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Building permaculture "cred" through simple tests over time

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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One of the big "missings" for many people around permaculture is "data". While it might not be everyone's thing, keeping records on your projects and your observations can really help people (including yourself) understand what's working and what isn't. I think these kinds of tests would also come to illustrate best practices for different climates, land profiles and settings.

So the question becomes, is there a set of simple tools and tests a permie can perform on their project to gauge successes/failures/surprises over time?

--If so, what are the tools needed?
--What data is important?
--How should one record this data? I don't come from a scientific background so maybe those of you who DO can add their insights here.

I'm not looking for anything too complex - or at least, I'm looking for some simple tests that a layperson can perform and then perhaps advice on more complex tests that you one may have to get a lab to perform.

Possible things to measure - please add to this list!

--soil nutrient levels over time (what test/tools to use?) - simple pH test to help you find out what you might be lacking (certain nutrients are more or less available in various levels of pH), NPK test? Other?
--soil texture over time (what test/tools to use?)
--rehydration of landscapes (wicked important for us drylanders) over time (what test/tools to use?) - actually, the tool for this is a "percometer"
--food nutrient levels over time (what test/tools to use?) - I know geoff lawton uses a brix meter for this
--fungal net spread over time (what test/tools to use?)
--electric/gas/water usage over time - keep a spreadsheet with your bills? Note when you made certain "improvements" that might affect usage and gauge effect?
--observations you've made like this wonderful post by Su Ba on mulching on this thread: http://www.permies.com/t/31228/mulch/Permanent-mulch-failed-comparison
--and so many more....

I think that a critical mass of people performing simple tests over time and posting them in one place (here?) would really add some cred to the permaculture movement. However, we first need to develop some kind of system and toolset to use.

Love to hear some opinions on this.
 
John Polk
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For monitoring electrical usage, a Kill-A-Watt meter is very handy.
With it, you can quickly identify appliances that consume some electricity even when turned off.
You can also see how much each device is actually using when operating.
Actually see how much your 'fridge costs you per week, summer and winter.
It will teach you more about each device, and hopefully help you slow down that spinning meter!

The basic model costs about $20, and in most cases will pay for itself in short order.
You should be able to find them at most hardware stores, or places like Target.

 
Landon Sunrich
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I know personally record keeping is one of my greatest shortcomings. I always tend towards keeping them as a jumble of ideas and figures floating around my skull to be re assembled when necessary. I really thought you're post about Electric Usage was great Jennifer. It was clear straight forward and seemed duplicable with a little effort. I think that getting together a set of good templets that people could chose to follow or not would be a good thing. Like - 'This is how I keep my records - see how neat they are? This is how I do it. You could do it that way too if it makes sense to you.'
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Landon Sunrich wrote:I think that getting together a set of good templets that people could chose to follow or not would be a good thing. Like - 'This is how I keep my records - see how neat they are? This is how I do it. You could do it that way too if it makes sense to you.'


That's exactly what I had in mind!

Also, creating a list of tools like "Kill-a-watt" that help with certain tests or to measure things....

Imagine the power of a whole bunch of data generated over time and across climates that indicate that permaculture really is doable and replicable and "Look here - these are the results you can hope to achieve" in a similar situation. I think that kind of thing would really move permaculture forward.
 
Cj Sloane
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I keep very elaborate records, Jenn, as a spreadsheet. I weigh my grown and foraged harvests in grams, noting the date and sometimes the situation/variety like black plum tomatoes in the hoop house v garden. The problem is no control crop.

Even if there was a control crop, it'd be problematic. I heard Bill M. talk about when scientists do a control crop, they don't count the harvest along the edges. So, an acre of corn would not include, say, 25' around the edges. But how to measure an acres worth of corn if done with permaculture? You can't discount the edge when you intentionally want to build in as much edge as possible.

Also, since permaculture focuses on polyculture and on total return, it's tricky to compare an acre of corn with an acre of corn, beans, squash plus 3 apples trees and then the pigs cleaning it up post harvest. Does the pig yield count if it they were only on that land for a month. And if you think it counts, will the next person agree?

That's why permaculture is so hard to measure.

