POINT COUNTERPOINT

January 25, 2011

On Wednesday, January 26 at the Unified Symposium in Sacramento I’ll be on a panel discussing Biodynamics in a point counterpoint format.  Should be interesting.  BTW, the Unified Symposium is a large trade/equipment show that also has presentations on various topics.

Joe Roberts of the 1winedude.com blog did a  point counterpoint with Alan York and me.  Last Tuesday Joe posted a 40+ minute conversation with Alan York, a Biodynamic consultant on four continents and this morning posted my conversation which runs a little longer. 

There’s an awful lot I could say about Alan’s segment, but I think I’ll refrain, at least for a while and until most folks have heard it. 

Stuart Smith

Advertisements

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

January 11, 2011

 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


POSTMODERNISM, RATIONALISM AND BIODYNAMICS

January 5, 2011

 Biodynamics and the Limits of Rationalism, Clark Smith, Wines & Vines January 2011.

 Clark and I have had some lively exchanges about Biodynamics and it’s clear that neither of us is convincing the other to change our views. 

Clark is a “postmodernist” who seems to believe, like Steiner, that science is limiting and that there is more to this world than science can answer: At best, truth is soft and ephemeral and truth is what we wish it to be or what we can get away with — in fact, there may be no truths!  This “beyond science” postmodernist approach also seems to accept that our current language is limiting and the new era should utilize a new language – something Clark clearly embraces with his writing style. 

 Herein lays the very essence of the Biodynamic debate.  I reject virtually everything written in this article as utter nonsense because I reject the notion that science is limiting.  We should not abandon our search for the truth because it is difficult.  Clark’s article is an apologist’s love letter to Biodynamic farming.  He believes that Biodynamics should be held to a different standard because we now live in a postmodern world where truth is not out there.  

Specifically:

I seriously doubt Red Mountain, Hearty Burgundy and White Zinfandel consumers care one whit whether their wine is “soulful” or “transformative.”    Many, maybe most of us in the premium wine side of our industry, forget that we are not the center of the universe.  Let’s keep this subject in perspective – Sutter Home makes more White Zinfandel than the entire Napa Valley produces and their sales are up a whopping 25% or so. 

Should Biodynamics, which requires a leap of faith, be acceptable to us?   Should we also accept the idea that science can’t model complex systems, farming or not, or accept the “intractability (of B-d) to conventional scientific practices” (Clark’s term)?  I answer with a resounding NO!   Just because it may be difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done.   Start with definitions, develop theories, test those theories and repeat the process.  Do Biodynamic wines taste better?  Do buried cow horns work?  Do tea sprays stop mildew?  Is the carbon footprint larger, the same or smaller than organic or sustainable farming?  What is the social cost-benefit from the various farming systems?  I know that experiments can be designed to test these types of hypotheses – saying it can’t be done is just a cop-out.

 Clark’s passage on Adam Smith gets it completely wrong.  Adam Smith’s theories on Capitalism were not from “imagination” and “science fiction” (as were Steiner’s) but from careful study, travel and observation of world economies.  Modern economics is based on formalizing the idea of the invisible hand.  Game Theory and Neuro Economics  are just two examples of scientific research bringing the light of day to Clark’s “fundamental mysteries.”  

The brain and mind are no longer forbidden topics of research as  Clark would have us believe.  For research  being done to unravel the mysteries of music appreciation – see Blood and Zatorre, 2001, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 I could hardly believe my eyes when I read “All Biodynamics needs to do in order to be valid is to survive and thrive.”  Does this mean that fascism, communism, racism, homeopathic medicine, tarot card/palm reading and astrology are all now “valid?”

 I don’t understand why Clark believes that Acupuncture can’t or shouldn’t be critically evaluated?  Again, it may be messy and take effort and time to sort out the various studies and the cultural biases, but it is not impossible.  In a recent article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker (more on this in the next post) Lehrer points out that when the studies were conducted in Asia all 47 studies showed efficacy for Acupuncture, yet when studied in the West only 56 showed efficacy out of the 94 studies.  Time will sort out what and who is correct – which is exactly what science is all about.  Again, science is messy and slow and we should remain skeptics.

 Clark goes on with Philip Armenier’s “poetic language” regarding preparations and energy forces and then drops the bomb “Word confusion is the common stamp of paradigm shifts.”  A paradigm shift?  It certainly appears that Clark is heralding that Biodynamics will triumph and be the new farming standard!  I’ve re-read this section a dozen times and if Biodynamics sounds “nuts” to Clark, as he claims, then why would he write this? 

The part on Alan York is typical of what I call “Biodynamic speak.”  What’s not to like about what Alan says?  A closed system, biodiversity, funny little preparations and a holistic approach: Clark left out motherhood and apple pie.   It sounds lovely and says absolutely nothing!  The devil is in the details and Clark and Alan York never address the details.  If it’s a closed system then why is it OK to truck compost from up to 250 miles away from the farm?  If Biodynamics employs a holistic approach than why is it OK to use the very nasty pesticide PyGanic which contains Prethrins?  Why is it OK to use a nasty pesticide made from chrysanthemums than a more environmentally friendly one made from the petrochemical industry?

 I take offense at Clark’s claim that I and/or others delighted in our Biodynamic neighbors getting Powdery Mildew.  Once again Clark is wrong, because that is not true.  It was my understanding that many growers got mildew this year and if we were to single out one group that got hurt the most it would be the organic growers, not the Biodynamic farmers.  I don’t understand why that would be, but I’ve heard that from many of my associates who are vineyard managers.  IMO, there is no excuse for getting mildew.  It is absolutely preventable if you pay attention to your farming practices.  I had mildew in the past and it was my fault – period.  I swore I’d never get again and I haven’t.

 Science, with all its faults, searching for the truth or Biodynamics supported by a postmodern view that goes “beyond science” and says truth is relative – your choice.

Stuart Smith