavily on fertilizers and pesticides—makes US farms susceptible to climate impacts in several ways.”

    “The good news is that there are tools—in the form of science-based farming practices—that can buffer farmers from climate damage and help make their operations more resilient and sustainable for the long term.”

    “Forward-looking farmers and scientists are finding new, climate-resilient ways to produce our food:

    “Build healthier, “spongier” soils through practices—such as planting cover crops and deep-rooted perennials—that increase soil’s capacity to soak up heavy rainfall and hold water for dry periods;

    “Make farms stronger by redesigning them as diverse agroecosystems—incorporating trees and native perennials, reducing dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, and reintegrating crops and livestock;

    “Develop new crop varieties, livestock breeds, and farm practices specifically designed to help farmers adapt to evolving climate realities.

  4. Well said this Chris. Very true. 4 years ago when we were knew to all this we were often drawn in by some of these SCIENTIFIC claims. But now being slightly more weather-worn and gnarled, I’m starting to get tired of it all.

  5. Scientific farmi g has bred seeds to be optimum for this climate ,they are not optimal for any other , look into a victorian seed catalogue , cabbage were so variable that the gardner had no idea what would come up BUT he was certain that some would give a crop , some died some grew poorly , this year some did well but those that didnt make it this year might just make it next .

  6. The distinction between scientific findings and the practical application of scientific evidence is worth drawing attention to. From what I think I understand from your delineation of SCIENCE, it might include the much promulgated emphasis on evidence based policy making. This assumes basing policy on scientific evidence is a technical, apolitical exercise. There are lots of reasons why this is problematic including cherry picking evidence to inform policy and practice, conflicting evidence, a dearth of evidence, funding biases in the production of evidence, distortions in policy implementation, unintended consequences etc. Perhaps most importantly, in reality, even in relation to policies applied to bio-physical problems like agriculture, it is evidence based policy is inevitably political because it more often than not involves conflicting values and beliefs.

  7. Thanks for the comments. Much of interest here. I like the idea of arguments as a compost out of which new plants will grow – James Scott has a similar line in one of his pieces. The UCS stuff is interesting … though it skirts some of the shibboleths of alternative agriculture I’ve taken aim at before. More or less everyone agrees that soil building, perennials and diversity are in some sense good things – the devil is in the warrant for specific claims. I agree with Philip’s exrapolation into policy, where ‘SCIENCE’ so often undermines ‘science’ by configuring choices as apolitical, certain and trade-off free.

  8. I think it is important to keep in mind that there is a large risk when any farmer attempts to engage in science. This risk is one of the reasons why agronomic research has mostly been shepherded by government, an example being the research done at “land grant” universities and colleges in the US and promulgated via agricultural extension services.

    Small farmers are often only one or two failed crops away from destitution, or in the case of subsistence farmers, starvation. Once a method for producing a crop reliably has been discovered, the risk of deviating from that method to find better methods or perhaps superior crop varieties is enormous. Hence the very conservative bent by farmers regarding their agricultural practices. Farmers often have to see an “improvement” practices by a neighbor for a number of years before they are willing to take the plunge and try it themselves. There is good reason why Missouri fancies itself as the “Show-me State”.

    Farmers must be even more skeptical of fads in agricultural science than consumers can be about dietary science. Dietary advice seems to change yearly, but the harm done by a bad diet often takes a lifetime to manifest. The harm done by a failed farming method takes only one or two seasons to result in farm failure. The widespread use of chemical fertilizers took decades to gradually permeate commercial agricultural practice from the time when the Haber-Bosch method became available; it will take just as long for alternative methods to supplant them.

    So, I can’t imagine any segment of the economy more immune to the influence of SCIENCE than farming.

  9. Even when science is well done and marshaled to develop new information, the direction it takes and which topics it is used to research is predetermined and governed by biases that are not in the best long term interest of society.

    In the U.S., the land grant colleges were specifically tasked with a mission to support agriculture and more practical areas than the liberal arts focus of prior universities. Those that still have significant agricultural research are typically focussed on support of the industrial ag system. Only recently has much attention been placed on support of sustainable or alternative food production.

    This, coupled with the large influence of the industrial ag suppliers on funding and focus, ends up skewing the output in a way that neglects the needs of the small scale farmer and promotes the status quo.

    As has been mentioned by Joe, farmers have to be cautious about trying a new idea, as failure could be catastrophic. To foster a change, they need the assurance based on research at colleges that a new scheme will work. They are stuck on the industrial treadmill even when they see that the land suffers.

