What do a Nobel Prize, a Sydney Award and The SF Chronicle have in common?

 Bad science and Biodynamics of course!  Well, Biodynamics, that is, from a certain point of view! 

I’d like to follow-up my January 5 post, POSTMODERNISM, RATIONALISM & BIODYNAMICS with some real-life examples of how science polices itself, seemingly fails, and can become a captive of the political system.  This may also help explain why so many folks distrust science and scientists, and thus can accept Steiner’s claim that he goes beyond science.   But there is a happy ending – good honest scientists and science win out in the long run.  Allow me to re-work a wonderful phrase from Lincoln – you can fool all of the scientists some of the time, and some of the scientists all of the time, but you can’t fool all the scientists all of the time.     

The New York Times, The New Yorker and The San Francisco Chronicle all have had recent articles which I believe bear on the Biodynamic farming controversy.   The New York Times and The New Yorker articles detail stories on how scientific research is faltering –  yet make a great point about how difficult and complicated and how very messy really good science is.   The Chronicle’s article is about the California Air Resources Board (CARB) overstating diesel pollution levels by 340% – to advance a political agenda.  

Nobel Winner in Physiology Retracts Two Papers, The New York Times, September 24, 2010.   This is a short article about Linda Buck, who shared the Nobel Prize for work with the sense of smell, retracting one paper each from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the journal Science because key findings could not be reproduced.  

I suspect that Rudolf Steiner would likely use these retractions to show, yet again, how limiting science is and how science gets it wrong so often.   Not me.  I view this as a scientific success story.   Research paper gets presented, questions arise, and the results can’t be reproduced so the paper gets retracted.   Science, overcomes a setback, and moves closer to revealing a truth.  It wasn’t good research to begin with, or possibly worse, so what’s not to like with the outcome?  

Contrast that to Biodynamics.  Can someone show me the rigorous peer reviewed research that demonstrates burying a cow horn transmits cosmic energy into the earth?  Have others successfully reproduced that (non-existent) research?  Yeah, I’m still waiting too.  

BTW, the research that Linda Buck did to share that Prize was not the research which was retracted; she was not the lead author and it was not her data that were brought into question. 

The Truth Wears Off, by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, December 13, 2010.  Here is a provocative article looking at science and how research isn’t holding up to scrutiny over time, at least in the fields of psychology and ecology.  As the saying goes, it’s the talk of the town, in part, because David Brooks gave it one of his Sydney Awards.  It’s a wonderful read. 

The term that Lehrer is focusing on is called the “decline effect,” which was originally coined by Joseph Banks at Duke University when he was researching ESP.  Banks had some test subjects who demonstrated remarkable ESP abilities, well above the statistical chance threshold, but as time went on the test results became unremarkable, just as ordinary as guessing.  

Jonathan Schooler, from University of Washington, did some remarkable work with language and memory which included remembering the tastes of wine.  Unfortunately, as time went on he too had difficulty replicating his work.  He then began to wonder if there might be a broader problem with research in his field of psychology; after all, what good is research if it can’t hold up to time and be replicated?  Is it just the decline effect or something more?  Schooler identified a flaw, works on understanding why the flaw occurs and then works to find a solution. This is good science; this is how it’s supposed to work. 

Again, if Steiner could have read this article, I suspect he would have used it to sneer at and deride modern science.  And again, not me.  Science is not a clean process, it’s messy, it’s challenging and it’s very, very hard to prove things, especially in the social sciences and new fields like ecology.  In science, failures are valuable because they narrow the search for the truth.  Unfortunately, it seems most Americans scan the headlines on TV or glimpse a newspaper and it seems that bad science gets bigger headlines than good science.  They get confused with the mixed messages, don’t understand the process and tune out.  Just look at global warming.  How can ordinary people be expected to sort out what is true when both sides seem to have scientists taking exactly opposite positions?

Particularly irritating to me is the October 8, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article “Overestimate fueled state’s landmark diesel law.”  CARB has a political agenda, which was to garner support for their proposed air quality regulations, which when passed became the most restrictive air standards in the country, and it seems that a little something like science wasn’t going to get in their way.  Fortunately, a couple of top-notch scientists, one from UC Berkeley (go Bears!) and one from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, got together and did their own work and guess what, CARB had overstated the pollution numbers by 340%.  A simple accident, or something else?

And if that wasn’t enough, sometime in 2008 Mary Nichols, Chairwoman of CARB, learned that their lead researcher lied on his job application about his PhD and Nichols kept that information from the rest of her Board.   Only because Board member Dr. John Telles did his own investigation and discovered the truth did Chairwoman Nichols confess to her board about the deception and cover-up.  This confession occurred one day before the board voted on very stringent regulations which were based on this researcher’s data.

Here’s what I think are some of the take away message from these three vignettes:

  • Be skeptical, and then be skeptical some more.
  • Be patient, sometimes it takes a very long time to sort out fact from fantasy.
  • With science, as with many other issues, especially politics, follow the money, the agenda and/or who’s to gain before blindly accepting some fact or theory.
  • Science is practiced by humans and we humans are flawed.
  • Even the best scientists get it wrong once in a while.
  • The scientists—the good and honest ones—eventually get it right and advance our understanding of our universe. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if Biodynamic promoters had such rigorous standards to back up their claims of superiority?

Stuart Smith

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14 Responses to What do a Nobel Prize, a Sydney Award and The SF Chronicle have in common?

