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.

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