Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kung Fu of Skepticism

In my last post I laid out my concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Basically, I suggested that they are being developed as a means of propping up an inherently unsustainable agricultural model, one that I think will eventually collapse and be replaced by something that I called "Daoist Agriculture".

But in doing so, I avoided the question that raised the issue in the first place.  That is, the book and movie titled "Genetic Roulette".   I'm going to do something that I try not to do and which I usually criticize others for doing, I am going to pass judgement on something that I have only skimmed over and not actually seen in it's entirety.  If someone thinks that I have been totally unfair, please mention it to me----but please cite an actual place in the book or movie so I can look them up.  I tried to watch the movie, but after 20 minutes I ceased being able to take it seriously.  Similarly, I glanced at the book and had the same response to it.

When I mentioned this response to my wife, who had suggested I watch the film in the first place, she complained that unless one is a scientist it is almost impossible to know whom to trust.   This is a significant problem, so I thought I'd explain why it was that I don't trust this movie and the book that goes with it.  In doing so, I'll illustrate some "rules of thumb" that I rely upon to try and navigate complex issues.

The first thing that I found disconcerting about the film was the way it shamelessly used the rhetoric of film-making to reinforce its message.  It used ominous sounding background music a lot.  The thing about emotional appeals like this is that it is very easy to "short-circuit" the part of our minds that is logical and reasonable.  Once you by-pass people's rationality, you can often stampede them into accepting all sorts of dubious claims.  That is why philosophers and scientists can often seem maddeningly unemotional when you talk to them.  They have consciously chosen to develop one particular style of being that they have found is more reliable than others.

This was the first red flag.

Secondly, the movie introduced the issues in question through the use of rhetorical questions that I found extremely suspicious.  As memory serves me (it is no longer possible to see the movie for free, and I refuse to pay for another viewing), the film starts out with a series of open-ended questions that suggest that things like obesity have been caused by eating GMOs.

When I saw this, I immediately thought about Occam's Razor.  That is the rule of thumb that states that if you see more than one explanation for a phenomenon, you should opt for the simplest one.  In the case of the growth of obesity in North America, it makes a lot more sense to suggest that it is a combination of the change in people's diets and the decline in physical activity that I have personally witnessed over the past 50 years, instead of GMOs.

That was the second red flag.

The third thing I noticed was the fact that a lot of medical doctors were being interviewed for this documentary, instead of research scientists.  MDs are not scientists.  In fact, the job of being an MD really should select for different types of people than that of scientists.  That's because the role of the MD is to deal with the individual and the specific---this patient who has that particular disease.  Instead, the job of a scientist is to look for the general trend and to try to remove as much as possible, the viewpoint given by one person.   MDs are almost inevitably going to be basing their understanding on anecdotal evidence.  And that can get you into a lot of trouble when you try to make broad generalizations.  That's because human beings are so darned complex that there can be a huge number of variables at work when any given symptom manifests itself.  For example, my joints are aching right now.  Is it because I'm getting a cold?  Because of the change in weather?  Because of food I ate for lunch?  To be totally honest, I don't have a clue, and truth be told, I don't think anyone else with the same sort of symptoms can tell either.  That is why scientists go to enormous lengths to create double-blind experiments with as large a sample of the population as possible.  The hope is that if you don't know who got what (ie "double blind") your personal bias ceases to be an issue.  And if you have a lot of subjects, you can hope that all the other variables (food, weather, etc) will cancel themselves out in the final number count.

This was the third red flag.

Another thing that I was concerned about was the publisher that printed the book that the movie was based upon.  I had never heard of "Yes! Books", and when I did a Google search I couldn't find it.  That makes me a little concerned that the book might be self-published.  If you look carefully on the back cover it says distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing.  I simply cannot find any evidence that "Yes! Books" exists as a corporate entity that publishes anything except books by Jeffrey M. Smith.

