Rockstar Science

Well, my ambition won out and after a bit of a rough start – new $200 battery in the car, and leaving within an hour of baby’s bedtime – we made it to the workshop. This was our first time seeing Dr. Christine Jones speak so we were both keen to be there and see her material.

The range of fields she covers (no pun intended) is breathtaking: from basic soil chemistry and physics to epigenetics, the microbiome, hydrology and botany, she does a rather epic job of weaving a very compelling story. One can easily see why she’s so popular.

She’s not particularly popular, however, with scientists. I should add that most ‘speaker scientists’ don’t seem to be; the dyed-in-the-wool academics seem to regard them thoroughly with skepticism. Questions like, “Where’s her funding coming from?” (private consulting clients, paid speaking gigs) and criticisms of gross oversimplification seem to be most common. The problem, though, is that with speaking with a laypublic, oversimplification is to some degree a necessity. That is not, of course, because they are stupid, but because they are not versed in the nuances of genetics and evolutionary theory, ecological processes, and complex organic chemistry. They are versed, however, in the daily functioning of their systems, and can often be just as or more skeptical. For them, stage advice comes with a sticker price: the cost of a recommended soil amendment, or a new seeding mix, or a different practice that might cost them production in the first year or two. In my experience it’s the people like me that don’t have commercially competitive agribusinesses and enterprises at stake that do the most damage in disseminating, often rather uncritically, the information we gather at workshops like these. We don’t necessarily have the scientific background to be skeptical in the ways the academics are, and don’t have the practical experience and wisdom to be skeptical in the way that real farmers and ranchers are. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Nonetheless, I try to come from both sides. I do have an academic background and also a farming one. I get that recommendations have to make fiscal sense as well as be scientifically sound and evidence-based. (This website could just as well be called Evidence-Based Regenerative Agriculture, but that’s more of a mouthful, isn’t it?).

At the same time, though, I can see the academics in the crowd with their blinders on. It really is hard to let go of advanced soil testing and relying on the numbers to guide your way, so when someone is saying to spend more time paying attention to the physical signs in the field – a well-developed rhizosheath, for instance, or taller growth, or reduced livestock disease – you’re still inclined to come back with a hearty wail for “More data, please!”. On the other hand, if you’re a practitioner you want the evidence, too, so that you can rely on the recommendations enough to trust that the physical signs are telling you what you think they are – that your soil is building, retaining more water; that there’s more biological diversity, better functioning, and greater resilience to drought than there was before employing a recommended practice.

What irks me is when, from either side, the response is first critical, without going back to the research, or saying, “Well, maybe – that’s an interesting finding”. And then going looking for evidence. We easily fall back on the data and research we know, on what we’ve already read and the pictures we’ve previously formed in our minds. It becomes incredibly difficult to change perspective, especially when you see someone with your level of education and even experience, having more fun, making more money, and getting better results than you do.

(That’s why we need to be more aware of our mental models… which maybe I’ll remember to explore in some future writing piece).

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