Science must be asserted - the case for agricultural science

Author: D C Edmeades | Date: 10 Feb 2015

D C Edmeades,

agKnowledge Ltd

Keywords: science, integrity, pseudo-science, post modern philosophy.

Take home messages

  • The processes of science are to expose new ideas and results to independent testing and replication, and to abandon or modify accepted facts or theories in the light of more complete or reliable experimental evidence.
  • The philosophical post-modernism movement sets aside evidence as the authority and asserts that the 'truth' is what you believe. In this setting, all opinions are to be given equal authority, irrespective of where evidence lies.
  • Collectively current philosophical and policy settings provided a rich and fertile environment for the development of pseudo-science.
  • Psuedo-science is anti-science. While pseudo-science seeks credibility from science, it is, at its heart, anti-science because it can only prevail if science is undermined and belittled.

Introduction

The UN has estimated that the world population will be about 9 billion by 2050. This represents a major challenge for agriculture science. There will need to be an increase in land used for agriculture or, more likely, production per unit area will need to increase.

Edmeades et al (2010) (not to be confused with the current author) reviewed changes in crop yield data over time from commercial farms and research trials, from many countries and crops, and showed that there were twin opportunities. Firstly, the incremental increases arising from improved plant genetics and management, and then importantly, improved transfer of technology from science to the farmer. They concluded that goal of feeding 9 billion by 2050 was achievable but that it 'requires a sharp boost in research investment in plant agriculture from public and private sources accompanied by facilitating policies'.

This conclusion assumes that science funding will increase at a time when science funding worldwide has reached a steady-state at about two to three per cent of GDP. Furthermore, it is assumed that society will embrace this need for more science and technology at a time when the importance and value of science is under threat in contemporary society.

This paper considers these issues and suggests some solutions. It draws on and condenses ideas, analysis and conclusions from a series of related papers (Edmeades 2004, 2009, 2011, all available at doug.edmeades.com). Readers should consult these papers for the original references, citations and attributions.

Science and its governance requirements

To provide the correct context for what is to follow, a definition of science is required together with some of the important governance conditions required to protect the integrity of science.

A useful and succinct definition of science is:

“Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organising and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.”                                                                        

The important processes of science are to expose new ideas and results to independent testing and replication, and to abandon or modify accepted facts or theories in the light of more complete or reliable experimental evidence.

There are also some important governance requirements essential to enable science and protect its integrity: time and space to develop and discuss ideas, and openness to debate and criticism.

Public perception of science

The contemporary public has a poor perception of science. They reason: scientists are always arguing - who can I believe? Or more cynically: if science is so good how come we do not know everything? The solution to this problem lies at the feet of scientists because it is up to them to educate and inform the public. In this sense we do a very poor job.

Scientists need to double their efforts to help the layperson understand science. We need to explain that science will never know everything because every conceivable experiment has not been done. Indeed science will never be completed. Furthermore, some discoveries have to wait until the appropriate technology is developed (c.f. the changing understanding of the atom over time).

We also need to explain that argument and debate between scientists is normal, necessary and healthy for science to progress. Typically this happens away from the public eye, in the scientific literature and at conferences. Sometimes, if the issues are of public interest, these arguments spill into the public arena. Some contemporary issues under current debate include climate change, genetic modification and stem cell research.  

Importantly we need to explain that these arguments erupt around emerging issues. With the passage of time and the accumulation of more evidence, public disputes are resolved and attract no further debate, as we will now discuss.

The value of science

Given that contemporary society is confused about science, clear robust arguments need to be developed to reassure the public of the importance and value of science. For example, despite major arguments at the time, it is now universally accepted, based on the evidence that the earth is not flat, that the sun is at the center of our solar system and that solid matter is made up of particles/waves of energy.

The same perspective makes a strong case for agricultural research. Figure 1 depicts human life expectancy through the ages – humans are better fed, healthier and wealthier than ever before. This is a consequence of discovering and harnessing new sources of energy and, especially since the 1950s, the application of science (Figure 2). 

Figure 1. Life expectancy through the ages (after http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2009/09/29/human-rights-facts-148-life-expectancy-throughout-history/).

Figure 1. Life expectancy through the ages.

Figure 2. US agricultural productivity growth over the past 200 years (from Havlin et al 1999).

Figure 2. US agricultural productivity growth over the past 200 years (from Havlin et al 1999).

Figure 3. Wheat yield over time from Broadbalk, Rothamsted.

Figure 3. Wheat yield over time from Broadbalk, Rothamsted.  

