More ill-considered tosh from our national broadcaster. This time it’s biodynamic farming. Sitting out on the bonkers fringes of the organic farming movement squats another of Rudolph Steiner’s bastard offspring birthed at a lecture series in 1924. [Follow the link and see what passes for research in some areas of social science. You can tell it’s ‘science’ cos it’s got numbers and some Σ symbols. Maths-tastic!] Among its principles are planting schemes based on astrology and the use of potions diluted away to near-homeopathic levels before application to the fields.
I suppose it is conceivable that planting according to the phase of the Moon might have an affect on crops. There are broad patterns in the weather that are seasonal and the phases of the Moon are a proxy for some of these, but once we start citing Venus, Saturn and zodiacal signs the connections are getting more tenuous and the woo is getting stronger.
Date: 15 February 2013 Biodynamic: Moon in Aries: This is a Fire sign. This is a good time to sow Fruiting plants like Broad Beans, Cucumber, but it would not be a good time to sow Leaf plants like Cabbages, Celeriac
Note the mention of one of the traditional four Humors. Here’s some more.
… we start by looking at the four elements that nature so graciously provides us with – earth, air, fire and water.
OK, got that?
Then lets [sic] match each element to a part of a given plant – earth to root, air to flower, fire to fruit and seed and water to leaf.
Ooh, let us do that.
Now let’s match each of those parts of the plant along with their element to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Then we can see that as the moon moves through each of the twelve on its 27 and a bit day journey around the earth every month it will influence those parts of the plant relating to the zodiacal sign e.g. Pisces=water/leaf, Capricorn=earth/root.
Listen, if you want to plant at the right time buy a calendar and watch the weather forecast.
The preparations that are applied to the fields are more reminiscent of the works of JK Rowling than the products of a rational agricultural science. The archetype is probably “horn manure” and it is made by filling a cow’s horn with manure and burying it over winter. It has to be a cow’s horn not a bull’s horn, and a lactating cow’s horn at that. Our Potions lesson continues with instructions on how to use this marvellous stuff.
The method of stirring is important. Stir the water vigorously until a deep crater is formed in the rotating liquid. Then reverse the direction of stirring to create a seething chaotic turbulence before gradually forming a crater in the other direction. Once this is achieved the direction of stirring should again be reversed. This rhythmic process should be continued for an hour. After one full hour the liquid is allowed to settle before being poured into a backpack or machine sprayer
This is then sprayed in tiny quantities onto the ground.
This all sounds cuckoo, but there are farms out there doing this stuff and BBC’s Countryfile went to visit one. The reporter was Julia Bradbury and I have recorded the audio from the broadcast so you can enjoy it in its entirety and also verify that the quotations that follow are exact transcriptions. I am not making this stuff up.
So, how did this incisive investigative report turn out?
[At 20 mins and 50s in]
Here’s the audio track on its own:
In the following quotations, Julia Bradbury is denoted JB and the farmer, let’s just called him the Farming Wizard, is FW.
JB: Here it’s all about biodynamic a type of spiritual farming that works in harmony with the Earth.
Biodynamic farmers don’t use artificial fertilisers instead they make their own concoctions mixed using natural substances to their own recipe. Intriguing.
We can express that mathematically. It is utter Tosh for all values of Intriguing.
Intriguing ≡ Tosh
JB: Biodynamic farm. Explain the concept.
FW: The concept of a biodynamic farm is that one is not just working with the everyday physical substance but also the forces working in nature. That sounds a bit cuckoo perhaps, but if you think of…um,,,a compass and why it points North. You know if you start looking inside that needle to understand it, you’re never going to understand it. It’s only when you realise that there’s a magnetic field around the whole Earth that you can understand why it points North. And to understand a plant or an animal you can’t just look inside that with a microscope either, you have to take into account that there’s a whole cosmos out there with a Sun and a Moon and a planets and the stars and the zodiac.
It does sound cuckoo. There’s a good reason for that. You will see that the bollocks du jour of his description is forces and fields. With the woosters sometimes it’s energy and sometimes it’s quantum. It doesn’t really matter. These terms mean nothing. They are the basis for no predictions about the behaviour of the system. They do not cause us to take any specific action having invoked them. They are basically placeholders in the narrative. You can insert whatever you like in their place and the story is not materially altered. The use of these terms resembles Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, the essential motivator of the plot but whose actual identity is utterly arbitrary and irrelevant.
JB: So, you’re working very closely with Mother Nature and you believe strongly in the forces of Mother Nature?
I also believe strongly in the forces of Mother Nature. Gravity seems to be holding me down in my chair quite nicely thanks, Julia.
FW: We do, yes, And that those forces are in our food if it’s good food and that they’re not if it’s done the wrong way.
Ooh, a testable hypothesis that would lead to predictions. I’ll bet Julia picks up on this…
JB: And how much of this stuff [cow droppings] do you need?
FW: For this farm? About two buckets…That’s compared to trailer-loads!