One thing you could measure easily, which you didn't mention is Brix readings. Pretty sure Geoff mentioned it at some point during the PDC. I think it was in Soils Q&A #4.
 
Cj Sloane
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Two links relevant to this thread:
This article (which bugs me) and this thread on permies which sort of addresses the article.
 
John Elliott
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Cj Verde wrote:
Even if there was a control crop, it'd be problematic. I heard Bill M. talk about when scientists do a control crop, they don't count the harvest along the edges. So, an acre of corn would not include, say, 25' around the edges. But how to measure an acres worth of corn if done with permaculture? You can't discount the edge when you intentionally want to build in as much edge as possible.

Also, since permaculture focuses on polyculture and on total return, it's tricky to compare an acre of corn with an acre of corn, beans, squash plus 3 apples trees and then the pigs cleaning it up post harvest. Does the pig yield count if it they were only on that land for a month. And if you think it counts, will the next person agree?


The correct scientist lingo for this is "degrees or freedom" or "independent variables" or "multifactorial". Doing science to study one thing is hard. Doing science to study a system with n things is hard to the n-th power -- just ask climate scientists.

What scientists fall back on is to do pair-wise studies: pick one variable and move it around, and observe what moves because of that -- then quantify it. Needless to say, the number of pair-wise interaction in a system with a dozen input variables and a dozen measurable outputs is.....well, it's a lot*.

That said, just because you can't quantify things is no reason not to develop a working hypothesis of how things are and go forward with it, planting your multiple intercrops and giving them multiple natural soil amendments and multiple nutrient feedings and then seeing how they do compared to some plain control with nothing added. You can note when some particular combination works well, but you won't quantify how well until you do some sort of factorial experiment where a lot of things get varied and you analyze it all at the end.

Industrial agriculture has about a century of experiments behind it. And those experiments were done while trying to minimize all the possible variables: one crop, 3 soil nutrients, one or two pesticides (compared to control), one or two herbicides (compared to control), one or two fungicides (compared to control), etc. We would need centuries to collect all the relevant data for permaculture, given the intercropping, soil life, water availability, and synergisms that are used. In the long run though, permaculture builds value in the land through sustainably harvesting what it provides, while industrial agriculture does what industry was designed for -- extracting a resource.


*A free pack of bald cypress seeds to anyone who can remember their combinatorics and calculate the result.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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I guess what I'm going for is not the "perfect" scientific experiment as we know it today. I'm looking more for things that we can, without driving ourselves TOO crazy, measure with some accuracy.

Examples:
--I can measure how much fruit, veggies, eggs, meat comes off my property, year-over-year. I can also track how much land I have in production and note things I've tried, like say, using compost tea every other week and note if this seems to have any effect on production. Scientific? No. But most people don't even keep that level of record so that information is lost. Some people blog about it - which is great (the Path to Freedom folks blog about their production). If we could get enough people to, say, post their production each quarter/season/week (whatever works) in a standard format, we'd start to get some numbers.
--I can monitor my utility bills and note things like how my water bill decreases over time due to the fact that I reuse most of my greywater. Or note the energy savings year-over-year by installing additional insulation, exterior blinds, growing trees in my solar arc...
--I can use a microscope to look at soil life over time and see what happens as I start to add things like compost, etc.
--I can measure nutritional density in food over time with a Brix meter, as CJ mentioned.

 
John Elliott
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Jennifer Wadsworth wrote:I guess what I'm going for is not the "perfect" scientific experiment as we know it today. I'm looking more for things that we can, without driving ourselves TOO crazy, measure with some accuracy.



And that may be enough. The perfect scientific experiment doesn't exist. Any experiment that gives you a perfect result, without a scatter in the data, and without confounding factors, is a vacuous one. It's enough for an experiment to answer the question at hand (e.g. "does this work?") and give you a clue as to where to head for your next experiment.

As to yesterday's experiment, "can I heat my greenhouse with a rocket stove?", the answer is definitely a "NO", and I will be heading in the direction of more mass of hot water for my next experiment.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Yeah, John - that's more along the lines of what I'm thinking - something an observant laypermie can do! And if we start to have this data on hand - across a broad spectrum of people - then *maybe* more "scientific" research will be done on permaculture. For right now, just having the data of what's currently going on would be a boon. I do a lot with before and after pics - even these tell me something. Which makes me think I should start a Pinterest board for just such comparisons....

