re: Dialog about Anecdotal Information -Reply
Bob MacGregor (RDMACGREGOR@gov.pe.ca)
Mon, 13 Jul 1998 10:15:11 -0400
It seems to me that evolution is the analogy to anecdotal information.
When trial an error over many, many seasons "proves" a cultural
methodology (be it fertilizer, ploughing, bug juice, or herbal medicine) to
the satisfaction and improved survival of the practitioners, then this is
pretty nearly as good as any scientific proof. Indeed, many scientific
experiments confirm conventional wisdom.
The flip side of this is that people tend to see cause and effect
relationships based on inadequate experience (if it happens once, that is
suggestive; if it happens twice, that is evidence; if it happens thrice, that
is proof). A critical difference between a well-designed scientific
evaluation of an agricultural practice, variety or medicinal remedy is the
timeliness of deriving a trustworthy result. The scientific method tends
to reach an acceptable level of confidence (or no-confidence, as the
case may be) without generations of heading down a dead-end path or
expending resources on unproductive -- or counterproductive --
The bottom line is that there is room for and necessity for both.
Sure, sometimes an incomplete or poorly-designed experiment slams the
door on a promising line of inquiry -- until some fanatical disbeliever
shows the scientific result to be wrong!! It is just that these scientific
results are correct much more often than anecdotal results -- and
certainly for those that don't have a very, very long history of trial
and experience behind them.
Sometimes, scientific openmindedness means designing experiments to
test something for which there doesn't seem to be any good theoretical
basis (at present); the challenge comes when such an experiment
shows validity to some folk remedy or an agricultural "superstition" and
the scientist has to come up with an explanation for why this works like
it does -- that is a real advance (eg, does the phase of the
moon at planting influence the crop? why [ie, is it really the moon or
some coincident factor]?)
In any case, the small experiments that individual farmers do, and the
information they share in their own, small, unscientific discussion
groups, magazines and web sites will no-doubt provide the basis for a
whole pile of agricultural PhD dissertations by budding scientists trying to
prove one or another of these methods valid -- just remember that the
original source will have been the back-field experimenter, willing to risk
a little bit of his/her productive resource to try something a little bit
different -- just to see how it works out. It's always been like this, and I
hope it always will.
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