The scientific method is broken

Money is the sole motivator of modern science, not truth

Clean Poop

Joel Salatin is an interesting guy, he was the author of Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front and maintains what has become one of my favorite blogs. In a recent post Salatin introduced his new solution for outdoor restrooms. Salatin runs a rather unique farm where he mainly uses traditional and sustainable practices, readers of anything Salatin has published would know that he is not a fan of the modern farming techniques used by factory farms because they don't produce good food and they are quite harmful to the soil that the crops rely on. Because Salatin is passionate about what he does he allows anyone to visit at any time to learn how he does things simpler, cheaper, and healthier. Because Salatin has thousands of visitors on his farm annually he has to provide them bathrooms that government regulators in his state would approve of and Salatin doesn't like the idea of continuing to have his guests relieve themselves in a porta-potty where their feces is broken down by a bunch of toxic chemicals that will eventually get dumped who knows where.

Salatin would much rather have the feces of his guests decompose in a natural way such that it does not contribute to the pollution that exists all around us these days. He would also like to use the nutrient rich decomposed poop as a natural fertilizer on his property. Salatin describes that he plans to build a system where poop will accumulate in a large concrete box underground filled with worms which will feed on the poo, speeding up the decomposition and turning it into an even more nutrient rich soil. Then with some specialized equipment he and his friends are designing, Salatin would occasionally extract the most decomposed layers so that he could spread it into his soil. Salatin originally wanted to call this innovation Wormy the Pooh, but his grandson's name, Can of Worms, was much more popular.

As should be the case with all inventions, when Salatin introduced this idea to his readers some of them told him a few concerns they had. In a follow-up post Salatin addressed some of these. One of those concerns addressed a problem that not many people know we have. Due to the advent of modern medicine we are regularly ingesting pills that are filled with various foreign chemicals, most of these chemicals don't do more harm than good inside our bodies, but what about when they leave?

These days our urine and fecal matter is filled with lab-made chemicals that we digest with the pills that many of us take, and our sewage treatment plants aren't designed to remove these chemicals from the sewage water before it is dumped back into the environment (they really only kill the bacteria). Plants and wildlife an any natural ecosystem simply aren't equipped to deal with this kind of pollution. Over the past several years, biologists all over North America have noticed an unusual amount of male fish growing eggs. Some researchers after noticing this decided to measure what was in the water and determined that in most of these sites there was a lot of estrogen in the water. Researchers suspect that this increased level of estrogen is what is causing the unusual number of intersex fish, and some speculate that the source of this estrogen is birth control pills. The main ingredient in birth control pills is of course estrogen, and all of this surplus estrogen has to go somewhere it can't all stay in the body.

Of course, regardless of the exact source of this surplus estrogen, plain common sense would reason that pumping chemicals into nature isn't good for plants, wildlife, and it probably isn't good for us either because we end up drinking this water too. Salain's Wormy the Pooh is a way that we can avoid increasing this type of pollution. He points out that worms just so happen to be one of nature's defense mechanisms against these man-made substances, their digestive system has the ability to neutralize most things. I realize that employing worms to clean the toxins out of our poop is something that sounds like it came out of a science fiction book, but this is something that should actually work and I hope that in the future more people than just Salatin will be going to the bathroom in cans of worms.

When I picture someone who has potential to make a real difference in the world to clean up the environment, I don't picture some grad student filling test tubes with samples from a petri dish, and I definitely don't picture some rich kid sailing across the ocean on an expensive, impractical, and unsustainable raft, I picture a guy like Joel Salatin, a man who lets tradition and common sense govern how he treats the environment. Why don't we have more people like Joel Salatin making headlines? Why aren't scientists testing his claims?

The State of Science

Galileo Galilei

Pop-scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson often like saying something along the lines of: "the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." One of the ideas that they want you derive from this statement is the idea that the pursuit of science is an incredibly humbling one. They often like to reference the story of Galileo and how the Catholic church, who was in power in his life, refused to accept the idea that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe and that it was the Earth which spun causing the Sun to rise and set, rather than the Sun revolving around the earth. Of course these pop-scientists, being vocal atheists, have a negative view of religious institutions, especially the Catholic church, so they use this story as proof that the Catholic church was (and by association all religious people are) incredibly prideful because they lacked the humility to set aside their biases and accept the truth of science.

Ironically these scientists also refuse to set aside their biases when studying this part of history. Of course we know now that Galileo was right, but at the time there were a few problems with Galileo's theory.

First, the tool which Galileo used to make his observations was the telescope, at the time telescopes were quite rare and had yet to be accepted by the scientific community. Imagine if some scientist today were to make some profound discovery that challenged our very understanding of the universe but the tool he used to make said discovery was one that only he had access to and was a tool whose reliability had not been proven. Would you believe this guy? Probably not.

