Questionable Motives

March 9, 2013

Why were we wrong then and why are we wrong now?

How refreshing to hear working scientists freely admit that practices based on poor understanding can result in being wrong when the evidence from reality shows us this to be the case! (If only theists were as honest about the practices undertaken on behalf of their faith!)


  1. I like TED. I’ve watched dozens of their videos. Yet on a note of caution, they’ve copped flak for allowing woo merchants to sneak on board and fly under the TED flag. Their vetting process needs tightening up.

    Now, I really liked this video. Savory gave a great presentaion and was very convincing. So I (automatically) googled his name to find out what the rest of the scientific community thought of him. I have not made an exhaustive search by any means but I’m now officially suspicious. I’d rather not be but…

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — March 10, 2013 @ 8:42 am | Reply

    • Thanks for that warning. I know the latest from a TEDx presentation (woo by Rupert Sheldrake) has been widely criticized but I thought this presentation by Savory would be vetted by TED. The results of his work presented here seem to be rather remarkable. I was struck by the forceful notion of a scientist admitting being wrong and changing position based on what reality was telling him about the quality of his beliefs and thought that alone was worth posting in response to so many criticisms of scientific dogmatism.

      If you gain any other info that brings Savory’s thesis I’ve posted here into question or qualification, please update us. Your contribution is always most welcome.

      Comment by tildeb — March 10, 2013 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  2. The results of his work presented here seem to be rather remarkable. I was struck by the forceful notion of a scientist admitting being wrong and changing position based on what reality was telling him about the quality of his beliefs and thought that alone was worth posting in response to so many criticisms of scientific dogmatism.

    I agree. It’s very remarkable. There’s four powerful emotional selling points here. One, is the idea of a scientist admitting that he was wrong. (Talk about “integrity” in boldface type.) Plus there’s this wonderful idea that “the answer” was right under our very noses all this time. (Insert collective slap the forehead and “Eureka” in comic sans here). Then there’s the bold mavarick scientist bravely facing down the conventional, boring scientific orthodoxy stuck in yesterday’s thinking. And then there’s those beautiful before and after shots. Astounding.
    Let’s switch topics yet keep the selling points.
    Instead of a biologist, let’s have a doctor. A cancer doctor.
    Ah, the good doctor treated cancer patients the traditional way at Stanford. He grieved for the patients that died. But then…but then…he came up with a radical, out-of-the-box cure.
    Tobacco leaf molecular injectory.
    He has photos to prove it of happy, healthy patients. (This is the photo of them at death’s door at the hospital and this is the photo of them wrestling gaily with their children after treatment.)
    The man now has his very own clinic and a website!!!
    What an amazing success story.
    Yet “the orthodoxy” can’t bring themselves to consider the humble, organic tobacco leaf as a way of mimicing the body’s natural immune system in the noble fight against cancer.
    Now, the very first thing that I would do would be to say “A cure for cancer? Shut up and take my money…only…what does the medical community say about you? Where’s your peer reviewed research and your nomination for a Nobel Prize?”

    The real life example I’m thinking of is Stanislaw Burzynski
    He’s sucked in thousands. He claims to cure cancer. He’s got waiting lists a mile long. His clinic is beautiful and he never stops running “trials”.

    I’ve googled Savory’s name again. Nothing good has popped up. I don’t want to play guilt by association but some of the usual kooks are out there supporting him and they are on the top of the list.
    Depak Chopra.

    If they are supporting him then that’s a red flag. It doesn’t mean that Savory’s a nutter or a shill. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while. It’s just that I’d feel a lot better about it if there were actual scientific communities that specialise in this sort of thing endorsing his work and a large mound of peer-reviewed research.
    So far it’s not looking good at all.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — March 10, 2013 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  3. Well, this seems to be the most in-depth article I can find.

    The money quote…

    They conclude that most of the science used to support management recommendations for these systems is either anecdotal or statistically inconclusive because the experiments were poorly designed (they didn’t isolate single variables for analysis). Savory and his closest proponents (Teague 2008 – strangely, a co-author on Briske 2008) have provided rebuttals arguing that Briske mis-represented HM in their study sample and that their conclusions are, consequently, not relevant. While I don’t think that critiques are necessarily a definite dismissal of the legitimacy of HM, I do think they raise an extremely valid question … “Where’s the data?”

    In his defense, while Savory was a research biologist early in his career and did publish on his rotational grazing work in the late 70’s and early 80’s, for the past 30 years he has been much more concerned about practicing sustainable (or regenerative, as he likes to say) land management than he has been about rigorous experimental design and data analysis. So it’s true that for the most prominent portions of Savory’s career, his science has largely been anecdotal (powerful as his “before and after” photos may be) rather than statistically conclusive scientific analysis. This is a problem…

    Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe my mood at the moment. A creeping sense of anger and frustration is possibly more accurate. The video was slick. Had me nicely fooled for a while.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — March 11, 2013 @ 10:47 am | Reply

    • Well, I don’t think he’s trying to pull a fast one here. I think the scientific criticisms are mostly about the lack of detailed variables when no doubt the frustration by Savory is that sustainability of an ecosystem ‘managed’ by people should be the priority. I know there is sympathy out there for him in this regard. I liked Peter Sinclair’s take on the TED presentation:

      “This speaks to what is for some, a standard ecological prescription, which is that animal husbandry is always in every case destructive, and contributes to climate change and desertification. Savory agrees that there is a right and wrong way, but makes a case that with the right practices, ruminants can become a powerful tool for healing damaged land and sequestering carbon.