    What would those who tout SCIENCE as justification for their position say if more science was done that gave foundations for another way? Kind of a chicken egg thing, where SCIENCE worldview self propagates by steering resources away from any research that might tell a different story.

    • Science also has a bias problem ,monsanto comes to mind , big ag funds most research ………….
      big oil funded scientists are not trusted is big ag any diffrent ?

  10. Agreed that the structure of research funding tends to align scientific research with corporate agriculture, but to my mind that doesn’t negate my point that alternative agriculturists need to tread carefully in their embrace or rejection of science/SCIENCE.

    Agreed also that people who make their livelihood from farming must take a necessarily cautious approach to innovation. All the same, many farmers historically haven’t been so close to the precipice that they couldn’t afford to experiment judiciously with new ideas … which is maybe one reason why we’re in our current predicament.

  11. Sorry to arrive so late… but I have to toss in a couple thoughts.

    1. Thanks Chris – nicely done… False Galileos are far too common.
    2. Anyone can be a small letter scientist. Look at children – they experiment all the time and they learn. The rub comes in the dispersal of results. Peer review has been the path for professional scientists. Peer review has been taking some hits of late, but I imagine the controversy boils down to personalities, politics, and other human foibles. If a scientist has results worth sharing, she won’t fear peer review. Eventually the truth will out.
    3. The US Land Grant system has taken some hard punches. I came up in the system, so I am biased toward believing the system is useful and still has a significant role to play. But these punches? Primarily funding (or the changing landscape for sources thereof). But another punch has been the public press and the commercial influence on communication (read – advertising).

    Allow me to weave a narrative to illustrate: Dr Jane Newdoc is a freshly minted PhD in Agronomy. She is currently doing a postdoc at a major US Land Grant because there are no positions for ‘mere’ PhD holders. Her research is funded by a combination of USDA NIFA funds supplemented by a commodity group (something akin to the corn or soybean checkoff) and possibly even by some private sector entity. She spends a good deal of her time chasing these sources of funding and hoping to do real research in between meetings and reports and the political realities of fighting for the resources necessary on a campus that has suffered financial neglect for decades. With one eye on getting results worth publishing (for which she is and will forever be judged)… and getting the publication stewarded through peer review, she is also trying to remain human, find suitable post postdoc employment, and maybe have a second or so to herself.

    Jane is an industrious person and she with her colleagues find some results worth spreading to the wider world. She gets them published. The University Press Corp sends out a press release, the Commodity funding partners send out a press release, any and all parties to the effort do what they might to boast about the results and the role they played in getting them. Big Ag Company A wants you to buy their brand of product (rather than a similar product from Big Ag Company B)… so Dr Newdoc’s results get shoehorned into some ‘article’ in the popular farm press. The progression from small letter ‘science’ to large letter ‘SCIENCE’ follows the money. And the money isn’t coming from small farmers (at least not directly from their wallets… it goes from small farmer to Company A and then a smidgeon finds it way back the small letter ‘science’ so the treadmill keeps turning).

    If you find this a jaded account of Ag research in the modern age, know that I agree. And I will offer that there are some who fight against the ugliness inherent in the way the game is currently played. There are also some really intelligent and clever scientists who manage to do good work while this paradigm holds sway. So not all is lost. But real world small letter science is not for the faint of heart. As a career scientist looking to wind down and do a little small farming… this is not an admission I enjoy sharing.

  12. Business-funded research at state-funded universities could be an example of the interplay between scientism, statism, and marketism (the three systems of belief addressed by Lawrence Bush in his book “The Eclipse of Morality: Science, State, and Market”, 2000).

    I stumbled upon some online references to that book, and a preview describes how the agricultural extension services in the US were largely the result of “urban agrarians” wanting to impose business practices and “progress” upon the farmers.

    “Although at the time [1910] most Americans were farmers, they were unrepresented on the [Country Life] commission. Moreover, although most farmers of that time produced for the market, they certainly did not see farming as a business and they were not particularly concerned about increasing agricultural productivity…”

    “Business interests, especially bankers, also encouraged the formation of extension services. More efficient and scientifically organized farmers would repay their loans on time. They would purchase the newly developed farm inputs such as artificial fertilizers, tractors, and improved seeds. Those who refused to adopt the new techniques were often denied credit.”

    (page 41)

  13. Thanks for those reports from various front lines, past and present. Fascinating stuff.

    The marriage of scientism, statism and marketism is a nice way to frame one side of the problem, which in the grand scheme of things is the graver one, I think. But it’s still worth identifying the counterpoint in alternative ag of scientism, exceptionalism and solutionism.

  14. I guess I need to keep up on things going on in the world because I didn’t know that the U.S. and the U K had different calendars!

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