Secondly, Galileo's theory was easily disproven. Scientists of the day would challenge Galileo by pointing out the fact that an object dropped from a tall building or platform always landed directly below where it dropped. If the Earth were spinning as Galileo claimed then the object should have landed a few feet away since the ground would have moved during the time that the object was falling. Galileo had no explanation for why this was the case and he admitted it, in fact it would be a few hundred years before someone discovered the reason why objects always landed directly below where they fall despite the spin of the earth. Scientists of the time had completely legitimate reasons to question Galileo.

Lastly Galileo was a big troll. He wrote all of his papers in a way that characterized the authorities of the Catholic church as a bunch of simpletons. This may or may not have been true, but when you want to convince people of your discoveries it is generally a good idea to refrain from insulting the people you are trying to convince. Galileo had no respect for authority.

Frankly Galileo was not the saint that scientists today preach him up to be, history is true whether or not you believe in it.

The Scientific Method

Science is allegedly governed by a process known as the scientific method. Believers in science believe that the scientific method can find the truth in anything. This of course is not true as there exist many questions that the scientific method is not able to answer, but the scientific method is good for a lot of things. I was first taught the scientific method in elementary school, and this is what I was taught it was at that time:

  1. Find a question
  2. Formulate a hypothesis around the question
  3. Design and perform an experiment which will prove whether or not your hypothesis correctly answers the question
  4. Publish your findings and report on whether your hypothesis was right or wrong

This, for many years, was how I believed science was conducted, lots of people today still believe that this is how science is performed and that scientists have the humility to admit when they are wrong. Unfortunately this is not the case. At some point in time this may have been how science was conducted but this is not how it has been conducted for a long time. This is the scientific method today:

  1. Receive funding to prove how great a product is
  2. Form a hypotheses that is favorable to the product you are being funded to promote
  3. Design and perform an experiment which will prove your hypothesis correct
  4. If the experiment disproves your hypothesis revisit steps 2 and 3
  5. Publish your findings in a way that makes the product you are funded to promote look good

I've written before about a study that was conducted in the mid-1900s that was designed to prove that a low cholesterol diet, void of animal fat, was effective in preventing heart disease. The study followed two groups of several middle-aged men for a number of years, one group ate a traditional animal fat filled diet filled with eggs, bacon, butter and steak while the other ate what was the American Heart Association's recommended diet with things like cereal, margarine, and minimal amounts of red meat. The study was biased from the start, there were twice as many smokers in the first group as there were in the second, but we of course aren't meant to notice that.

By the conclusion of the study, eight participants had died of heart disease, all eight of these belonged to the group of men following the low cholesterol diet meant to prevent heart disease. So what is a scientist supposed to do when they find that the diet they claim is capable of stopping heart disease performs drastically worse than the diet they were paid to say was dangerous? They go back and change what the experiment was meant to prove.

The abstract of the study says that the recommended diet was proven to lower the cholesterol of middle aged men (which should be concerning to anyone with an understanding of what cholesterol is). This was what they chose to focus on in order to fulfil their obligation to promote what they were paid to promote. The only place in the paper where the eight casualties of the low cholesterol diet was the fine print. These researchers hid the truth so that they could protect their pay checks.

I said at the beginning of this section that the scientific method is good for many things. In that statement I was referring to the correct and honest version of the scientific method, the version that is no longer practiced today. The version of the scientific method that is employed by the scientists of today is mostly motivated by money and politics instead of truth. I believe we have a right to be skeptical of anything that modern "science" tells us to do.

Science doesn't care for the truth

Let's go back to the topic of Joel Salatin and why scientists pay no attention to him. In one chapter of Everything I Want to Do is Illegal he talks about the time that he saw a farmer on the cover of a magazine stood in front of a large concrete lagoon filled with cows, the magazine claimed that the thing the farmer was standing in front of was the solution to cleaning up the pollution in the Cheapeake Bay. Salatin lives in Virginia and that of course is where his farm is as well and he agreed that cow manure was one of the largest pollutants of the Chesepeake Bay. Salatin explained that cows that are left to roam in a field (as most cows are) will of course poop in that field, this poop will lie there until rain washes it away and it ends up flowing into the bay.

The idea behind the concrete lagoons was that if the cows pooped there the manure would stay within the walls of the stinky lagoon until the farmer had time to remove it and spread it on their fields. In theory this would work, but in practice it doesn't. Salatin states that the only time that farmers have to deal with removing the manure and spreading it across their fields is the winter, so this is when almost every farmer with one of these lagoons does this. The problem with this is that winter soil is quite hard and frozen so almost none of the manure spread in the winter will end up seeping into the soil, instead all of it would end up being carried into the Chesepeake Bay in the next rain or snowstorm. The very innovation that was meant to stop cow poop from polluting the Chesepeake Bay ended up being responsible for the tripling of said pollution.

