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Numerous heart-wrenching stories June 1, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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PETA: Hello, parent! I’m with “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

Parent: Are you going to present an ethical argument for why eating animal products is wrong?

PETA: Well, let me ask you this: Did you know there’s a link between dairy products and child autism?

Parent: No! That’s pretty scary!

PETA: Yes, indeed. More research is needed, but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods.

Parent: Wow, that sounds serious. How many studies are we talking about?

PETA: Two.

Parent: And how many children participated?

PETA: 36 and 20.

Parent: I see… When were these studies published?

PETA: 1995 and 2002.

Parent: You weren’t kidding when you said “more research is needed.” Has any additional research been done since?

PETA: We’re just trying to alert the public to the link between autism and dairy products.

Parent: Let me check for myself… Actually, there was a systematic review of 15 articles (published in 2010), which concluded that “the current corpus of research does not support” the use of gluten-free or dairy-free diets in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. And another systematic review of studies since 1970 (published in 2014) concluded that “the evidence on this topic is currently limited and weak,” and recommended that restricted diets only be used if a food allergy is diagnosed.

PETA: But on the other hand, did you know that the Internet contains numerous heart-wrenching stories from parents of kids who had suffered the worst effects of autism for years before dairy foods were eliminated from their children’s diets? Would you like to hear one mother’s story?

Parent: Did you know that the world contains numerous heart-wrenching stories of kids who suffered needlessly because their parents were taken in by unscientific bullshit?

PETA: To learn more about a diet free of dairy products, order our free “Vegetarian Starter Kit” today.

Parent: Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

Fuck you, PETA.

(via IFLS)

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To see it as it is May 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
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In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…

The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…

The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.

The gap has grown January 1, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science.
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flat-earthImagine discovering that your neighbor, a seemingly intelligent, well-adjusted member of society, believes that the sun orbits the earth, or that diseases are caused by demons. Presumably, your first thought would not be “Let me get the relevant evidence and convince him he’s wrong about cosmology and medicine,” but rather, “How could a sane person in today’s world believe such things?” Believing ideas that were scientifically discredited long ago betrays a serious problem with one’s process for forming beliefs about the world.

There can’t be many people so out of touch with reality in our modern society, though, right?

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

As embarrassing as that is, the situation is actually even worse:

About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

— which is like believing that the earth is carried around the sun on Atlas’s back, or that diseases are caused by germs controlled by aliens. So really, only a third of Americans accept scientific, non-magic evolution.

Remember that rejecting evolution is just a symptom: the underlying malady is the rejection of scientific, evidence-based reasoning. Where is that attitude coming from?

It will be no surprise that beliefs about evolution were found to differ strongly by religious affiliation (with evangelical Protestants bringing up the rear). However, there were sizable differences by political affiliation as well:

Republicans are less inclined than either Democrats or political independents to say that humans have evolved over time. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and independents (65%) say that humans have evolved over time, compared with less than half of Republicans (43%).

The size of the gap between partisan groups has grown since 2009. Republicans are less inclined today than they were in 2009 to say that humans have evolved over time (43% today vs. 54% in 2009), while opinion among both Democrats and independents has remained about the same.

It is essential that we confront and defeat the enemies of reason — by unequivocally insisting on the value of intellectual honesty and reality-based thinking, and by showing no tolerance or respect for bad ideas. Success on that front will not only undermine disbelief in evolution; other irrational ideas will inevitably erode as well.

How do you know she is a witch? October 19, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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“We have found a witch, may we burn her?”

“How do you know she is a witch?”

“She looks like one! Also, last week she gave me a creepy stare when she walked by my house — and the very next day my kitten died!”

“But do you have any good reasons for thinking that witches exist at all?”

“Oh, I see: You’re one of those closed-minded, reductionist, scientism fundamentalists. Let me tell you something: Thousands of people have believed in witches for thousands of years — how many more reasons do you need? Are you calling all those people stupid? How arrogant of you, to think you’re smarter than everyone else. Science doesn’t know everything, you know. And even when science claims to know something, it sometimes turns out to be wrong. Anyway, there’s more to life than what you can measure in a lab. Just because you can’t explain something scientifically doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”

“You got me all wrong: I agree with all that. I merely meant to say that based on my own hallowed tradition and sacred texts, I believe that what you call witchcraft is actually caused by demonic possession. This calls for an exorcism, not a burning.”

“Oh. All right, then, let’s give it a shot — if that doesn’t work, we can always burn her!”

You know who you are March 5, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Science.
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You know who you are

Two world systems February 18, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Science.
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DialogueGalileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, compares the geocentric model of Aristotle and Ptolemy with the heliocentric model of Copernicus, in the form of a discussion between three friends: Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio. Salviati is a scientist arguing for the Copernican position; Sagredo is an intelligent and curious layman who becomes persuaded by Salviati’s case; while Simplicio is a faithful follower of the established Aristotelian tradition.