This is an issue because publishing houses need to exercise caution when they publish books.  First of all, because they are liable to lawsuits if the books make fraudulent or libelous claims. Secondly, because they can destroy their reputations if they put out a "stinker".  This is why it is generally useful to take more seriously a book from a prestigious publisher than something that is self-published or comes from something like a "New Age" publisher.

Bjorn Lomborg
I admit that exceptions can happen, but when they do people often raise a fuss in response.  A case in point comes from the notorious Skeptical Environmentalist which was published by one of the most prestigious English publishing houses:  Cambridge University Press.  This press was absolutely vilified by the scientific community by lending its name to one of the most notorious examples of "junk science" that has ever blighted public discourse.  The author of this book, Bjorn Lomborg, has been cited for academic misconduct in this book by the body that governs Danish academics and the prestigious journal Scientific American actually devoted an entire issue to debunking the book.

This was the fourth red flag.

Jeffrey M. Smith
After seeing these other items, I decided it would be a good idea to do a Google search for the author, Jeffrey M. Smith.  Low and behold, I came across this website.  It appears that Mr. Smith has a history as a supporter of transcendental meditation and there are actually pictures of him "demonstrating" "yogic flying".  Of course, it is possible that this was a "youthful folly" that he has left in the past.  It is also true that people can have all sorts of eccentricities that have no effect on the soundness of the arguments they put forward.  But as a general rule, people judge people by whether or not they appear to have a shown a sound grasp of reality in their previous life.

This sets out a fifth red flag.

The next stage of my investigation is to do another Google search, this one for "Criticism Genetic Roulette".  And if you do that, you come back to a different part of the same site that produced the above picture.  The site seems to refute every substantive claim made in the book and movie about GMOs being unsafe to eat.  I quickly glanced at the arguments in support of a couple of these assertions (there is a TON of evidence cited on this website), and they seemed to be referring to legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

At this point, I have my sixth red flag.

I admit that something might come along and change my opinion, but until that happens I'm of the opinion my time is better spent doing something else.  And any fears that I might have had that GMOs are poisoning our citizenry have been dissipated.

That is not to say that there is nothing of value in the book and movie.  After all, a stopped clock is still correct twice a day.  But IMHO, neither one has any credibility with me so I would never believe anything they say because they say it.  If I believe any of the issues raised in either has any value, it is because of authorities I have seen outside of it, not because it is raised in the documentary.

And, as I pointed out in the previous post, I do have issues with GMOs.  But the evidence I've seen has to do more with the social implications for farmers rather than anything else.

But I hope that the exercise of explaining why I don't trust Genetic Roulette will help readers walk the minefield of public policy.  To recapitulate, the six tests I put this book and movie through involved answering six questions:

  1. Is the book or movie trying to manipulate our emotions instead of talking to our reason?
  2. Is it trying to suggest a cause for a problem that is more easily explained by a mundane reason?
  3. Are they citing authorities who are outside of their field of expertise?
  4. Is the publisher reputable or is the publisher a company with either no track record or a bad one?
  5. Find out what you can about the author.  Is he someone you can trust?
  6. Look to see if anyone has raised any questions about the book.  Is that person more or less trustworthy than the author?

What I have gone through in the above is a type of "kung fu".  As I've mentioned before, kung fu is not martial arts, but martial arts can be kung fu, which is nothing more than proficiency gained through diligent practice.  Practicing the kung fu of skepticism means that you have made a decision to look at as much of the world through a specific lense that will give you a greater chance of separating truth from fiction.  As my wife's question about understanding things without being a scientist implies, science is a skeptical kung fu, one involves very careful evaluation of all statements in a given field.  But ordinary people can develop the sorts of rules of thumb that I've used above to separate truth from what Jon Stewart calls "Bullshit Mountain".  In fact, the internet makes it a lot easier to identify baloney because of Google searches and the ease with which someone can post evidence that undermines misleading information.  In addition, there are several really good sites devoted to helping people identify baloney.  Here're a few:  

Snopes:  An excellent site that debunks urban legends.  In fact, it's fun to just browse it.
Quackwatch:  This site is devoted to debunking fraudulent medical claims.  
Science Based Medicine:  Another site debunking fraudulent medical claims.
Skeptical Inquirer:  This is great magazine published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
Skeptoid:  Oops.  Forgot to add this great and very entertaining resource.  Sign up for his weekly podcasts---you'll be glad you did!

