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Entries in scientific method (1)


Gardeners and Scientists: - What Can They Do About the Environment, Really?

Each season, more and more people come to realize that our environment and our bodies needs better tending. For most of us, information on these subjects comes from the internet and the media. Very few of us do our own research; we rely mostly upon second-hand information. One would expect that gardeners, farmers, and conservationists to be the best informed on these subjects, by virtue of their connection to the soil and their sensitivity to nuanced environmental changes. But that is not the case.

Many of us, especially those outside of academia, are influenced by information that is anecdotal, that is not always scientifically accurate, or that cannot be easily corroborated. Consequently, there is a weak consensus about the effects that environmental changes and questionable agricultural practices have on the environment and on the health of all living things, including our bodies.

I once asked a scientist-mathematician friend for his opinion about global warming and he replied that he could not formulate one until he examined the data. Without numbers, he said, one cannot know, with any certainty, the extent of climate change and if it requires any action on our part. There was some truth in that because most of the information on that subject had been inferred from observation. Eventually, climatologists mustered up the courage to report that the earth undergoes warming and cooling cycles over time and that perhaps we were experiencing one of the warming cycles. It was also suggested that perhaps human activity was exacerbating this natural phenomenon. However, no reliable, empirical evidence could be supplied for that opinion.

No matter how much we care about the planet, we cannot control the destruction of rain forests in other countries, nor can we regulate world-wide polluters, including those close to home. Furthermore, we are unable to control life-threatening agricultural practices in third world countries, where one is allowed to apply herbicides and pesticides that are toxic to humans, alive or yet unborn. On one hand, there are powerful interests that need to prop up the industrial status quo, which, ironically, helps us sustain an enviable high standard of living. On the other hand there are dedicated scientists who are not yet prepared to connect the dots between environmental issues and health problems, be they real, imagined, false, or hypothesized.

Scientists have an allegiance to the scientific method and the proper journey from observation to conclusion. They cannot climb on the bandwagon of protest because it is morally correct or humanitarian to do so. Not only do they require much more time to discover truth than we are prepared to give them, but also, they risk losing their careers as scientists if they try to whistle-blow prematurely, or to be forthcoming at all. In the meanwhile, they are dismayed to see how people’s emotions, conspiracy theories, and even the convoluted but seductive opinions of scientific charlatans, have created anxiety among the populace. When misinformation is disseminated, it shapes the opinions of some of the most astute among us.

Scientist–journalist, Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University, once informed me that science is tough while hearsay and opinion formulation is easy. Most journalists who write on topics that concern us, subjects for which they usually have no academic credentials, are not willing or are unable to engage in the hard work required to understand the details of science. Science, Dr. Joe pointed out, is in the details and not in the headlines. .

Therefore, without the scientific community’s courageous corroboration, it is unrealistic to expect that organized drum beating will be effective in changing most environmental situations, at least in the near future. For the time being, all that we can do is to take care of our bodies and the environment in our own back yard and hope, optimistically or naively, that one day everyone’s garden will be linked to a national string of safe, eco-friendly mini environments.