  1. Sheldon Haynie says:

    Biodynamics are in the same category as Anthropomorphic Global Warming. There’s a decreed (politically) desired, outcome and the data is evaluated to support it.

    No doubt burying a cow’s horn full of Bull fertilizer has some modest effect, but not likley more than the fertilizer and calcium from the horn would have if poured from bags of triple 15 and calcium nitrate.

    But the power of belief is a strong one, and keeps people engaged in behaviours which may of themself be positive.

    • Isotope says:

      Yes Sheldon, the power of belief is a strong one. You may see what you believe is an inherent goodness in people, thereby positive, but my suspicion is that belief is a negative. Just ask the families of anyone who’s been killed by a suicide bomber or religious zealot terrorist.

      Will the BD nut-cases make bombs and blow themselves up on Monsanto? I seriously doubt it, but culturing a society of acceptance of flim-flam men and fairy-tales, in my humble opinion, creates more harm than the temporary pain for the insular ego of telling someone they are wrong when they are blatantly actually wrong.

      Anyone seen the movie Idiocracy? It’s worth it.

  2. David Vergari says:

    There is no question burying a cow’s horn will transmIt cosmic forces to the earth…provided the cow in question jumped over the moon first.

  3. Larry Perrine says:

    Good post,

    I think there is a perception problem regarding what the scientific method is. Even for those of us trained in a science. Clean, shiny lab, white coat, one variable, statistical analysis, one question answered. But it is indeed messy. Over the long-haul, self-correcting, even when you throw in fraud. Consider that post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy was shown by scientific studies to be healthy and life-enhancing. Until other scientific studies showed that it increased the incidence and mortality of breast cancer. Hence, the decline in use of hormone replacement therapy and a subsequent drop-off in female breast cancer rates. It is hard to accept the about-faces when science corrects itself. But that is how knowledge evolves. Now, if only we can find a way to guarantee that the placebo effect will always work if you know you are getting the placebo.

    Thanks Stuart and all contributors to an enlivening dialogue.

    • biodynamicshoax says:

      Larry,
      I totally agree with you.

      When we first started Smith-Madrone on 1971 we had to get a logging permit to re-claim the old vineyard and part of that permit required us to remove all large woody debris from the streams and cut down all dead snags. Removing the large woody debris was for stream flow and to prevent flooding and removing the snags was for fire prevention.

      Thirty years later we did another small logging job and the environmental rules changed 180 degrees. Because large woody debris offered shelter to fish during large water events we were prohibited from removing them. Because dead snags were now viewed as biodiversity we were prohibited from cutting them down.

      When I was a member of the Napa River Watershed Task Force I asked one of fisheries scientists if large woody debris wouldn’t increase sedimentation and hence a reduction in the spawning redds. He answered that sedimentation was old news and that large woody debris was more important.

      I suspect that in another 30 years they’ll have another view, which will hopefully be closer to the truth.
      Thanks,
      Stu

  4. Doug Smith says:

    Another article in today’s NYTimes Science section on the way that statistical techniques in the sciences can lead to false-positives:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/science/11esp.html

    The last paragraph also alludes to the so-called “file drawer” effect, that skews positive outcomes. (Negatives are left in the file drawer and never published).

    Thanks again for your work, Stu.

    • biodynamicshoax says:

      Doug,
      Thanks for the heads up on the article – it was a great read and right on point. Let me back-up on that “great read’” I got my worst grade at Cal in Statistics 5, I hated it. The first half of the article was great, but toward the end of the article I remembered why I did so poorly in that stats class.

      BTW, instead of clicking through on your hyperlink I picked up The Times and read the article. As I was glancing through the Science section the headline “Cave Drops Hints to Earliest Glass of Red” caught my eye. Off topic, but here is a very neat article that scientists have found the oldest winemaking site dating back 6,100 years. They found a fermenting vat, press, jars, a drinking vessel and grape seeds that they hope to grow out.

      Here is one reason I love newspapers over reading articles on the internet.
      Thanks again,
      Stu

    • Doug Smith says:

      Yes, it’s a good issue today. I get mine by hardcopy as well.

      Cheers,
      Doug

  5. Jason says:

    You’re right in that it’s the standards which provide the impetus to revealing truth. The fact that very rarely (there are, what tens of thousands of scientific research papers published every year?) people stumble is a testament to the process. The stumble is revealed, and not repeated again. This process and these standards do not exist in faith-based processes like BD. To question it simply labels you an “unbeliever.”

    • biodynamicshoax says:

      Jason,
      Thanks for agreeing. I wanted to address the whole issue with junk science, science in the court room, purchased science to promote a product or a cause but there is only so much room.
      Stu

  6. Isotope says:

    Very nice post Stu,

    I have to say you are spot-on with this blog. I think one other notable commentary is that science is also flexible, what may have evidence today, and may currently be the rational paradigm, may become contradicted by better evidence tomorrow, which I think the lay person does not like. Absolutes for most are far more comforting than the hazy-grays of science.

    It would be nice if the media portrayed good science as often as it does bad science. I’ve been saying we need a science reality show for some time…

    • biodynamicshoax says:

      Isotope,
      I’m pleased that you approve of the post. Praise from you means a lot.
      Thanks,
      Stu

    • Doug Smith says:

      Mythbusters does a good job of showing non-scientists attacking problems empirically. They also re-do experiments that they or their viewers believe were done poorly.

      I also recall a (two part?) series on PBS that followed grad students in a biology lab at Columbia University. Problem is that the scientific process is not particularly telegenic, particularly if you want to show it in any depth.

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