Ancient Daoists were able to survive in the wilderness because they understood the way of nature.  But people are part of nature, and human civilization is yet another manifestation of the Dao.  If we live in a technological civilization we need to understand the Dao of science and technology if we are going "ride the dragon" and "fly with the phoenix".  The kung fu of skepticism is a key skill that all Daoists must learn.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dao of Agriculture

My wife recently saw a movie that had her all in a flurry about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), it's title is "Genetic Roulette" and it purports to show how dangerous genetically modified food is to eat.  It started a very heated argument between the two of us.  Since then I've been spending a lot of time thinking on the subject and thought I'd share my ideas with my readers.

Before I get too involved in all of this, let me state clearly what I think about GMOs.   Like in most things, I always stand to be corrected if I see some evidence that supports changing my opinion.  Having said that, I do not like GMOs, because I think that they are destructive to family farms and the environment.  As I see it, there are currently two competing models of agriculture fighting for control of the food supply.

Masanobu Fukuoka
 On one hand there are what I would call "Daoist" models that try to work with nature and mimic the systems were in play before human beings came on the scene.  The great guru of this approach was Masanobu Fukuoka.   He was trained as an agronomist but suffered a physical and mental collapse after the end of WWII.  This resolved itself in an insight that people blind themselves to what is going on around them by thinking that they know more than they actually do.  After wandering around Japan like a crazy person telling people that they didn't know anything, it occurred to him that he should put this insight into practice and use it to work a farm that he had inherited from his father.  He set out to let the plants and trees on his farm to "just be" and see what happened.  The results were disastrous, as the carefully pruned, mulched and fertilized orange trees were destroyed by insect pests.

He didn't give up, however.  Instead, he realized that farming with nature is not the same thing as being a passive observer.  So he carefully observed natural processes at work in nature and developed agricultural techniques that mimicked them.  For example, he realized that the process of tilling the soil to plant seeds also made conditions ideal for weeds too.  After experimentation, he found out that all a seed needs to germinate is a small coating of clay that mimics the effect of being buried in the soil.  So he learned how to create little seed envelopes that covered each seed.  Once he had these, he found he could simply broadcast the clay pellets onto last year's stubble and get consistent germination---but only of the crop he was planting, not the weeds.

Joel Salatin
This type of farming is not a specific technique, but rather a kungfu, which means the example of Fukuoka can inspire similar attitudes in others but cannot be copied and moved all over the world.

One North American who has used a similar attitude to create a very different system is Joel Salatin, who operates Polyface Farm.  His system is not based on fruit and rice, like Fukuoka's, but instead works around livestock production, based on trying to recreate the plant and animal relationships in a prairie.  To simplify, he carefully monitors his pastures to ensure that his cows graze the grass only enough to stimulate new, tender, nutritious growth but not long enough to harm the plants and select for tougher, less valuable types of grass.  When this point is reached, he moves the cows onto another part of the farm----which mimics the way wild grazers constantly migrate to better pasture.  After the cows have left, Salatin then moves in mobile chicken coups that bring in his flock of chickens.  These birds eat the maggots in the cow patties left in the field but in the process also spread the manure evenly so no part of the pasture suffers from being smothered.  This mimics the actions of the birds----like prairie chickens---who used to follow the herds of bison across the great plains.  At this point, it is necessary to monitor the grass so it doesn't start to toughen up or "waste" energy on seed production before the cows are brought back into the field.

Using this principle of "working with nature" or, what I would call, "understanding the dao of the farm", both Salatin and Fukuoka were able to create farms that were more productive than their neighbours while using a fraction of the effort and outside agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, etc.)  At the same time, they also found that they were increasing the value of the soil.  In Salatin's case, he has transformed a farm with the worst soil in the county to one of the best.

