Ag Instructor Vic Martin: Ag and the Scientific Method

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Great Bend Tribune
Published February 12, 2017

With all the changes in Washington since the first of the year, there is a great deal of turmoil in various agencies regarding what is and isn’t “true”.  What is and isn’t fact.  There are many sources disputing the validity of scientific research.  True research involves the scientific method and involves rigorous review of findings.  Can this work be duplicated?  The scientific method is defined simply by the OED as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”  In plain English, you develop a hypothesis (an idea or explanation that you then test through study and experimentation) and test that hypothesis.  You then accept, reject, or modify it.  You accept what experimentation tells you.  A fact is a fact and wanting it to be different doesn’t make it so.  A fact is nothing more than information having objective reality, it can’t be subjective.  For example, it is midnight so the sun has set.  There are no alternatives.

Agricultural producers face a similar dilemma when trying to evaluate what they need to do to optimize production, stay in business, and protect the environment.  It can be a challenge to separate fact from hype.  It can be a challenge to accept something as true when it contradicts our firmly held beliefs or means an operation needs to change. 

Agriculture deals with many of these issues, ranging from the safety of GMO technology to climate change and animal welfare.  So how does a farmer or rancher know what to accept, or reject, especially in today’s social media environment? There are helpful tips to help in evaluating information, especially scientific information.  And these apply to more than just agriculture.

  • What is the source of the information?  Is it a public organization such as K-State or governmental agency?  Is it an industry organization or company?  Why are they doing this? If from popular media, who or what are they?  If you don’t know dig a little and see if they have a particular bias or viewpoint?
  • What is the source of the claim?  In agriculture, if it is a new product or method, what data do they present to justify their claim?  Is it from replicated trails that were statistically analyzed or a simple unreplicated trial?  Is it simply anecdotal?  While an anecdote may be true, the plural of anecdote is not data.
  • If it is a research type paper, who funded the research?  That doesn’t invalidate the data but it may provide perspective.  If it is a popular press type article putting forward research, does it provide at least an outline of what was tested, how it was tested, how they evaluated the results, and who conducted the research.
  • What verbiage is used?  When you see extreme wording such as always, greatest, best, worst, etc. it pays to be cautious.
  • Does the information deal with accepting or refuting an idea such as the safety of GMO crops.  Or does it attack the personalities or organizations involved and not address the issue. 

As is always said in these columns, there is more but the above provides a basic outline on evaluating fact from fiction in today’s information age.