052 – Toby Hemenway on Science

Published 12 years ago in Permaculture , rocket mass heater - 0 Comments

Paul Wheaton and Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, talk about science. Paul begins by stating they have been discussing “fact, proof, science, and how science rules (and you drool).” Toby used to work for a cancer R&D company, which he considered to be a great job. When they discovered something useful, it went from a small R&D company into a huge drug company. He was able to observe the process of a company move from being run by good and dedicated scientists into a company full of business folks trying to hide the side effects or prevent the publication of results that didn’t support positive company growth. This included results that might prove the product was potentially harmful.

Paul expresses how there are indeed some sinister and evil people out there, but that there are even more people who are decent human beings. The thing that happens in a lot of places is that being evil pays. He brings this up to clarify that it isn’t the fact that they were business people, but that they were “yucky people” who happened to be business people.
Toby agrees, stating that a lot of it is the business motives where they have to focus on maximizing sales and knowing what will be a drag on sales. One of the drags on sales is that there may be side effects or problems with the drugs. It is in their interest to downplay the side effects or to say there are work arounds. It makes him look at pharmaceutical companiesdifferently. He has one friend who helped develop a popular drug, but when the man himself came down with the disease it treated, he refused to take it. He didn’t, because he understood the side effects of the drug very well. He knew the side effects were deadly and would trash his liver.

When you read the potential side effects of a drug, you can know that most of the time the side effects are ten times worse than what they are saying. It is very easy to bury negative data. These are private companies that can hide their data anyway that they want. FDA supervision doesn’t help because the FDA isn’t there within the laboratory watching the experiments. The FDA is in Washington DC reading over the paperwork sent to them. They don’t have a way to know when some of the data is being withheld. There is nothing making them report negative data results.

Paul feels that the important way this relates to permaculture is that we are blazing a trail on new things, innovating and trying to create a better path. People both in and out of the permaculture world, may be presenting information as absolute fact or science that really isn’t. Terms like ‘scientists have proven’, ‘always works’, ‘never works’, ‘fact’, ‘proven’, etc.
Toby agrees. There are a lot of things that we haven’t really proven how they work or how effective they are yet. Permaculture seems like the cure to everything, so we get infatuated with it. It is important to be honest when we find something isn’t working the way we thought it would, that we let others know and be willing to forgive yourself for not having 100 percent perfect solutions.

Paul feels it is an endless cycle of observe and innovate. He feels that permies.com is an incubator of baby steps and where ideas can be explored with new innovations. Some people come in and say ‘you can’t do that’ because they have an absolute belief in something. Paul feels we need to embrace critical thought and when we hear ‘scientific proof’, that we don’t embrace it 100 percent. We need to remain skeptical that maybe it is true and maybe it is not.

Toby notes a lot of it is about the question asked. A lot of questions are set up in a way to ensure you only get the answers you are interested in getting. He believes that Paul’s cycle of observe and modify is a really important one. Living systems are really complex, so you can’t expect the perfect answer from any single experiment. Deep mulches is an example of this. In cold climates, when you put down deep mulches, you get a huge burst of pill bugs and earwigs, which will go after both the mulch and the plants. People’s first reaction was not to mulch. The solution seemed to be that you don’t mulch in the early season, your plants will be more robust and don’t need much water retention yet. Later, when you do add the mulch, they will be better able to handle the bugs.

Alternatively, start with finer mulches or more composted mulch that won’t draw those insects. Being too obsessed with one perfect answer causes us to ignore the reality. With observation, we can recognize the problems and find solutions. Paul also notes that over time, the predators of other bugs will begin to show up and balance the system back out. Eventually the system will be rich enough not to be adding mulches at all. Deep mulches would only be needed the first few years or very infrequently. Deep mulch is a “rescue operation”. Toby suggests that the truth lies in between the extremes of “mulching is utterly fantastic” and “mulching doesn’t work,” and that it is possible to have more than one right answer to the same problem.

Paul has found more often than not, two very opposite ideas can both be right. Toby loves that there can be more than one answer and that we can just find the answers that work best for us. Rather than using blanket solutions, the best question to ask is which solutions are optimal for individual situations. This leaves room for evolution, exception, and innovation.
Paul notes that there is more research on agriculture than any other topic, but there is still a ton of room for innovation. Large scale farmers feel the rewards of innovation more than small scale gardeners. Paul shares an anecdote about Sepp Holzer going to college. In college, he learned that everything he was doing was ‘wrong’. When he went to do things the way he had been taught, all of his stuff died. He decided that the teachers were all fools and idiots and he had been doing it the right way.

Paul has made a point of removing people from the forum who insist there is only one right way. He would rather nurture the “gentle souls” who are trying different things. Paul asks if anyone has anything else and Kelly Ware speaks up. She notes that she loves the idea of planting for surplus and loving weeds. She has been pleased with cutting down weeds instead of pulling them. She has been using weeds to add to her soil instead of just pulling everything out except what she wants.

Paul ends with a statement that at one time it was utter fact that the world was flat and anyone who thought otherwise was seen as an idiot.

Relevant Threads

Loving Weeds
Reports of Beating Cancer in a Week
DIY Pharmaceuticals

Credit: D. Logan

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