At one point in the dialogue, after Salviati puts forward some observational evidence supporting the heliocentric view, Simplicio expresses confidence in his ability to “once more succeed in reconciling what experience presents to us with what Aristotle teaches. For obviously two truths cannot contradict one another.” Sagredo remarks:

I can put myself in Simplicio’s place and see that he is deeply moved by the overwhelming force of these conclusive arguments. But seeing on the other hand the great authority that Aristotle has gained universally; considering the number of famous interpreters who have toiled to explain his meanings; and observing that the other sciences, so useful and necessary to mankind, base a large part of their value and reputation upon Aristotle’s credit; Simplicio is confused and perplexed, and I seem to hear him say, “Who would there be to settle our controversies if Aristotle were to be deposed? What other author should we follow in the schools, the academies, the universities? What philosopher has written the whole of natural philosophy, so well arranged, without omitting a single conclusion? Ought we to desert that structure under which so many travelers have recuperated? Should we destroy that haven, that Prytaneum where so many scholars have taken refuge so comfortably; where, without exposing themselves to the inclemencies of the air, they can acquire a complete knowledge of the universe by merely turning over a few pages? Should that fort be leveled where one may abide in safety against all enemy assaults?”

I pity him no less than I should some fine gentleman who, having built a magnificent palace at great trouble and expense, employing hundreds and hundreds of artisans, and then beholding it threatened with ruin because of poor foundations, should attempt, in order to avoid the grief of seeing the walls destroyed, adorned as they are with so many lovely murals; or the columns fall, which sustain the superb galleries, or the gilded beams; or the doors spoiled, or the pediments and the marble cornices, brought in at so much cost — should attempt, I say, to prevent the collapse with chains, props, iron bars, buttresses, and shores.

Later on, after Simplicio again mentions his reverence for the great authors of the past, Sagredo recalls an incident he witnessed:

One day I was at the home of a very famous doctor in Venice, where many persons came on account of their studies, and others occasionally came out of curiosity to see some anatomical dissection performed by a man who was truly no less learned than he was a careful and expert anatomist. It happened on this day that he was investigating the source and origin of the nerves, about which there exists a notorious controversy between the Galenist and Peripatetic doctors. The anatomist showed that the great trunk of nerves, leaving the brain and passing through the nape, extended on down the spine and then branched out through the whole body, and that only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. Turning to a gentleman whom he knew to be a Peripatetic philosopher, and on whose account he had been exhibiting and demonstrating everything with unusual care, he asked this man whether he was at last satisfied and convinced that the nerves originated in the brain and not in the heart. The philosopher, after considering for awhile, answered: “You have made me see this matter so plainly and palpably that if Aristotle’s text were not contrary to it, stating clearly that the nerves originate in the heart, I should be forced to admit it to be true.”

Simplicio responds:

Aristotle acquired his great authority only because of the strength of his proofs and the profundity of his arguments. Yet one must understand him; and not merely understand him, but have such thorough familiarity with his books that the most complete idea of them may be formed, in such a manner that every saying of his is always before the mind. He did not write for the common people, nor was he obliged to thread his syllogisms together by the trivial ordinary method; rather, making use of the permuted method, he has sometimes put the proof of a proposition among texts that seem to deal with other things. Therefore one must have a grasp of the whole grand scheme, and be able to combine this passage with that, collecting together one text here and another very distant from it. There is no doubt that whoever has this skill will be able to draw from his books demonstrations of all that can be known; for every single thing is in them.

Furthermore, Simplicio asks,

… if Aristotle is to be abandoned, whom shall we have for a guide in philosophy?

Salviati replies:

We need guides in forests and in unknown lands, but on plains and in open places only the blind need guides. It is better for such people to stay at home, but anyone with eyes in his head and his wits about him could serve as a guide for them. In saying this, I do not mean that a person should not listen to Aristotle; indeed, I applaud the reading and careful study of his works, and I reproach only those who give themselves up as slaves to him in such a way as to subscribe blindly to everything he says and take it as an inviolable decree without looking for any other reasons. This abuse carries with it another profound disorder, that other people do not try harder to comprehend the strength of his demonstrations. And what is more revolting in a public dispute, when someone is dealing with demonstrable conclusions, than to hear him interrupted by a text (often written to some quite different purpose) thrown into his teeth by an opponent?

… So put forward the arguments and demonstrations, Simplicio — either yours or Aristotle’s — but not just texts and bare authorities, because our discourses must relate to the sensible world and not to one on paper.

The next day, before Simplicio arrives, Salviati shares with Sagredo his opinion of geocentrism’s defenders:

I have heard such things put forth as I should blush to repeat — not so much to avoid discrediting their authors (whose names could always be withheld) as to refrain from detracting so greatly from the honor of the human race. In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand, whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.