 
Landon Sunrich
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Jennifer Wadsworth wrote:I guess what I'm going for is not the "perfect" scientific experiment as we know it today. I'm looking more for things that we can, without driving ourselves TOO crazy, measure with some accuracy.


--I can use a microscope to look at soil life over time and see what happens as I start to add things like compost, etc.
[endquote?]

I know that soil scientist are trying to figure out which nematode (et all) species indicate what and what if anything do they bio-accumulate. So hypothetically you could go out and test your soil over time and by watching the microbial populations over time come to some conclusion and by testing a particular population trace much broader goals like "how am I doing on defusing the concentration of lead in my soil". But from my understanding most of this work is really in its infancy. Anyone got the skinny on that? I'm horrid with a microscope - my glasses get it the way for one...
 
A.J. Gentry
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Earlier today I posted under the plant forum about experimenting with tomatoes in place.... and I was wondering what to observe / what to measure / how to measure. Perfect timing to come across this thread!

I like the data / documentation because so many of the answers are 'it depends'. I suppose there are a ton of variables. But if there could be a baseline or even just a handful of the variables identified so I can take the experiment and tweak to my location, climate, soil, etc.


 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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A. J. - that's a perfect use for some kind of baseline information gathering.

One of the projects I really regret not documenting better is when I added a bunch of really woody compost to my heavy clay soils - it took about one year for the wood to decompose into something that didn't rob nitrogen from my crops. Not understanding exactly what was going on at the time, I was frustrated. I should have documented what I did and the effects so others could avoid my mistake or at least know that if something similar happened to them, the woody compost was the likely culprit.
 
Zach Muller
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For me personally it is impossible to keep records of the results of my experiments in any form other than video and photo. There are so many variables that choosing a few to focus on never seems to work. Documenting nature progressing is definitely difficult.

I keep a notebook with all my plant and seed names and usually rough sketches of any landscaping changes, but only about half of my activities even end up in the book. So for real results and data I look to videos and pics. If I video the garden once a month I have visual confirmation of each plant that I can refer back to and make new observations on. Likewise I video tape most of the test runs of my water catchment system so I can make more extensive observations later, because usually in the moment when one thing is not working I will focus on it and miss out on other things.

Things that people could do fairly easily and accurately
-thermometer to take routine soil temp tests to create a soil temperature zone map over time
-multiple weather vanes to study the wind patterns on site

Jennifer, a pintrist board would be cool, you should try it!
 
George Meljon
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Today modern agriculture is on the verge of 'big data' with information going to a 'trusted' 3rd party on how much seed, fertilizer, poison, etc is used per square inch and on what soil type. See how long it takes Monsanto to get their hands on that data.

As has been pointed out above, this system does a fine job of limiting variables to measure. In fact, the need for clean, clear, controllable data has probably contributed enormously to making the cut throat anti-nature decisions that have been made along the way.

That said, I think it's been in the farmers tool kit forever to record their observations. It's an important part of growing with the farm, if your mind works that way.

If you get very scientific, you also get very tied into repetitive observation. The more rigor the better data the less time for other stuff. I would think this would be difficult if you're starting out and trying to also make money to live off of. This then presents the challenge of recording what you start with and what you make it into with permaculture.

To me, this all would be helped with grant level studies to help pay for workers and equipment.

Short of that, finding a collection of studies on soil should be attainable and that cuts out much of the work already. There are lots of studies that support permaculture ideas. That's a start.

As far as studying the specific interplay of a permaculture design and comparing it to something else, that again is difficult. You can certainly observe and record what you see with a thermometer as a start.

The good news is that a well done layman's study of permaculture can and will be enough to inspire more of it.
 
Tom OHern
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Data is something I wanted to see for a while. What I would really like to see, and what I would find most useful is case studies that show inputs vs outputs. A permaculture farm is never going to be able to create data that can be put side by side with bushels of corn per acre, but something like a graph of annual dollars spent on inputs vs calorie outputs would be awesome. Another one I would love to see is labor hours per calorie (or million calories might be a better scale).

