Go to the merfield.com home page

‘Sound science’?: A different perspective

April 2007

I found Joel Salatin’s article ‘‘sound science’ is killing us’ very stimulating and thought provoking.  While I fully agree with Joel’s cry that we need to hold to our hearts, his withering attack on science did not sit so comfortably with me.  To me organics is science based, so Joel’s attack on science makes no sense, but he is still correct that science is being used to justify things that organics abhors.  How do we get out of this apparent contradiction.  I can’t think of any non-academic articles that directly discusses the relationship between science and organics, which is odd considering its importance, so I hope to be able to shed some light on this issue.

As this is a very controversial and emotive area, I should explain the perspective I am coming from.  This is also very much an opinion piece, it is, as the title says, a perspective, not a conclusion, I expect people to disagree with me.

Professionally I trained in commercial horticulture and managed organic horticultural units growing vegetables and fresh herbs before moving into scientific research in organic horticultural production including completing a PhD.  I feel this gives me a pretty good perspective on organics, getting my hands dirty down on the farm and in practical science.  I also have a strong interest in politics, philosophy including the philosophy and origins of science, and other branches of science including, physics, computation and information theory, biology and evolution.  I hope this background allows me to bring a wider perspective to this discussion. 

Now, to bring in a gross oversimplification, there are two kinds of scientists, those for whom science is a 9-to-5 job and then there are those who are philosophically and politically committed to Science.  I used a capital S on the latter science to indicate the huge difference between the two (and do so throughout this article).  So, what is the difference between scientists and Scientists?  I should clarify at this point that I consider myself a Scientist. 

You may be surprised to learn that many scientists, especially those in the foot soldier ranks, are blissfully ignorant of the foundations of Science and its position in philosophical discourse.  They are well trained (like soldiers) in the tools of their trade and use the scientific method to great effect to understand and explain the nature of reality, but they are only as well informed as lay people about the origins and philosophy of Science.  To use a simile, a footballer can be a great player without the faintest knowledge of the origins or evolution of the game.  To me, however, it’s a bit like going to church because you like the singing but not being bothered about all the stuff about god.  It’s a castle-in-the-air position; you have no idea what’s supporting you or why the rules of the game are what they are.  This explains why there are a fair number of scientists who can, apparently paradoxically, believe in god, the creation, doubt the law of evolution and lots of unscientific things; science is just a job they leave at the office.  Scientists on the other hand have, by definition, to understand the origins and nature of Science and are politically and philosophically committed to Science.  You won’t find (m)any creationists here, only agnostics and atheists, the prime example of which is the Arch-Atheist Richard Dawkins.  I read Dawkins’ the ‘Selfish Gene’ when I was at school and consider it one of my seminal influences.  I also place myself in the ranks behind Dawkins in the battle against anti-science.  However, Dawkins is very anti-organics as he considers it anti-science while I am clearly pro organics and pro Science.  How can this be?  Yet another contradiction!  The answer, I believe, lies beyond the limits of science in ethics.  Ethics is also where my disagreement with Joel, and the relationship between organics and science is resolved.  However, first I need to lay a (very thin) foundation on which to advance my arguments, or to continue the religious metaphor make sure we are all singing from the same hymn book. 

First, up we need an explanation of what Science is.  However, you may be further surprised to hear that this is still a contentious issue, so please, don’t take this as the last word.  It is also a bare bones explanation, most of the supporting argument is left out, and some very crude simplifications have been made for the sake of brevity. 

Starting with the basics: Science is a fundamentally novel method of determining the nature of reality.  Its origins are in ‘The Age of Enlightenment’, a period of immense upheaval in European and American philosophy in the eighteenth century.  The very name Enlightenment refers to this new method of determining knowledge.  Before this time, there was no Science or science at all.  To take a very aloof Scientific perspective, before the Enlightenment there was only ignorance, the antonym of enlightenment.  I say this as a provocative indication of the intellectual and philosophical stakes at play around these issues.  So if Science is a novel means of determining the nature of reality how does it differ from what went before?  René Descartes, who lived in the 17th century, is perhaps the most well known example of the pre-Science approach.  He argued that the nature of reality could be ascertained by logical deduction from first principles.  The most famous examples of which are ‘I think therefore I am’ and his proof of the existence of god, both of which are now considered patently and philosophically wrong.  To put it crudely, the non-scientific approach tries to work out the nature of reality by thinking really, really hard.  The problem here is there are no good reasons to believe that the human brain can actually achieve this, and lots of reasons why it cannot. 