Norman Borlaug
In contrast to this "Daoist farming", there is another, dominant type of farming---usually identified as the "Green Revolution", but which I would suggest is better described as "industrial farming".  It is usually associated with the American agronomist Norman Borlaug.  But I would argue that it owes just as much to industrialist thinkers like Henry Ford.

The important things to understand about industrial farming is that it has two key elements:  dependence on fossil fuels, and, integration into a global industrial machine.   And because of those two underlying issues, it invariably follows the dictates of international capitalism.

Fritz Haber
Modern industrial agriculture is based on the assumption that it is possible to cheaply purchase various fertilizers that are energy intensive to create and transport.  Probably the most energy intensive of these is so-called "fixed nitrogen" which is created from nitrogen in the atmosphere.  Traditionally, farms used to be limited to the amount of nitrogen that could be recycled through things like manures or fixed by plants such as legumes.  But during the First World War a system for artificially fixing nitrogen was created by an chemist by the name of Fritz Haber.  It uses a great deal of energy, because it is difficult to get nitrogen gas to bond with the other elements that make it useful for plants.

Green Revolution agriculture not only needs to bring intrinsically expensive inputs, like artificially-created fixed nitrogen, but it also has has to create international markets to ship crops and products all over the world.  For example, another constituent of artificial fertilizer, potash, is only available to be mined in a very few places in the world.  This means that an international potash trade needs to be created that will allow it to be shipped where it is needed.

Once we have these artificial inputs in hand, it became apparent that traditional varieties of crops couldn't maximize the potential from these inputs.  That is because those breeds had been developed in an environment where these types of nutrients were not plentiful.  This meant that once you start using the artificial fertilizer, you also eventually stop saving seeds and start buying them from international corporations.

And once you start purchasing these things from international corporations---like Canada's Potash Corp. and the USA's Monsanto---the farmer no longer can get away with selling his harvest to his neighbours.  He needs hard currency and the best way to get that is to sell on the international market. And because there are inevitable fluctuations between the price he gets paid and fertilizer costs, it is inevitable that the farmer needs to go to a bank to borrow money to tide him over through hard times.
Once they get into the clutches of a bank, many farmers almost inevitably find themselves caught up in a debt spiral that ends up with them losing the land and being bought out by a neighbour.

The same process has occurred in India, Missouri and Ontario.  It happened to my family farm---which had been owned by my ancestors since 1811.  This is why small-scale, mixed family farms are becoming a rare thing.  It is why when I ride the train to St. Louis to visit my wife Illinois appears to be one giant corn field.

So what's the problem?

The issue for me is that we are running out of cheap energy as we enter into Peak Oil .  Measured in terms of output per input, industrial agriculture is grotesquely inefficient.  It isn't that far-fetched to say that modern people eat oil.  In fact, the only way in which industrial agriculture is "efficient" is in terms of output per man-hour of work.  In terms of soil conservation, environmental sustainability and output per input, it is the worst, least efficient system.  As the price of oil continues to ratchet up, this is going to get worse and worse.  This will put more and more stress on farmers and consumers until eventually our farms start to fail catastrophically.  My understanding is that this is already happening, as I have been told that the largest fraction of income for farms in Ontario comes from the off-farm job that farmers and their spouses use to subsidize their operation.  I have also been told that the only farmers who are making money are small-scale producers, predominately organic farms.  (I.e., the guys who are following some approximation of the Daoist system mentioned above.)

A cutworm and the damage it did.
As I see it, GMOs are sort of a "last gasp" technology which are attempting to prop-up the unsustainable industrial agricultural system.  They do not benefit family farms, which have other mechanisms for dealing with the issues that GMOs address.  To cite one example, a specific type of gene has been inserted into GMO corn that renders it resistant to various pests, including cutworm.  On our farm cutworm was controlled through crop rotation and by cultivation.  In mono-cultured areas---like that giant corn field called Illinois---the fields are not cultivated but instead follow "no-till" systems because it is the only way farmers can cultivate such huge fields with giant machines without suffering from severe erosion.  As well, because the only thing being grown is corn, there are no crops that can be rotated with the corn to starve out the pests.  (In our case, we used to grown mixed wheat and mixed oats, which we added to the pig feed.)