The same conclusion emerges from the longest running experiment in soil science (Figure 3). As a consequence of improved plant genetics, coupled with the use of insecticides and pesticides, the yield of wheat as measured in this experiment has increased 10 fold from about 1 t/ha/yr to 10 t/ha over a period of 150 years. The so-called 'green revolution' began in the 1960s and is a more contemporary example of the success of science and technology, without which many people would have starved.

From this perspective the importance of science becomes inarguable but despite this science today is under threat.

Threats to science

Post modern philosophy

The philosophical narrative that underpins any society changes over time as society evolves. In terms of western civilisation we can begin with the Dark Ages. The foundation was that the Church was the authority and only the priests, via prayer, could find the truth, which was revealed by God. If failures occurred they were a consequence of disobedience to God’s laws (Table 1).

Table 1. Authority and belief through time (modified from Roche and Edmeades 2005).

Period

Truth

Authority

Attitude

Example

Dark Ages

Revealed by God through prayer

Church

Thou shalt obey the laws of God

Pray for a good harvest.

Your animal dies because you sinned.

Age of Reason

Revealed by reason based on the evidence

Science

What is the evidence and what can logically be deduced from the evidence.

Liquid fertiliser is ineffective.

Albrecht's ratio theory is flawed.

Post-modernism

If you believe it is true

Individual

Science is the reason for all our problems. A new way must be found.

Homeopathy works because I believe it. Organic farming is better for the environment.

The Age of Reason emerged out of this gloom with the development of what we now call the scientific method: truth was that revealed by the application of logic and reason to the empirical evidence. Science became the authority. The industrial revolution was a consequence and as indicated above, the progress made by society, at least western society, was astounding.

But confidence in science and its products - technology - began to be questioned after two world wars and the development of the atomic bomb. Science, while not the cause, was seen as part of 'the problem'. There must be a better way forward for society, some argued. This led to the philosophical movement called post-modernism which sets aside evidence as the authority and asserts that the 'truth' is what you believe. If you believe it, then it is your ‘truth’. The age of individualism had arrived. Importantly, in this setting, all opinions are to be given equal authority; irrespective of where the evidence lay. 

The political expression of post-modernism is found in what is called laizie faire politics – less government is good government! Accordingly, it was argued that it is not the government’s role to set or impose standards. That was now to be left to society and its representatives, the professional and industrial bodies; self-regulation became the mantra. A relevant agricultural example in New Zealand is the Fertiliser Act 1960 being repealed in 1997 as part of a package of reforms. Presently in New Zealand, it is quite legal to sell almost anything and call it fertiliser.

Extreme environmentalism1

Post-modernism has progressed to what is now being called ‘Post Normal Science’. This holds that science is subservient to the story that must be told. The role of science is no longer about discovering new ‘truth’ but supporting the ‘story’ that is perceived to be the truth.

This gives rise to the notion of 'noble-cause science', which allows scientists to ignore contrary evidence, or worse, manipulate the evidence if the cause is noble. There is evidence of this in current climate change debate. For example the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph purporting to show rapid increase in global temperature in recent time has been shown to be a fabrication. Indeed a well-respected New Zealand theologian, has suggested that environmentalism is logically the new God. It appears, we have gone full circle from the Gods of the Dark Ages to the Gods of environmentalism.

1 A clear distinction is required. We must find ways of using our resources, soil, water, air, and energy carefully and efficiently and I have no doubt we can and will. After all, the hallmark of modern man is success (refer to Figures 1, 2, 3). But this will only be achieved by the application of the science method based on evidence. This approach is to be contrasted with 'environmentalism' based on a blind faith that we are ruining the planet and we must repent and serve the new God of 'environmentalism'.

Commercialisation of science 2

Science internationally has become commercialised. As noted, government funding of science has stagnated and it is argued that if the science effort is to be increased it must come from private, as distinct from public, funding. There is nothing wrong with private funding of research, providing, and this is the vital qualification, the processes required for the conduct of science remain intact. This is rarely the case.

New Zealand has adopted an extreme policy position in this regard but the same trends are apparent in most western countries. Publicly funded research is now undertaken by government-owned Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), which are required to undertake public good research, and return a profit (dividend, return on investment). Private funding is vigorously sought to offset the declining public funding and the competition is essential. This has had many negative effects on the conduct of science.

First, the time and space essential for science is eroded as scientists spend increasing efforts competing and applying for funds. Second the process of science becomes closed in order to either protect IP, competitive advantage, or client confidentiality. These conditions are the antithesis of what is required for any health science organisation.  