This finds us in a kind of tautology.  If you are living in pre-enlightenment times you consider yourself to of been designed by god, in his image, and as god created the universe and everything in it, then there should be a fair chance if you are really smart you can figure out the nature of reality by thinking really hard.  However, if you’re a Scientist then human beings are a product of evolution, adapted to fit into the ecosystem of the African savannah (the fit of ‘survival of the fittest’ is fit as in jigsaw, not as in athletic).  The fact that we can do many things evolution did not adapt us for, e.g., mathematics, is quite stunning and indicates that the universe has some quite amazing ‘laws’ of physics, computation and information that allows our brains to do things they never evolved to do.  However, it is very strong evidence that just thinking really hard about something is almost guaranteed to produce an incorrect result, or at least something that might of worked on the African plains. 

What makes Science different is that it explicitly states that thinking hard is not enough and that if you believe that reality has a particular property (your hypothesis) you had better go check that what you believe is in fact correct, and not the result of using the human brain for something it did not evolve to do.  How is this done?  Simple, the controlled experiment.  An experiment is where cause and effect is demonstrated by noting that, until some phenomenon occurs, nothing happens; then when the phenomenon occurs, a second phenomenon is observed.  This then supports or disproves your hypothesis.  Tagged onto this is objective measurement, i.e., something is counted, and steps are taken to exclude any chance variability / random events.  For example, you believe that your dog will be able to run faster by feeding it a special food.  If you just give your dog the special food and it runs faster, it proves nothing as it’s quite likely that many other things made your dog run faster.  What you have to do is get a whole load of dogs, randomly divide them into two lots, keep them all under identical conditions, feed one half the special food, the other half their normal food, then independently and objectively (e.g., using an automated timing system) measure the speed of each one, and statistically compare the results.  That is a very basic description, and there is a whole lot more detail and understanding required, which is why the average scientist spends around ten years in training after leaving school before they are allowed out on their own. 

It is also important to differentiate between science and technology.  In the strict definition, science is discovering how reality works.  Technology is about using scientific and other knowledge to make things and do stuff.  This is where the claim that science is ‘neutral’ originates.  Einstein was very strong on this; he saw Science as being a very powerful tool that could be used for good or evil.  Which one prevailed was down to human morality not science. 

Technology also predates science.  Many ancient and even modern pre-scientific civilisations built amazing, often huge ,buildings that you might think required science.  However, this was all done by trial and error and rule of thumb, many of them fell down due to poor design, and they were all made of wood and stone.  It is through the sciences of physics, chemistry and engineering, we can build things and accurately predict what kind of weight, wind, and other forces they can withstand.  We can also build out of materials inconceivable to a pre-scientific mind. 

A further important issue is that of science and objectivity.  The objectivity in science is where things get measured.  To go back to the dogs, it would not be OK for the scientist to just watch the dogs and say which he thought ran the fastest.  The measurement has to be objective not subjective.  Everything else in science is subjective (even the statistics), but to have a subjective measurement is poor science.  The gold standard for this in biological science is the double blind trial.  Unfortunately, the objectivity of measurement has morphed into a belief that science, as a whole is objective, which Joel so rightly complained about.  Let me repeat, the only objective part of science is measurement, all the rest is subjective, some of it very so. 

I said at the start that resolving my dispute with Joel and Dawkins lay outside the limits of science, of which there are two kinds.  The first are things that we would like to study scientifically but we don’t have the tools to do so, for example, it was impossible to study the microscopic world until the microscope was developed.  The other limit are things that cannot be studied using the scientific method,  these are very few are far between.  The one of interest to us here is ethics, i.e., the moral decisions humans make as to what is right and what is wrong.  Science can work out how and why humans make the moral decisions they do, but it can never speak as to which moral decisions are right or wrong.  It can analyse and study the effects and outcomes of moral decisions and compare them, but it cannot say that one is just and the other unjust.  Science is discovering where our morality comes from (our evolutionary biological heritage) but it cannot speak as to which moral decisions are correct and incorrect.  For science a moral decision is like a mathematical axiom or philosophical first principles, they just are. 

Let’s take an analogy.  About two hundred years ago, slavery was abolished in the democratic western world.  This was a moral decision not a scientific one.  If slavery had not been banned but continued to this day and was considered morally acceptable, science would be employed to work out how to use slaves more effectively, cheaply, innovatively, make them live longer, etc.,.  This does not make the science bad or unsound.  Bad / unsound science is science which fails to correctly implement the scientific experimental method, therefore producing potentially incorrect results.  What, from our current day perspective, is wrong with this scenario is that the morality underpinning what the science is studying is wrong.  The science is sound, neutral and (its measurements) objective.  The problem is the subject matter is morally repugnant. 