With those two data sets you could much more easily make the case that permaculture can scale up to actually feed the world, which is the usual criticisms I get. I don't actually think having control groups is that necessary unless you are trying to prove that, say, biodynamic compost tea is more effective than normal compost tea. These case studies would be enough to convince legislatures and grant providers to approve and support more permaculture farms and bring about public awareness that the global food production and distribution problem can be solved in way other than what the modern Industrial Ag groups are telling the public.

 
Levente Andras
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George Meljon wrote:If you get very scientific, you also get very tied into repetitive observation. The more rigor the better data the less time for other stuff. I would think this would be difficult if you're starting out and trying to also make money to live off of. This then presents the challenge of recording what you start with and what you make it into with permaculture.


I couldn't agree more.

Also agree with your note on the reductionist tendencies of any scientific approach and the "anti-nature decisions" in which that may result.

The thing is, many of us are experimenting concomittently with several systems within each of the essential areas of permaculture - food, energy, shelter, water, etc. We may be EXPERTS of none of those areas. BUT as permaculture designers we are - we must be! - GENERALISTS.

With that in mind I will gladly leave the design of scientific studies and the scientific measurements to those who actually specialise in one of those narrower disciplines. I just want to get on with my many projects, so I'll content myself with immediate observation, which can be largely impressionistic, but will provide satisfactory answers to most of those questions that Jennifer raised in her original post, e.g.:

- nutrient in soil? --> look at the health of your plants / landscape / animals - that should be a good indicator of progress
- soil rehydration? --> again, look at the health of your plants / landscape / animals
- fungal net spread? --> same as above
- soil texture over time? --> this year I'm able to grow carrots where a couple of years ago it was impossible
etc. etc.

PS: I note that this thread has been now classified as "meaningless drivel" - so thank you all for your contributions !
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Some things I'd like to measure as an urban dryland permaculturist that might not be as pertinent to those of you in rural areas or other climates are:

--tree canopy coverage - our AZ Forest Service actually provides grants to do a tree inventory in say, a neighborhood(s) and make a plan to plant more trees. Then one can apply for future funding to go back and take measurements on the survival rate of existing and new trees, health of trees (this is usually based on caliper measurements of the trunk, height and observation of things like dead branches, poor pruning...). One could then compare this to local temperature and humidity readings over time.
--the social spread of permaculture - as in people interacting with each other on projects (I blog about this a lot on my site) - I personally know of at least a dozen people just in my 'hood and nearby 'hoods that have chickens because they saw mine. I can name 4 people who have extensive water harvesting features because they saw mine.
--Last time our Ag Ext had their "Real Gardens/Real People Tour in Central Phoenix - I hosted over 1,200 people on my 1/6th acre property over a period of 8 hours (exhausting!!!) - which was a record number of visitors to any garden in the history of that tour at that time (2010). So some subjective measuring of interest in the "idea" can be had.

Granted - none of these are "hard and fast" scientific methods - and they don't really have to be at this time. But I would like to have an answer for people when they ask things like:
--how much food do you produce in a year?
--how long did it take you to build your soil so that you could grow decent veggies (3 years). What methods work the best...
--how much water do you save by reusing greywater a year? How does that compare to the cost of installing greywater systems?
--how much money do you save by planting a tree on the west side of your house?

These are the kinds of questions I get and the one's I'd like to answer. And there are others...

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Levente Andras wrote:PS: I note that this thread has been now classified as "meaningless drivel" - so thank you all for your contributions !


I actually put it in that category myself as it didn't seem to fit anywhere else.

And I agree with you about general observations. And I still want to know - where can we put all those general observations in one place so people can compare/contrast to their own property? Or figure out where to start? I kind of started this process (inadvertently) on a thread for drylanders here: http://www.permies.com/t/29038/desert/piece-advice-desert-permies

 
A.J. Gentry
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I have really been mulling this over the last few days. And I have been stuck circling around the same question I can't seem to puzzle out.

