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BTW, the research that Linda Buck did to share that Prize was not the research which was retracted; she was not the lead author and it was not her data that were brought into question.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