2 I am not arguing that science and commerce should not interact. They should and they can. But if the arrangement is such that the process of science conducted using public monies is closed then this will have a negative on the requirement for openness.

Of greater concern, commercialisation reduces science to a commodity to be brought and sold. The purpose of science is no longer the pursuit of knowledge and truth but to generate profits for the organisation and the Government. Science organisations are now organised to deliver Post Normal Science.

Collectively these philosophical and policy settings provided a rich and fertile environment for the development of pseudo-science.    

Pseudo-science

Pseudo-science is false or sham science. It achieves its deception by appearing to look like science because it uses scientific words or of constructed words that sound scientific. Some general examples of pseudo-science include: astrology, alchemy, biodynamic farming and intelligent design. Its deception works, at least on lay-people, and especially in advertising. How else do we explain the increasing use of alternative ‘medicines’, snake-oil fertilisers and the increasing credibility offered to the organic movement.  

Because it is so pernicious in today’s commercial environment, some clear understanding of what it is and what is looks like in an agricultural setting is required.  

Psuedo-science is anti-science

While pseudo-science seeks credibility from science, it is, at its heart, anti-science because it can only prevail if science is undermined and belittled. Here are some examples: 

"Our chemical experiment (i.e. the past 80 years of farming) using high leaching fertilisers has effectively stripped the majority of the minerals from the soil … these serious deficiencies are arguably the most urgent problem we need to address in the coming century," Nutritech Solutions Pty Ltd.

"Past agricultural practices have resulted in the demineralisation of our farming soils and the chemical sterilisation of the soil biology that would normally deliver these minerals to the plants," Abron Living Soil Solutions Ltd.

Based on the empirical evidence presented earlier in Figures 1 to 3, these statements are false. They are not supported by the evidence. A competent scientist aware of the evidence would not be duped, but what about the layman, or indeed the technically illiterate journalist looking for an alarmist story that will sell?

Psuedo-science use fear-mongering

Pseudo-science plays on people's emotions by implying that doomsday is imminent:

"We now have the lowest nutrient density in our food than we have ever had in our history and we can relate that to what is happening health-wise," Dr Christine Jones.

"Millions of acres of soil that sustained the worlds feed supply are under assault. For decades farmers have learned to use large quantities of fossil fuels to produce crops. But these synthetic additives have pushed our soils, our environment and our health to the limit," Dr Arden Anderson.      

Once again the evidence about human longevity and soil productivity, discussed earlier, are alone sufficient to falsify these statements and we are entitled to ask Macaulay’s question 'On what principle is it that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?'

Psuedo-science uses conspiracy theories

"… why does conventional agriculture … sanction and perpetuate the obscuring and demoting of William Albrecht’s landmark work in soil science, as well as his forced early retirement, in order to secure substantial grants from major chemical companies…" Dr Arden Anderson.

Albrecht’s Base Cation Saturation Ratio theory has been debunked by science. It has no place in modern efficient and productive agriculture (see later discussion).

Psuedo-science claims wisdom from the past now overlooked

"Biological agriculture is a new paradigm, a rekindling and modernisation of ancient wisdom," Dr Arden Anderson.

There is no such thing as ancient wisdom. If there was, how come history informs us that so many human lives were so brief and brutal?

Psuedo-science is too good to be true

"Most of the diseases are nutritionally related so that things like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes – all these things, are related to the fact that we do not have the trace elements in our bodies," Dr Christine Jones.

"Our current state of crime, social aberrations, and terminal disease verifies the               degenerated state of our nutrition," Dr Arden Anderson.

Consider for a moment the implication that cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes could all be cured by the administration of a cocktail of trace elements! 'If it sounds too good to be true it probably is!'

Psuedo-science calls for a new way of thinking!

"We need a fundamental redesign of agriculture and the whole approach to food and food production," Dr Christine Jones.

"Science needs the freedom to think outside the square by incorporating intuition with intellect to create new opportunities and new business," Mr J K Morris, Agrissentials Ltd.

The word paradigm is frequently misused. It was introduced to explain how science progresses. So much science develops incrementally, interrupted every so often by new ground breaking discoveries for which a new mind-set is needed to understand – a paradigm shift. Examples include the discovery of the sun-centered solar system, the atom, relativity and quantum physics. A paradigm shift does not imply that there are parallel belief systems to which science does not apply.

