My View From The Country

Sound Science May Be An Unsound Strategy?

The principle of adhering to sound science is a good one, but it assumes that the other side is dedicated to the principle, too

This week, I attended a roundtable discussion at the National Western Stock Show where a panelist I respect tremendously made a very eloquent case that the industry must use and promote sound science in confronting the myriad of issues we face. She used a local example in Colorado, where nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountain National Park has been increasing. The science being applied in this issue was producing results damning to agriculture, but it turned out that the science was so bogus that the results were almost meaningless and even misleading.

The scientists had determined what was “controllable,” with consumer vehicle and urban sources not being among them; so those factors were excluded from the study as potential contributors of nitrogen. That left agriculture as essentially the only significant variable being considered, thus earning all the credit for the problem. In reality, agriculture has very little to do with the problem.

Of course, my friend is right – the activists and our opponents have become very adept at creating pseudo-science, where the results are predetermined and the study is designed to “prove” the desired results.

Our industry has always taken great pride in using and promoting sound science. It’s part of our code. As with trade, we have long argued: “Let’s have a level playing field and let the results land where they may.” I have also always believed that sound science was the best approach, but when one looks back at the result of this policy, maybe it’s not so sound of a choice.

People have become so accustomed today to biased and/or bogus science that they’ve almost come to expect it. It sounds cynical but, whether you’re referring to our elected officials, our media, or even our scientists, we expect them to be biased and manipulative. The result is that many folks tend to believe that the truth resides in the middle area of two opposing views.

For agriculture, it means that when we start from an unbiased position, the compromise we find ourselves engaged in is almost always slanted toward the position of our opponents. We’ve seen this time and again in the issues of environment, animal welfare, etc. A great example is on the economic front, where populist rhetoric – based on a whole host of distorted facts – has forced the industry away from good, sound economic principles in a wide array of areas.

The principle of adhering to sound science is a good one, but it assumes that the other side is dedicated to the principle, too. It also assumes that decision makers and the public really care about truth and have the capability to distinguish between good science and bogus science.

The reality is that sound science for most people is the science that most closely aligns with the outcome they seek. While all of my good friends in academia will cringe at this statement, sound science is a concept that doesn’t exist when it comes to issues influenced by public policy or a particular activist agenda.

From economics to global warming, science has become a tool to help manipulate the masses. Certainly, from an industry perspective, we still need and should rely on true science. However, when it comes to dealing with activist groups driven toward predetermined outcomes, the best strategy might be to produce as much bogus science as they do. That way, the middle ground might be closer to where truly sound science might have led us to begin with.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2012

As an industry, I don't think we want to get 'caught' using bogus science. This would cause use to lose any credibility we have left. However, I don't think we can effectively combat bogus science from activist groups with predetermined outcomes by conducting more and more sound science. I don't think the public has a balance weighing which side of the issue was able to produce the most data. My opinion is that agriculture needs to dissect these bogus findings and make a big deal about publishing the details of the obviously biased outcome to the public. Agriculture needs to come across as the only side of the issue with any credibility. We don't need to produce bogus science; we need to spend equal effort producing sound science and discrediting the bogus science.

Chuck Huseman (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2012

Great point Troy. After going through the NCBA MBA training a couple of years ago, I was a bit annoyed that it seemed more geared toward "sound bites" and media manipulation than to simply speaking the truth. I've come to realize since then that the NCBA folks in charge of training understand the media so much better than myself. I have learned what politicians have known for years: One can speak in truths and sound science all day. However, that only appeals to reasonable, and thinking people, the supply which seems to be shrinking on a daily basis. As unnatural as it may be for the average cattle person to consider stretching the truth, or to outright fabricate, it may be the only way to reach today's public.

Mad Scientist (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2012

Hooray! Your article hits the proverbial 'Nail-on-the-Head'. This is especially true in agri-business funded research, notably at private research organizations. No where is this biased and slanted research more evident than in the dairy industry, where agri-business have massive amounts if money invested in research that 'proves' their products will maximize production for the already financially-crippled dairy farmer.

Joe C. Paschal (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2012

Science is the foundation of modern civilization. Just because one side doesn't adhere to the tenets of civilization doesn't mean the other should not. I'll stick with science, let those others go hungry and cold in the dark.

Earnest Crist (not verified)
on Jan 21, 2012

you have a great future at foxs news--you really ought to try and apply for a job there.

I guess back when folks said artifical insemination wouldn't work (these folks were more concerned with protecting the breeding bull market than whether or not A.I. would work by the way) we should have listened to them--they had their science on their side.

Or maybe the folks who said rain follows the plow and that the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles would become gardens of eden if we simply went out and broke out the land were right--they said they had their science on their side (they were land speculators by the way)

sounds like you just don't like it when the information is something different then what you believe. It's true we have to gaurd against propoganda that is being held out as fact, but when studies are done, research is checked and it comes out to indeed be right, we need to listen to it, even if it goes against our pre-concieved notions. Unless you think everyone is entitled to thier own facts--if that's the case and others actually agree with you, then the whole rational basis that our society is founded on is doomed.

you are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts. If you ignore the facts, you are setting yourself up for failure. that's ok if you want to do that to yourself, just don't pull the rest of the country down with you.

Chuck Huseman (not verified)
on Jan 25, 2012

This post is a reminder of how far behind in the art of persuasion the Ag industry is. While it is true that "everyone HAS to have" our product (food), without sound persuasive tactics and promotion, our industry may be forced to do things the way we are told to by the non-Ag powers. The point that this poster seems to miss is that there are a vast number of people out there that never use rational reasoning based on facts. No one in our industry is advocating the telling of "lies". We just need to present our facts in ways that will be heard by the average TV watching person. Remember, those folks are not all land grant college grads.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.


Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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