It turns out, however, that there seems to be evidence that GMO resistant cutworms are now emerging through natural selection.  If this is true, and I cannot see why it won't eventually happen even if these reports turn out to be false, then industrial farmers will find themselves forced to find some other "magic bullet" to protect themselves from the effects of creating a system of farming that goes against every rule that Mother Nature has created for making a strong eco-system.

The important thing to realize about industrial agriculture is that once it has been created it is damned difficult to switch back to something that is closer to Daoist agriculture.  The old infrastructure of barns, houses, fence rows, the small-sized equipment, etc, are all gone.  Even worse, the old knowledge that informed farmers is totally gone too.   This is really important, as farmers do a lot of things simply because their father did it that way without knowing why.  To cite one example, when I was writing this blog post I mentioned the necessity of tillage to control cutworms.  I didn't know it was important until I looked things up---I thought that crop rotation was the only thing needed.  But if I was still on the land, I would still have been tilling the soil and watching the flocks of seagulls following the tractor, not knowing that they were eating the cutworms that I had unearthed with the discs or cultivators.

New farmers not only don't know a lot of the theory of how to farm, they don't even know how to do small-scale farming from a "monkey see, monkey do" perspective.  This disconnect between the past and the future is going to cause huge problems when it becomes simply too expensive to do Industrial agriculture anymore.  That's why it is so important to try and support Daoist agriculture whichever way we can.  That's why I don't support GMOs, they just allow a dying dinosaur to live a little bit longer and cause even more chaos when it eventually collapses.

Please note, though, the above critique says nothing about GMOs being unhealthy to eat.  But I've written enough already for more than one post.  I'll save that discussion for later.


It became clear to me after responding to some comments that I had not made myself nowhere clear enough about the distinction between what I am calling "Daoist Farming", "Industrial Farming" and old-fashioned "Mixed Farms".   I am not suggesting that our agricultural system needs to return to the way things were done a hundred years ago.  That would result in mass starvation, amongst other things.  But I would suggest that it will be easier to transition from old fashioned Mixed Farms to Daoist Farming than it will be to transition from Industrial Farms to Daoist Farming.  Indeed, Daoist Farming is a much more sophisticated form of Mixed Farming.  But the differences are still profound.

Another point I need to emphasize but didn't in the above post, while Daoist Farming is a type of organic agriculture, all organic agriculture is neither sustainable nor Daoist in nature.  There is a type of "big organic" agriculture right now that is dependent on inputs that simply cannot be sustainably provided.  For example, kelp is used as a feed additive in some organic dairy systems---there simply isn't enough kelp around to do this universally.   In addition, some types of big organic use expensive transportation nets, exploit cheap farm labour, etc.

There is nothing like a head-to-head competition between Industrial and Daoist agriculture:  one is huge, the other microscopic.  But I would suggest that in the long run both environmental issues and peak oil make the universal adoption of Daoist agriculture inevitable.  And the key scientific discipline guiding agriculture during the transition will not be genetic engineering but rather restoration ecology. The business model that will make big bucks for the future will not be holding patents on specific life forms, but rather in offering consulting services for farms that need to be totally changed from the ground (literally) up.  I'm not sure that any farmer will be able to afford to pay for these services, so I see a bright future for open-source farming, too.  I do not predict a sudden collapse of our agricultural system so much as a general increase in stress as farmers flail around desperately as them attempt to get out of the bind they find themselves in.  Biotec firms will offer "silver bullets", but I suggest that they will at best only work for a short period of time and at worst bring their own new set of problems.  The result will be enormous interest in new ways of raising, processing and distributing food.  The new, emerging techniques will be spread over the internet, which will speed up the transition far faster that it would have otherwise.

In the interim, I think it is good idea for anyone who can to learn how to grow a few veggies for themselves and to start shopping at the local farmer's market.  Resilience is a key survival mechanism during times of rapid change.