How does one measure the success of a permaculture polyculture system? I suppose part of it could be in yield, but I think that is only one slice of the pie. I think some of the answer would be what I wouldn't have to do -- didn't water, didn't fertilize (except chop-n-drop). How would I document things I didn't do?

What if the beneficial connections were tracked too? Going back to the tomato experiment I have in mind.

** Windbreak on north side (in Northern Hemi) to create suntrap microclimate. (Used two foot tall logs in a semi-circle).
** Added stones in front of logs for thermal mass.
** Used raised bed to assist with drainage and soil quality and season extension. (soil brought in because poor quality that was on site). Raised bed soil is 6-8 inches.
** Planted Nasturtium because the root chemicals deter whitefly.
** Planted dill, fennel, carrot to host robber-flies and predatory wasps.
** Planted onions and garlic and marigolds for scent to confuse predators.

If these types of connections were documented in detail it seems like it would translate to anyone planting tomatoes -- making it applicable to a wider audience.

A.J.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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AJ - I think you're on to something.

After taking Geoff Lawton's online PDC (and going over my notes many times) he states that pretty much all of our social/political/economical issues stem from using non-renewable products as opposed to renewable (living system) products. He boils down all these issues into three underlying categories that need to be dealt with - in order of severity:

--soil erosion - loss of soil from monocropping, especially the "big 5" crops (soy, wheat, corn/maize, rice, potatoes) - soil erodes due to water runoff (fields plowed flat, no trees, loss of nutrient to monocropping) and wind erosion. When the soil wears out or is removed - the tendency is to try to fix it with chem fertilizers or move to a different place.
--deforestation - trees are an integral part of the hydrological system, slowing a spreading water in the ground as well as sheltering soils with leaf canopy and leaf litter, leaf litter and roots build soils. Where there are no trees, the hydrological cycle becomes interrupted and the land starts to desertify.
--pollution - without healthy soils growing healthy ecosystems, we lack ways of locking up pollution in carbon systems. Biomass filters or binds up a lot of pollution.

So some meaningful measurements can not only be in food yield but things like:
--how much soil you built on site (how many cubic yards/meters)
--how you reduced your waste stream and recycled it back into your system - for example paper waste going into compost piles, feeding chickens primarily on scraps created by your household or your household and neighbors/local restaurants/grocery stores; greywater being used in the landscape... These things can be measured. I know that my cost for chicken food is almost nil because I've trained the neighbors to save scraps for me. I supplement with a little scratch because I don't grow many grains on my small urban lot - I probably spend $100 a year on supplemental feed.
--how many trees you've planted
--how little time you spend tending an area - after the initial setup, which takes some work - most people are surprised at how little time I spend "managing" my site. Planting and harvesting make up most of what I do now. With the occasional spreading of compost....
 
A.J. Gentry
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Jennifer --

Did you take the online PDC this summer with him?? So did I!!! Small world. Have you made plans to attend the Permaculture Voices convergence in March? CA is so close to AZ, right?

This thread has really given me a lot to chew on and several other ways to think about the whole system. I like it. I like it a lot!

I think I am going to mock up a little access database form with some of the items mentioned here to assist with measuring the system. And I want to include the things negated and mitigated -- these have to be included to get the whole picture.

While I understand some individual components are important I think the sum is greater than the whole if its parts, right?
A.J.
 
Paul Cereghino
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I work in restoration science, and you'd be impressed by how much useless data collection can occur with lots of funding and education. Most good ecological science is actually based on good natural history... repeated observation of systems over long periods of time using your senses, and differentiating observation from theory from speculation--Mollison was a naturalist first, and thus values protracted observation. In complex systems you have to understand something about the pattern before you can measure it. This understanding might take several years, as your simplest treatment-response cycle takes at least a year with annuals and longer for perennials.

I think plant growth timing and rate can be a good surrogate for wide range of factors... the trick is to have enough individuals exposed to your alternate treatments to cover for the natural variation in growth rates among individuals. I have often thought that unrooted stem cuttings, or bulb/root crops likely work well, because they can be 'standardized', and total shoot length or tuber yield seems like a fair response to growing conditions. Cottonwood and willow are nice biomass plants that fix nitrogen and have medicinal value. All that said, I suspect that quantification is vastly overrated. I suspect we can feel when we've screwed up or are wasting your time--the challenge is admitting it to ourselves.

