Saturday, August 23, 2008

Science need not always be contrasted with philosophy!

According to Michael Pollan, Sir Albert Howard railed in his book, An Agricultural Testament (1940), against what he viewed as the N-P-K mentality of farming the emerged in the 19th century, as the result of Justus von Liebig soil chemistry work that demystified the ‘mystery’ of soil fertility by reducing it to the presence of three chemicals (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium). It was Liebig work that set farming on the course of industrial production.

“The NPK mentality, according to Howard, serves as a shorthand for the powers and limitations of reductionist science. … If you give plants these three elements, they will grow. From this success it was a short step to drawing the conclusion that the entire mystery of soil fertility had been solved. It fostered the wholesale reimagining of soil (and with it agriculture) from a living system to a kind of machine: apply inputs of NPK at this end and you will get yields of wheat or corn on the other end. Since treating the soil as a machine seemed to work well enough, at least in the short term, there no longer seemed any need to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus … To reduce such vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry…. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else….When we mistake what we know for all that there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature like a machine. Once that leap has been made, one input follows another, so when the synthetic nitrogen fed to plants makes them more attractive to insects and vulnerable to disease, as we have discovered, the farmer turns to chemical pesticides to fix his broken machine.” (Pollan 2006, p. 146-148).

What is interesting here is that reductionist science is faulted for creating the machine metaphor as a model for modern farming. While this may be true, it also suggests the question of who or what reductionist science serves? The answer is plain in Pollan’s description of organic farming from the model of Howard (built on a biology reminiscent of Goethe) to the massive industrial model that makes up the lions share of “organic” farming today. The point is that reductionist science of this sort does not serve human understanding and enlightenment, rather it serves the rationality of industrial production and modern capitalism. Reducing living complexity to three variables allows for the rational control of these “inputs” the process and farming, as a means of controlling production costs given the demands of serving a market -- outputs. These outputs, incidentally, must also be controlled if the logic of industrial, mechanized, production is to be sustained over time. It is the role of the reductionist scientist to identify those inputs that relate to the desired outputs most efficiently, such that they maximize profits of the going enterprise.

Howard proposed another model, to model the farm after those natural processes observed in the forest or prairie. He wrote,

“Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted to humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.” (quotes in Pollan, p. 149).

Obviously, Howard is describing an ecological model of farming, recognizing the complex interdependencies that sustain natural ecosystems. “Everything is connected” as the story goes. Pollan goes on to describe the contrast between modeling farming on nature, on the none hand, and building it from reductionist science and the factory metaphor on the other. Indeed, Pollan states that Howard’s model seems patently antiscientific, stating that we don’t need to know all of the intricacies of humus in order to nurture it as a living part of the healthy, organic farm. So, long as it works, why bother? Such a view can make the organic position advocated by Howard seem more like philosophy rather than science, where one comes to understand those elements of nature through intuition, rather than segmentation into parts and the manipulation of the basic parts one-by-one.

But, I want to suggest that “scientific” is not necessarily the same and “reductionist science” that Pollan so nicely describes in his account of Howard’s work. Surely, if science is the rational pursuit of knowledge of the natural world, and reductionist science leads us to throw away all those variables that don’t seem to matter the most, than reductionist science is irrational in its practice. It is irrational in the sense that there is a value placed on most versus least in terms of each components explanatory power. Lost in this formulation is the value added of whole systems of components interacting such that, while individual components may not matter most in a variable by variable analysis, should they be removed from the system, the whole system will no longer function well, in the case of farming, the farm will be come prone to infestations of pests, vulnerable to disease, even the buildup of toxins in the organisms that are the focus of the farmers activities. In other words, the system will be less healthy.

As I read Pollan, I was reminded of Goethe’s phenomenological science of nature. So much so, that I ordered a collection of his works online. The reason I went for Goethe is that he proposed a very different model of science that was notable for its holism and its insistence on the formation of intimate and participatory scientific knowledge of the subject. The point is that science need not be only contrasted with philosophy (or poetry for that matter); there are other models for the systematic and empirical pursuit of knowing the natural world (including our own complex relation with it). It is this other approach that offers a sort of third path to human understanding, one that serves to blend the contrasts that are always made in the science vs. philosophy framing of knowledge production.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

House Prices & Household Income

Seems like folks out there are all aflutter over declining house prices (rapidly becoming a serious problem in the industrial world). A huge bubble was blown as reflected in the parabolic increase in mortgage debt over the last decade (peaking in 2007).

One question that came up yesterday while I was lurking in some of my favorite blog haunts (the automatic earth) is how much house prices will decline before "hitting bottom" -- like a drunk in need of AA I suppose. One number that appears in the media from time to time is 30%, others predict a 50% decline in median house prices from their peak in 2006-2007. Others are obviously more pessimistic. According to the LA Times this morning ("Southern California home sales jump..."), the decline in median home price for the region is well above 30% from its peak.

It seems that the attempt to predict the severity of the fall in home prices nationally stems from the historical analysis of home prices relative to household income. Makes sense -- as nominal or real incomes have increased, they should roughly keep pace with the prices of homes (unless people, on average, like to pay a greater percent of their income on mortgages and property tax). Or so the logic goes.

One frustrating thing for me was that I didn't have any numbers myself to see the historical trends and how much the recent run up in prices breaks recent historical trends. So, I dug up some data and made some graphs for a visual analysis. I found some nominal and real house price data at Then got some historical household income data over at the good ol' US Dept. of the Census. I put these data together into the following graphs.

So what do we see in this first image? Two points:
  1. Both median house prices (light blue) and median income (dark green) increased throughout the period in nominal terms (i.e., not adjusted for price inflation). Moreover, starting in the late 1990's, the median house price went positively parabolic, peaking in 2006. Median household income did not make a similar move.
  2. When house prices and median household incomes are adjusted for price inflation (dark blue and light green lines), the median house price becomes flatter over time, with more obvious boom-bust cycles. There is also less real growth in median household incomes over this 32 year period with a modest decline and recover in real terms during the 2001-2006 period -- the period that house prices clearly go "off the reservation".
So, the pattern in the first graph left me wondering... Was the ratio of median house prices and median incomes more or less constant during the 25 years between 1975 and 2000? Also, how much did the ratio change during the historical anomaly between 2001-2007? Here's another graph showing the ration between (nominal) median house price and median income.

Well, two things are pretty clear in this picture:
  1. The ratio between house price and median income pretty much stayed around 3:1 during the first 25 years of this period. The ratio went up a bit above 3:1 during real-estate booms, and fell a bit below 3:1 during the bust.
  2. The ratio climbed to just over 5:1 in 2005-2006, a 66% increase!
So, how do these data help us decide what will happen to house prices nationally? Well, if median household incomes hold up (in 2006 dollars), prices would need to come down about 50% to return to the 3:1 ratio that had been the historical norm for the 25 years or more that preceded the current housing price bubble. Of course, since we are at the start of a very nasty recession (the result of the unwinding of all the credit generated by this housing bubble and other associated bubbles generated during the same period), the likelihood of the median income holding at 1996 levels aren't so good. So, there may be a race to the bottom that way overshoots the 50% decline. And that ain't even considerin' the massive oversupply of housing that was built up during this same 10 year period (1997-2007).

I guess we should all hold on to our seats, it's going to be a humdinger of a ride these next few years!