So what bearing does this have on Joel’s concerns?  We need to look at some ethical issues.  In 1971, Odum asked ‘What good are all those species that man cannot eat or sell?’  To reinforce my point science has no ability to even understand such a question let alone answer it.  The only way for humans to do this is by looking inside themselves and asking ‘what is just?’ or as Joel so beautifully puts it, “we must boldly and humbly hold fast to our heart”.  However, despite centuries of philosophers trying to give ethics a firm logical foundation they have failed.  This is not surprising as ethics is a castle-in-the-air.  Our morals come from our biological history, which is the result of a nearly infinite number of random evolutionary events.  To give a rather colourful example, if we were descended from spiders where the male is often eaten by the female after mating, we would consider it pretty poor form if a girl did not have a little ‘snack’ after sex.  Morals and ethics are not a fundamental part of the nature of reality as are the laws of physics and chemistry, they are a side effect of evolution.  The ethics programmed into our DNA is then further moulded by our culture, nature and nurture (not nature vs. nurture) which is why different cultures have different moral beliefs and why individuals within a culture vary in their morals.  To answer Odum, the answer depends on whom you ask.  The anthropocentric view sees elements of nature as valuable insofar as they serve human beings in one way or another.  The biocentric view is that non-human species and other natural things have intrinsic rights to exist and prosper independent of whether or not human beings derive satisfaction from them.  For anthropocentric read ‘industrial capitalists’ for biocentric read ‘environmentalists’ which of course includes the organic movement. 

So, Joel’s problem is not actually with the science, assuming it is being done correctly, in which case it is sound science.  It’s the moral foundations of the system that the science is researching.  If you believe chickens to be intrinsically worthless and only good if you are getting something out of it, you will cram them into sheds stuff them with food and antibiotics, to make as much money as possible.  If you consider a chicken to have intrinsic value to itself and that it is morally wrong to make it suffer, you’re going to let it free range, or in the case of vegans not keep them at all. 

Industrial agriculture has never clearly set out its morals unlike the organic movement which recently spent several years soul (heart) searching to come up with IFOAM’s four principles, (health, ecology, fairness, care) i.e., its ethical foundations.  For most of the world since the two world wars, the unstated ethical foundation of agriculture has been to maximise production per unit area and per unit labour.  This is not a scientific position; it is a moral and political one.  However, I suggest, that for most people maximising production is considered a scientific position.  This is the ‘sound science’ that Joel is regaling against, except its not science at all, it’s a moral position dressed up in scientific clothes.  The corollary of this is that neither is the environmentalist’s position that we should respect nature, scientific, it’s an political ethical position.  Science, can however, tell us what is the likely outcome of an anthropocentric or biocentric approach to living in the world.  To take the current hot (excuse the pun) example of climate change, science is saying that the anthropocentric approach is likely to kill the planet and us and the biocentric / environmental approach wont.  The science is not saying that one is right and one is wrong, it just says that one will kill us all the other will let us live.  When a climate scientists then says we should take one path rather than the other he or she has stopped taking a scientific perspective and has promoted a political position.  Most of the time neither the scientists making the statement nor their audience even know a philosophical slight of hand has occurred, and the science stopped and politics took over. 

Confusing the ethical decision of maximising yield with it being a scientific ‘fact’ is also Dawkins’ mistake.  This is why I can stand behind him when he challenges anti-science and in front of him when he challenges organics.  This is also why organics is pro-science.  Science is the only reliable means we have to accurately determine how reality works.  Organics wants a system of agriculture that recognises the intrinsic value of the biosphere and its contents and works within that system, and the best way to work out how to do that is to use science.  We then need to use appropriate technology to implement the knowledge generated by science to sustainably live in our one and only biosphere. 

So Joel, the next time your sitting at one of those highly polished governmental tables, choking on the sound science (without the apostrophes) being served up to you, its not the science at fault it’s the moral values of the system the science is being used to support.  You may be better to attack the fact that production maximisation is not a scientific concept, the emperor has no (scientific) clothes. That logically its insane and that there is increasing scientific evidence that show the damage being to the biosphere which includes Homo sapiens.  Shout as loud as you can that the only objective thing in science is measurement, all the rest is subjective and open to interpretation and criticism.  You also could point out that the underlying morals of their system are one of selfishness, greed and the worthlessness of other life forms; a moral position that was, until recently, also extended to slaves, Africans and women.  Finally you could explain that the economy and industrial consumerism is tiny parasite within it biosphere host, and that while small in comparison, it is excreting so many toxins that the host is dying, and when the host dies, so does its parasites. 

Finally don’t underestimate the manipulation of science by politics, of which American politics is the worst offender by far.  Machiavelli would learn a lot were he alive today and working on Capital Hill. 

Home Contact Legal Personal Professional Research Misc

Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.