I'd focus on things like temperature (air and soil), length (shoots), weight (for example, gravimetric soil moisture, and yield), and time (as in your time)... Find specific comparisons where you can easily measure outcome.

If you want to go that way, I'd encourage dividing your site into management units and tracking inputs and time as well as outputs. Cultivation of ecosystems is largely a cost/benefit analysis. I'd go for a complete lab soil analysis with a good homogonized sample from a whole unit and resample at the same time of year, but wait for several years before resampling.

I'd focus on describing really clearly and concretely what you believe is happening in a system and then look for simple tests and little bits of evidence that help you start to tease apart the bits and pieces of your theories. Honesty and precision with yourself is really important if your are interested in science. Good science is really slow and painfully specific... there is no such thing as "predatory insects" there are only the interacting populations of the 50 or 100 specific species unique to your yard and neighborhood, each with its own life history. Do you know them all? Exactly which one are you interested in? Different earthworms have radically different life history, ecology and demographics. Is that a vole or a gopher eating your potatoes? Permaculture thrives in generalities. Some of my scientifically trained friends laugh and call it 'faith based gardening'. Science only give generalities only rarely after a lifetime of work, and they are just wrapped in more questions. Who should be laughing at whom...
 
William James
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I'm so glad you started this thread. This has been on my mind lately as a very important area that needs developing.
William
 
William James
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I think one issue that is hindering things is a distinction I find here and on the other thread
http://www.permies.com/t/28906/md/existing-empire-strikes#226044

...the distinction between "Science" and "Popular Science" or "Folk Science". I think we can agree that both have their pros and cons, and I think folk-science people shouldn't be impaired by more rigorous analysis, while Scientific people should have more respect for people going out and finding out what works, regardless of hard scientific inquiry. Or they should do the studies to prove or disprove the effectiveness of something that people are doing. It's really disingenuous to say that because there are no studies confirming something then you shouldn't do it or claim that it has benefits that someone has experienced.

Example: the original post wondering about how to test that fungal relationships are improving. Personally I have no idea how you would folk-science test that. I have a vague idea of how you would hard-science test that. Somethings haven't been folk-science tested, some things haven't been hard-science tested. Some things just haven't been tested at all.

Anyway, personally I stand behind the increase of folk-science methods, just because that's something I can personally be involved with. This is not to say that I don't support hard-science telling me I'm wrong. I want more of both.

Btw, I think having a decent microscope is worth the investment for basic soil "watching", for anyone interested in growing better stuff.

William


 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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William James wrote:I think one issue that is hindering things is a distinction I find here and on the other thread ...the distinction between "Science" and "Popular Science" or "Folk Science".
Anyway, personally I stand behind the increase of folk-science methods, just because that's something I can personally be involved with. This is not to say that I don't support hard-science telling me I'm wrong. I want more of both.

Btw, I think having a decent microscope is worth the investment for basic soil "watching", for anyone interested in growing better stuff.


Great post and wonderful way of clarifying this issue - I think you're spot on. I basically used the term "layperson tests" to mean "any test that could be done by your average Joe using observation and possibly some simple, easily obtainable, tools".

Another point that has been alluded to here as well are - we might not all have the same goals. For some of us, how much veggie crop yield will be a good measure. For others, how much we save on our electric bill and yet others would look to measures such as increase in tree canopy coverage, or conversion from pioneer species to climax species. So defining your goal will point you to what you want to measure. Many of those with rural landholdings, even if they are growing the prevailing crops/animals - might not care one whit how they stack up, economically, against conventional ag. Measuring "wealth" may be sighting a top level predator on their land that was absent before (indicating a near complete ecosystem).
 
Paul Cereghino
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I suspect that similar factors undermine both "layperson science" and "professional science". Regardless if the analytical methods and measurement tools are simple or complex, if the integrity of the logic is weak, the scientific methods slips into self deception. This is what separates science from superstition.

And absolutely the science community frequently likes to pretend that it has knowledge when it has no evidence, just like other communities... for example saying that things it cannot measure don't exist..
 
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