Wow! Those quantities are tiny. I’ll bet that leads to an interesting follow-up question.
JB [muffled]: Ah, that’s not bad!
Slippery-fingers JB drops the ball again.
JB: This spiritual science might sound a bit New Age but it all began in 1924 when farmers asked philosopher Rudolph Steiner to find out if chemical fertilisers were adversely affecting their soil conditions and the health of their livestock. He thought they were. That meant no to chemicals and yes to biodynamic farming, which is where the cow dung comes back in again.
Julia seems to think that it can’t be New Age because it started in 1924 with our friend Rudolph Steiner. That shouldn’t be a “but”, Julia, it sounds New Age because Steiner was there at its inception and the sticky fingers of his esoteric forebears are all over it.
FW: The fact that it’s in the earth over winter means it had those forces, I was telling you about, from the cosmos and everything, which go into the Earth and are concentrated here in these horns in the manure which will make this manure a very special substance.
JB: The horns have to stay in the ground for 6 months for the cosmic magic to happen.
That ball of manure is going into this bucket of water. That’s not a lot.
Note the phrase “cosmic magic”. I’ll come back to this in a minute. Keep going for now…
FW: It’s not a lot because it’s not just the substance that we’re dealing with it’s the forces in the substance.
We’re going to stir this for an hour. There’s a specific way that we do it. What you have to do is get a vortex in there. It starts getting a kind of order in there and when you’ve got a lovely vortex like that, you change the direction. And there you can see it creates a kind of confusion in there, which will get all the oxygen in. Also I think it somehow imprints the memory into the water of the substance, so that, when you spray it over the fields…um…it’s effective.
I told you I wasn’t making this stuff up. Here he is following the potions recipe to the letter. Snape would be so proud of him.
JB: There’ll be some people watching at home and they’re gonna say, “He’s just a bit bonkers.”
This chimes with Julia’s description of the process as “cosmic magic” and is an important point that we do not see addressed properly in sceptical commentary. I’ll call it Trivial Scepticism. We mock the laughable, but we also address the deeper arguments. Trivial sceptics gently pull the leg of the wooster as a substitute for exploring the deeper implications. This gentle leg-pulling is readily shrugged off by the woo as being no more than harmless banter and actually feeds their self-definition as eccentric outsiders. Eccentrically outside the mainstream, they think themselves, but holders of mystical truths. Trivial scepticism is almost as corrosive as the impact of shruggism in popular discourse over pseudoscientific claims.
Have you very had that experience in conversation where someone agrees with what you are saying just too easily and expresses sympathy and understanding of your point of view when you have barely started explaining it to them? [Maybe just me, then. I’ll get me coat] Their over-ready agreement with you is really just a means of curtailing a conversation in which they have little interest, so they can move on to other things but without having actually broken the social glue that was binding you together in discussion. Trivial scepticism has the same effect. The trivial sceptic laughs off these issues while carefully avoiding anything that might become confrontational with their conversational partner, but also and more importantly, anything that might confront their own opinions more starkly. On a social level this is all understandable and explicable. We don’t want every conversation in our lives to turn into a fight to the death over some philosophical point, but I think the invasion of fringe views into mainstream public discourse has been aided by the combination of Trivial Scepticism and Shruggism and this Countryfile programme was an excellent exemplar of the former.
And so to the end of the item;
FW: Maybe. I’m not going to try to argue with everybody. One has to do what sees works and what one feels is right.
No, no, no, Farming Wizard. I am staggered to think that you practice agriculture. We built the foundations of much of our knowledge of statistics and trial design in agricultural research precisely because it poses the kinds of questions that need to be answered by objective controlled data in which bias and confounding variables have been eliminated. I wear my favourite red hat because it “feels right”. I like to eat food and take medicines that have been produced by systems that work right. That rumbling sound that you hear is R.A. Fisher rotating so fast in his grave that he resembles the vortex of a well-strirred horn manure preparation.
JB: Whether or not you think this is nuts, this farm has been biodynamically run for that last 40 years and it doesn’t appear to be doing too badly on it.
More Trivial Scepticism, but it’s always good to end on a fallacy. The farm has been biodynamically run for that last 40 years and doesn’t appear to be doing too badly on it does not lead to the conclusion that biodynamics works. Nice false syllogism, Julia, regardless of whether the farm’s appearance to you, a journalist, says anything at all about how well it is actually doing.
Was this really the way the BBC should have tackled this issue? A more incisive investigation would have challenged the claims of biodynamics. Countryfile has tackled contentious issues in quite an interesting and mature manner in the past. But biodynamics got the light-touch, human interest approach. Why could that be?
On a completely separate tack, we have been told that a certain Charles Windsor, biodynamic farmer and friend to the sugar-pill community, has been given the editorial reins of the programme for an edition to be shown in March. Horn manure and brown-nosing? A most attractive combination. I, for one, am looking forward to the programme with great interest.