Note. The meaning behind Mr Morris’s statement above becomes clearer when it is realised that his company, Agrissentials Ltd, sells ground basal rock and claims it is a 'fertiliser'. Science rejects this, so he argues his product cannot be tested by science – and a new approach is required to see the wonderful value in the product.

Pseudo-science is dangerous

Pseudo-science is dangerous. It can result in wasting science resources, it misleads farmers and undermines their confidence, and costs millions of dollars in terms of lost productivity. A few examples will suffice.

Organic/biological farming

The organic movement is based on a myth – a misunderstanding of the important role of soil organic matter. Despite this the organic movement, and its relative biological farming, persists. Indeed it has become more strident in this post-modern – if I believe it, then it is true - era. At its extreme, it is argued that the only path forward for the world is to adopt 'organic' farming practices, which it is claimed would result in healthier soils, animals and people, plus less environmental damage. These claims are false.

There is now a large body of evidence showing that the yields achievable from organic farming are on average about 68 per cent of those that can be achieved by conventional practices. Additionally, there is no evidence that organic foods offer nutritional advantages relative to conventional food, or that organic fertilisers are better than chemical fertilisers, or that organic practices confer advantages in terms of environmental outcome. 

Liquid fertilisers

There is a subset of snake-oil products marketed worldwide, referred to as liquid fertilisers derived from natural products, particularly seaweed. They are recommended to be applied at low rates (4-10 l/ha) and it is claimed they are effective because of foliar absorption. Many claims are made for these products. A recent review of all the international literature (810 trial-years of data on 28 such products across a wide range of crops) showed that these products are ineffective when used as recommended – in fact they were no better or worse than the water they contained!

Most of this research was conducted by publicly funded government agencies. Assuming that field research costs about $NZ 20,000 per trial-year, this represents about $16m in research. The costs incurred by the unsuspecting farmers who purchased these products must be added to this, plus the loss in crop production resulting from their use. In total this would represent many millions of wasted dollars.

Given the concentrations of what these products contain, nutrients, organic matter and plant growth stimulants, and the recommended rates of application, it is/was entirely predictable that these products would be ineffective. Thus, all of this research effort was not required if science had been asserted at the beginning. Psuedo-science prevailed.

Albrecht’s Base Cation Ratio theory

In the early 1900s two competing theories of plant nutrition emerged. One, Albrecht’s Ratio theory stated that crop production was optimised when the ratio of the nutrients (Ca, Mg, K and Na) were balanced. Ideal ratios of these nutrients were proposed. The alternative was what is referred to as the Quantity theory, which claims that production is optimised providing the minimum amount of each nutrient was present in the soil – the ratios are irrelevant.

Much research has been done in the intervening years and has shown that there is no such thing as an ideal ratio - plants can function across a range of ratios. More importantly there is evidence showing that where the Ratio theory is used as the basis for making fertiliser recommendations it results in grossly incorrect nutrient advice – some nutrients such, as Ca and Mg, are recommended when not required, while other nutrients, which are essential, are not recommended at all.

Solutions

It is ironic that at the very time in human civilisation when more science and technology is required, science is under threat. What to do?

First, the problem must be recognised – this point has not yet been reached. The very people who can understand and articulate the problems and issues, the scientists, are captives of the system. They dare not speak for fear of losing their funding and/or jobs. This of course is a symptom of modern science policy. 'No body speaks the truth if there is something they must have.'

This leads to the first step that must be addressed.

The principle of academic freedom, the foundation rock of academia, must prevail. But for this to occur science must be returned to it normativex function.

To achieve this, government funded organisations must be freed from the profit motive. The not-for-profit model of organisation is suggested rather than a return to the inefficient public service model.

Other concurrent changes are required. The competitive funding model should be abandoned to allow science to return to its collegial roots and research in both Universities and Government institutions should be bulk funded. This would allow decisions about funding priorities to be made where the decision makers, scientist, industry representatives and science managers are knowledge, rich ensuring the optimal scientific outcomes away from political considerations.

It is noted that if these changes were implemented a large component of science funding, currently consumed by ‘support staff’, required for corporate entities such as lawyers, accountants, policy advisors, PR personal, could be redirected to science activities. Science productivity would increase.

It is only then that scientist will have the time and energy, and hopefully encouragement from science management, to do what science must do.

As Robert Park put it, “Those who are fortunate enough to have chosen science as a career have an obligation to inform the public about voodoo science”.

Contact details

Doug Edmeades

agKnowledge Ltd

PO Box 9147 Hamilton 3240, New Zealand

doug.edmeades@agknowledge.co.nz