It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. ~ Mark Twain
When George Gershwin composed the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, he was onto something. I’d love to have a nickel for everything I was taught or told or just accepted as fact in the course of my life. From food preservation to gardening to animal husbandry to medicine to finance, there have been a lot more ‘not-so’ things than ‘so’ things. A while back I did a post on not needing to waterbath jams and jellies; I got more than 100 comments corroborating my “not-so” position. At which point it occurred to me there are lots of other not-so things out there, and shazaam, I had an ongoing blog topic. Here’s the latest “it ain’t necessarily so” (IANS).
Science is the answer for agriculture (and health and everything else)
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you don’t ask the right question, science can be a disaster.
Point one: research is often done in the lab, where all known variables can be controlled. Two problems with this approach. The first is that in the real world, the variables can’t be controlled. What works in the lab quite often doesn’t work at all in the field. Second, in the real world, all sorts of things are happening in synergy. Take raw milk. Michael Pollan, in his excellent book Cooked, talks about an experiment performed by a nun who is also a cheesemaker. Sister Noella Marcellino has a PhD in microbiology, so she’s not your garden-variety nun. The good sister took a sterile stainless steel container and her wooden cheesemaking container (which is never washed, just rinsed with cold water). She put raw milk in both and then dumped in a nice little culture of E. coli, bacteria that live in human feces and can make you very sick. Within a day or so, the milk in the stainless steel container became overgrown with E. coli; the milk in the wooden container had almost no E. coli. Obviously, something in the interaction between the raw milk and the wood or the bacteria that lived in one or the other (or both) kept the E. coli from multiplying. This is the real world.
Point two, depending on science for answers is dicey because how an experiment is set up affects the outcome. Let’s say you want to compare conventionally-grown vegetables with organic vegetables. You take a field that has been conventionally farmed, grow half the vegetables organically for one year and then compare the two crops. Any organic farmer worth her salt will tell you that if you start with land that has been conventionally farmed, you’ll need to spend at least three to five years getting the soil back in shape before it’s reasonably healthy and produces well. If you have a field on one side of the road that has been conventionally farmed for a decade and a field on the other side that has been organically farmed for a decade, and you compared the veggies from those two plots, do you think there might be a difference between the two crops? I’d say odds are high. Remember that when you see research that says conventionally grown veggies are just as nutritious as organic (and by the way, the really good, honest studies I’ve seen indicate organic stuff is better in almost all respects).
Take a Missouri Approach
Missouri is the “show me” state. The mental attitude of “you’ll have to prove it to me” is a good one. Use your common sense. When your experience or that of people you trust is contrary to accepted scientific wisdom or expert recommendations, odds are very high the scientific wisdom and the experts are out to lunch. Ask the old homicide lawyer’s question, “Cui bono?” Loosely translated as “Who benefits?” what it actually means is “To whose profit?” When big bucks, company survival or professional reputations are on the line, ethics quite often take a back seat. Circus entrepreneur PT Barnum was the one who coined the sucker-born-every-minute rule. Don’t be a sucker and remember: it ain’t necessarily so.