In 1633, Galileo was convicted of suspected heresy by the Roman Inquisition. He was forced to recant Copernicanism under threat of torture, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Dialogue was placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books — where it remained until 1835.

The Emperor’s method February 3, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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New clothesOnce upon a time there lived a vain Emperor, who loved to dress in elegant clothes. One day, two tailors presented themselves before the Emperor with an unusual offer:

“We are two highly skilled tailors, and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth of exquisite beauty — which is invisible to anyone who is too stupid to appreciate its quality.”

“Your proposition sounds very interesting,” said the Emperor, “and I would very much like to own a suit made of such an amazing fabric.”

The tailors rubbed their hands and smiled.

“But before I commission your services,” continued the Emperor, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a little time to demonstrate your product’s extraordinary properties.”

“Of course,” replied the tailors. “It would be our privilege to help your Highness try on our—”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” the Emperor interrupted. “I have a method that I employ in such situations, and it has served me well. Here is what you must do: We shall summon one hundred of my wisest subjects, and divide them into two groups of equal size. (We shall let chance determine who joins which group, by the flipping of a golden coin.) One group shall be presented with a steward clothed in your fabulous fabric; while the other group shall be presented with a steward wearing nothing at all. We shall then see how many members of each group claim to have seen any clothes.”

The tailors exchanged glances, dismayed. “We would love to oblige your Highness,” they said, “but we fear the proposed method is flawed: in our experience, true wisdom is very rare; so it is quite possible that none of the summoned subjects will be capable of seeing our wondrous fabric.”

“I see,” said the Emperor coldly. “Tell me, then: Is there some set of questions, some test we can administer, in order to determine in advance whether a person is wise enough to be able to detect your amazing cloth?”

“Actually, your Highness,” replied the tailors, “we’ve found that the only reliable indicator that a person is wise enough to see our material is that he does, in fact, see it.”

“That is quite unfortunate,” said the Emperor. “I wonder, then, how one could ever possibly tell the difference between your fine product and that of a scoundrel, who offered the same story but no actual fabric at all?”

The tailors looked insulted. “Begging your forgiveness; we are but poor, humble craftsmen, and cannot match your Highness’s intellect. But if your Highness — who is wise indeed — would only be willing to try on our clothes for himself, I’m sure we could demonstrate the quality of our wares to his utmost satisfaction. Surely your Highness would trust the testimony of his own eyes, and the word of his closest advisers? Surely one should follow one’s personal intuitions on such matters, rather than sterile methods and tests?”

The Emperor raised his eyebrows ever so slightly.

No one knows what became of the two tailors, but they were never heard from again.

One minute and seventeen seconds August 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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The following thought, from Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, is useful for regaining an appropriate perspective on the importance of humanity to the story of this planet:

If you imagine the 4,500 million years of Earth’s history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 a.m., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost eight-thirty in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has the Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna… At 9.04 p.m. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 p.m. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.

Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10.24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 p.m. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human life barely an instant.

We have a method July 12, 2011

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Carl Sagan begins his essay “Wonder and Skepticism” (published the year before he died) by describing the feelings of hope and awe that inspired him to study science as a child, leading to the joy and excitement of his career as a scientist and a popularizer of science. Sagan realizes, however, that scientific thinking remains foreign to many people, and he warns of the dangers inherent in a scientifically illiterate society:

There’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have — maybe ill-placed — of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness…

We have a civilization based on science and technology, and we’ve cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That is as clear a prescription for disaster as you can imagine. While we might get away with this combustible mixture of ignorance and power for a while, sooner or later it’s going to blow up in our faces. The powers of modern technology are so formidable that it’s insufficient just to say, “Well, those in charge, I’m sure, are doing a good job.” This is a democracy, and for us to make sure that the powers of science and technology are used properly and prudently, we ourselves must understand science and technology. We must be involved in the decision-making process.

Why is science so amazingly successful? How does it achieve such uncanny accuracy and predictive powers, despite our human fallibility? Sagan explains that the key to the scientific method is its “built-in error-correcting mechanisms”: arguments from authority are worthless; claims must be demonstrated; criticism is desirable; disproving previously accepted ideas is laudable.

It all comes down to experiment.

Scientists do not trust what is intuitively obvious, because intuitively obvious gets you nowhere. That the Earth is flat was once obvious. I mean, really obvious; obvious! Go out in a flat field and take a look: Is it round or flat? Don’t listen to me; go prove it to yourself. That heavier bodies fall faster than light ones was once obvious. That blood-sucking leeches cure disease was once obvious. That some people are naturally and by divine right slaves was once obvious. That the Earth is at the center of the universe was once obvious. You’re skeptical? Go out, take a look: Stars rise in the east, set in the west; here we are, stationary (do you feel the Earth whirling?); we see them going around us. We are at the center; they go around us.