The most frustrating thing about this story is the fact that many scientists noticed the tripling of the pollution and were able to trace it back to the concrete lagoons that cows were being put in. But these honest scientists couldn't say anything because the environmentalists had pushed for the adoption of these lagoons and it would be politically incorrect to go against what the environmentalists were saying. Plus the government had given $50,000 grants to all the farmers who had installed these lagoons to put their cows in, and the government of course can never be wrong.

After telling this ridiculous story Salatin described how he dealt with his cow manure. Salatin keeps his cows in an open field but he feeds them under a large open roof, his cows spend the majority of their time under this roof, especially in the winter, so this is where they always poop. The floor of this roofed area is covered in wood chips which will soak up the moisture in the feces and also break down, they also mask the smell so the entire area smells pleasantly of wood chips rather than poop. Salatin also throws a bunch of corn into the mix which get stomped into everything by the cows. In the spring he lets his pigs into the area, they will dig up the corn to eat which mixes everything around. By summer, not only has Salatin completely prevented nearly any cow poop from being washed into the Chesepeake Bay, but he has the perfect compost to spread on his field. This is how this pollution problem should be solved.

Based on this story and the one at the beginning of this piece, it is clear that Salatin is a compost enthusiast as any environmentally-minded person should be. Salatin tells a story about a time when he attended a presentation at some conference of agricultural scientists or something where one scientist gave a presentation on the benefits of one type of chemical fertilizer. Salatin figures that the people who put on these conferences don't like it when farmers attend because they assume that farmers don't care about the same things they do. Regardless Salatin decided to approach the scientist who gave the presentation and ask about why compost wouldn't be a better option.

The scientist's response went something along the lines of, "Well there's never been a study that looked into the effectiveness of large scale composting like you are suggesting and it would be incredibly difficult to preform such a study because there is a whole bunch of different conditions that would have to be met and we'd have to do some double blind testing and blah blah blah." If we translate that statement to English it means, "Nobody has ever or will ever pay us to test whether or not compost is better than these commercial fertilizers because we're paid by the fertilizer companies and they wouldn't want people to know that literal rotting garbage has the possibility of being more effective than their products."

If I were in Salatin's shoes at this moment I'd be puzzled as to why the scientist thought an expensive in depth study was necessary in the first place. If quality and quantity of output was all that was being tested then all that would need to happen is to compare the output of Salatin's farm to that of one of his unenlightened neighbors. It's not like farmers only farm when they are being studied, they are always farming, a simple comparison of the results two farmers are already getting would cost almost nothing to do.

Peer Reviews

I like innovators like Joel Salatin because they aren't afraid to go against what "science" is telling them and go ahead to build a can of worms. Science today is governed by peer review and funded by governments and big corporations. This is why Galileo wasn't accepted by the scientific community of his time, he failed peer review and he openly mocked the biggest patrons of science.

The peer review system is fundamentally flawed because it leaves no room for innovation and discovery. Think about it, if someone thinks up an innovative theory based off of some new discovery it would undoubtedly contradict the work of many other scientists that have been working off of different models. Picture this, you are a 17th century scientist who has spent the last ten years of his life modeling the wanderings of the planet Jupiter based on the idea that the Earth is not spinning or revolving around the Sun, but that the Earth is the stationary center of the universe, you think you have just about created the perfect model and then some guy named Galileo asks you to read his paper on how the Earth is not the center of the universe and that it is constantly spinning and revolving around the Sun so Jupiter's wanderings are not due to the movement of Jupiter but the movement of the Earth. If Galileo is right then your entire life's work is false, are you going to approve Galileo's theory? Probably not.

The very system which scientists today criticize for not believing Galileo functions the same way that theirs does today. Compost and worm toilets are great ideas, but unless there is a massive change in the scientific community sometime soon, the ideas of everyday innovators like Joel Salatin will never be accepted.

Who to trust

In closing I'd like to reiterate a point that I made earlier. We have every right to be skeptical of "science" it has been wrong in the past and it is not immune from being wrong now. Be rebellious and reject the status quo of accepting everything you're told. Many of the world's most important and impactful innovations and discoveries were made by people like Galileo who refused to simply accept everything that they were being told. Don't disqualify yourself from being one of these people. Think for yourself, seek out your own knowledge, challenge "science" if it is true it will stand up to your challenge, but if it does not then you've proved it a lie.