Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Subsistence

Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic

 

Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.

 

Are we doomed?

food spreadRecently I was able to have dinner with my eldest son. He was born in 1989 and now has some life experience under his belt.

As always we had some good conversation covering the usual topics that’s Dads have with their grown up sons — soccer, cricket, work, cars and the like. We took taking great care to avoid topics that mothers might ask about.

Then out of the blue he asked me what I thought would happen to the world. “Are we doomed?” he said. “Will we run out of food?”

Startled, I blinked and rattled off my usual patter.

“There are 7 billion of us” I said, “and for the 600+ million that live on less than a dollar a day we have already run out of food and for another billion or so who manage on less than $10 a day they would say food is very scarce. Then there are the billion or so fortunate ones who live in the mature economies amidst relative plenty and are copping obesity and its associated diseases.”

I paused and realised, partly from the blank expression opposite, that I had not answered the question.

“Immediate doom is unlikely because we will invent distributed and cheap sources of power, fuels cells probably. Power gets us over the water problem because we can then desalinate and/or pump freshwater to wherever we need it to irrigate the desert or flush the toilet. We will have to recycle nutrient like crazy so as to replenish the soils but again that can be done.”

“Doom is also unlikely because people will not like it. In extremis human beings are incredibly good at making things better. It happens because we hate it when things are bad. The Victorians with their class system and global exploitation managed to get rid of the smog that was killing thousands in London. The Chinese will find a way to do the same for Beijing. Even wars end because the horrors are too much spurring one side on to victory or a compromise agreement.”

Such was my immediate answer and it seemed satisfactory.

Then I got to thinking. Whilst most of my answers on this sort of thing had solid enough logic and a degree of history to back them up, I was not convinced by any of them. If pushed I wouldn’t buy my own arguments.

I genuinely don’t what is going to happen.

Some days I can’t believe the economic and social systems that I live within can possibly persist another day. They appear so fragile. But that is what we said last year, and every year back as far as can be remembered. Instead I marvel at human persistence.

So I have decided that it is time to think seriously about what might happen. I’ll get back to you after a good cogitate.

Meantime if you have any suggestions please post comments.

What it takes to be a profitable farmer

Australian farmerA friend of mine grew up on a farm. After a career in the corporate world he is thinking of returning to the land by buying a property and running some cattle. Being very aware of the necessity for commercial viability he asked what I thought made a profitable farmer.

There is much irony in this question. I was not brought up on a farm, nor do I have any farming experience. I even fail at growing veggies in the garden as the possums eat any green things the wallabies leave behind.

But I do think about farming a lot. Not about the skills in fixing the tractor or knowing when to plough but with a bias for the big picture that determines a doubling of production from a dwindling stock of viable farmland.

Answering the question of how to be profitable, here are the first six things that came into my head…

  1. You really have to know what you are doing as the Pareto principle applies — 20% of farms deliver 80% of production
  2. Choose your property wisely — it needs to be either productive or restorable
  3. Decide if you will broker your own deals with retailers or go with aggregators
  4. Don’t always listen to your neighbours because what great-granddad did might not work today [arguably it didn’t back then] but at the same time you will need their help
  5. Climate change effects will be real but manageable given that the Australian climate is already makes agriculture a challenge
  6. Diversify, diversify, diversify

In other words, farming is a business just like any other. You need to know how to do it well to be profitable and that means efficiently matching skills to the available resources.

And it takes guts to farm. Thankfully there are many brave souls with such courage, otherwise most of us would starve or work in vain to feed the possums.

Post comments to suggest things to add [or remove] from the list.

Happy thinking.

Both sides of the coin

We are told that the universe is fond of opposites: black and white, ying and yang, United and City. And this week gave us a cracker.

In the UK the supermarket chain Asda had its corporate responsibility director come out with a climate change adaptation solution. He said “Businesses and other stakeholders in the food sector need to work with farmers and suppliers on water-related activities to ensure current and future demand for produce is met and to reduce their risk to supply-chain disruption.” Good PR speak as you might expect, only he went on to say, “We launched a water-trickle scheme for celery growers in Spain that provided a water-spray kit to farmers with the aim of ensuring a secure supply of product to our stores.

Asda justified this largess because they believed that global food prices and supply would be affected by “dire droughts” around the world. Not to mention the floods in the UK.

In other words the retailer realized that farmers are critical to their business and although this sounds like a no brainer to a supermarket, it is surprising how modern complexity of the commodity markets makes it easy for them to forget.

And so on to the other side of the coin.

Coles, a similar sized food retailer in Australia, asked its suppliers for cash payments. Yes, they just went out and asked suppliers to pay for the privilege of having their commodities sold in Coles stores. Nominally these payments were to “to help pay for what it claimed was improvements to the super­market’s supply chain”.

The competition watchdog got wind of this cheek and got upset. According to court documents Coles had a $30 million target from their supplies and had penned sales scripts to help their staff get on with it. We will wait and see if they get more than a wrist slap.

Now we could accept that the universe will always throw out some bad with the good on the celestial wind and let it land where it will. Apply this karmic logic to food supply in a commercial world and for every company with a vision there will be another out for a buck. Coles were just not in touch with the good bit.

Except that the world is looking at a doubling of food production by 2050 and I am not sure what the celestial balance makes of that.

Sounds crazy #7 | Hidden hazards in the backyard

produce-01This ‘sounds crazy’ is an absolute ripper.

This bottom column headline and grab appeared on the front page of the weekend Sydney Morning Herald this week…

Hidden hazards in the backyard — Families are unwittingly exposing their children to the risk of sickness and even brain damage from lead hidden in backyard soil and paint… 

Fair enough. No doubt there is many an older inner city property that has not been renovated since the time lead was in most paint stock and some of that old stuff is peeling away and ending up in garden soil across the suburb.

Any city dweller knows that cities are not exactly pristine. The air is heavy with particulates from brake dust to builders waste and on a rainy day it washes all over your shoes. It comes with the territory.

The grab continued…

Lead experts fear the trend towards home vegetable patches and community and verge vegetable gardens is also putting children at risk.   

So at a time when all our electronic conveniences have deprived our youth of knowing anything about life giving soil, we must put the fear of god into those with the umph and initiative to get back to sharing produce they have tended.

Thousands of generations of good folk grew vegetables in their backyards. They planted, watered and cared for their crops and then fed their families wholesome fresh food. The extra they exchanged with their neighbors or sold at a local market helping to create the very essence of community that is so central to our wellbeing.

And they did this even when cars were spitting out lead, when the pipes were made of lead and when DDT was the pesticide of choice.

Did those dangers stop them? Not at all, they prospered and went ahead to multiply by the millions. So much so that today we need to double global food production in the next 30 years just to keep up with demand and will need every square foot of productive space we can find.

All I can say is shame on those ‘experts’, university academics with a career to build, and shame on the media for printing such fear mongering [and this time you can’t even blame Rupert].

For heavens sake, growing veggies in the backyard is a good news story.

I just wish the possums would stop eating mine.