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.

To avoid sliding into the “superstition and darkness” that Sagan feared, we must teach children to be skeptical and critical — while also preserving their willingness to evaluate new ideas with an open mind.

Science involves a seemingly self-contradictory mix of attitudes: On the one hand it requires an almost complete openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre and weird they sound, a propensity to wonder. As I walk along, my time slows down; I shrink in the direction of motion, and I get more massive. That’s crazy! On the scale of the very small, the molecule can be in this position, in that position, but it is prohibited from being in any intermediate position. That’s wild! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the second is a consequence of quantum mechanics. Like it or not, that’s the way the world is. If you insist that it’s ridiculous, you will be forever closed to the major findings of science. But at the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way you can distinguish the right from the wrong, the wheat from the chaff, is by critical experiment and analysis.

Food for thought May 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan gives a thought-provoking account of where our food comes from, exploring the effects of modern food industry on our health, our environment, and our culture. The picture is not pretty, and it involves many thorny political and ethical issues, but Pollan provides well-reasoned arguments grounded in science, and his analyses seem fair and balanced.

I was a bit dismayed, however, by how the scientific method is represented in the chapter on organic farming. In that chapter, Pollan presents the views of English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who provided much of the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture. Howard identified the 19th-century German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig (you can tell from his name that he’s evil) as the root of the problem. It was Liebig who

set agriculture on its industrial path when he broke down the quasi-mystical concept of fertility in soil into a straightforward inventory of the chemical elements plants require for growth. At a stroke, soil biology gave way to soil chemistry, and specifically to the three chemical nutrients Liebig highlighted as crucial to plant growth: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or to use these elements’ initials from the periodic table, N-P-K… Much of Howard’s work is an attempt to demolish what he called the “NPK mentality.”

… In Howard’s thinking, the NPK mentality serves as a shorthand for both the powers and limitations of reductionist science. For as followers of Liebig discovered, NPK “works”: 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 [the organic matter in soil].

It turns out, however, that growing vast monocultures of synthetically fertilized crops produces plants that are less nourishing, and more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests (necessitating chemical insecticides), among other problems. Today’s food system pollutes the environment and is completely dependent on fossil fuel energy, making it unsustainable. This is certainly a bad state of affairs, and while Pollan suggests that modern “industrial organic” farming is not a very good alternative either, he goes on to present a fascinating profile of a “management-intensive rotational grazing” farm which utilizes the natural symbiosis of various plants and animals to create produce in a manner that is both sustainable and much healthier for all involved. In his discussion of the “limitations of reductionist science,” however, I think Pollan slightly misses his mark:

To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. 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, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.

The “NPK mentality” is contrasted with Howard’s holistic approach:

The notion of imitating whole natural systems stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them — one variable at a time. In this sense, Howard’s concept of organic agriculture is premodern, arguably even antiscientific: He’s telling us we don’t need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness) is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don’t know — even a sense of mystery — keeps us from reaching for oversimplifications and technological silver bullets.

Having an informed sense of all we don’t know is indeed crucial — and it is a defining characteristic of a good scientist. But that is not the same as embracing mystery and ignorance. To improve our lives we need to understand the world better, and that often involves figuring out the mechanisms at work behind complex phenomena. The charge of “reductionism” is nothing but an empty slogan: “reductionism” is an ill-defined term, mainly used to denigrate the scientific method by those who don’t understand it or who desperately don’t want science to provide a materialistic explanation of their most cherished mysteries. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett distinguishes between reductionism (which is generally a good thing) and greedy reductionism (which is not):

There is no reason to be compromising about what I call good reductionism. It is simply the commitment to non-question-begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles at the outset… But in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers often underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation. That is the sin of greedy reductionism, but notice that it is only when overzealousness leads to falsification of the phenomena that we should condemn it… It is not wrong to yearn for simple theories, or to yearn for phenomena that no simple (or complex!) theory could ever explain; what is wrong is zealous misrepresentation, in either direction.

There is no virtue in preserving mysteries, and natural phenomena don’t become any less wonderful or beautiful when you understand them better. The fact that some scientists have made mistakes by presuming to know more than the evidence supports does not reveal any inherent limitation of the scientific method — which is merely our best honest effort to gain reliable knowledge of the world. There is no reason why the “mysteries” of soil fertility cannot in principle be completely understood by science. Of course, we must constantly be wary of oversimplification, and maintain a healthy appreciation of our areas of ignorance. But announcing in advance that certain mysteries will never be solved by science is equally arrogant. We must not mistake what we currently know for all there is to know, but as for what we can know — who knows?