      One remembers that when European settlers (ok, illegal aliens) came to America, they found black soil 6 feet and more thick in Iowa, Illinois and the plains. That soil has now been reduced to inches by technological agricultural practices, and a major project for the coming century would be to turn that around, if we are to maintain a viable agricultural base. And those original soils, well, the Buffalo had something to do with that…”

      I think that’s a rather astute observation.

      Comment by tildeb — March 11, 2013 @ 7:38 pm | Reply

  4. Well, I don’t think he’s trying to pull a fast one here.

    On that I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and go with him being very sincere in what he says. It’s that very sincerity that makes his case all the more appealing.
    I’m glad you pointed out Sinclair’s mention of him. Always have time for his website. He’s suitably non-commital on this one so far.
    Savory may be on to something but if he is then he’s going about it the wrong way.
    He must churn out the hard data and enter the scientific arena. I don’t care how kindly and noble and wonderful he is.

    Savory agrees that there is a right and wrong way…

    No “right way” has yet been scientifically demonstrated. It’s wrong to assume that he’s on to something promising. Savory may well be spinning around in circles with a glittering but ultimately bad idea. His concept of management in terms of trying to mimic “natural” herds may be a) a fatally flawed idea with no merit or b) it has merit but not in any way shape or form the way that he happens to be doing it.
    With no mound of data and no stack of peer review, there’s nothing but pretty photos.

    And those original soils, well, the Buffalo had something to do with that…

    I’m not sure what soils he’s referring to exactly but there’s soils and there’s soils and not all of it has been roamed by buffalo-not even all American soils. Whatever that something that the buffalo may or may not have contributed, it does not follow that there’s some great key that will unlock a great discovery that will restore the land. For all we know, that six feet of black soil was a much healthier sixteen feet before the buffalo came along and messed things up.
    (I’m being a tad ironic here but I think you get my point.)
    i’m in favour of anything that will reduce or roll back desertification or create new carbon sinks or benefit the local populations.
    I just feel that Savory should stop with the TED talks and start with the real research.
    People are gushing about him already because of a slick video and I find that disturbing. He gets to bask in the accolades from receiving his Nobel Prize only when he actually earns the thing and not by taking some social media shortcut.

    His promise has wonderful appeal. We must not let that appeal seduce us into abandoning our own clear cut rules on skeptical inquiry. The plural of andecdote is not data and that applies equally to Savory as well as any other scientific contender. Otherwise we are no better than the Duesberg/Wakefield fanclubs.
    It’s easy to be skeptical of an idea that is clearly loopy. It’s much harder (and therefore much,MUCH (!!!) more important) to be rigorous about the stuff that gives off good vibes.
    That’s my two cents worth on it anyway. 😉

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — March 12, 2013 @ 7:36 am | Reply

    • Few statements initiate more response than “You are wrong.” I think Savory does us a favor by telling us what is self-evident to anyone living near or in areas of desertification of land suitable for grazing: it can and often does advance in the absence of grazers.

      Now, when I was in school, the position was that managing grazing critters – whether on the savannah or clear cut areas or century old ranches – was one of the main causes for all kinds of environmental degradation (compared to it’s ‘natural’ state void of human effect, that is to say) that led to a loss of soil humidity and loam production, soil compaction, erosion and runoff, and the net result of advanced desertification. I remember reading an account about a rancher who insisted that overgrazing (what we called intensified farming practices) was the culprit that supported this position and not the grazing itself if managed properly. We were left to wonder about the motives of such a person qualifying the widespread scientific consensus rendered in regards to a ‘fair and balanced’ understanding that supported the unsustainability of grazing.

      So Savory’s argument reminds me of once hearing this lone voice amid the passion and certainty of my fellow students that all grazing – especially beef herds – was especially bad for the environment because there was reams of evidence from reality to show a loss of all kinds of biodiversity and soil production – most especially when rain forest was cut and burned to make way for highly intensified farming that used up land of its nutrient count in about two years. I remember the direct comparisons between aspects a non managed river valley (like river bank erosion rates, percolation rates, soil densities, organism counts , etc.) and one heavily ‘grazed’ (bark stripped from trees, shrubs stripped of all buds, banks stripped of grass and weeds, etc). The quantitative comparison in all categories showed a drastic decrease in the land’s ability to provide a base for sustainable agriculture and this was the standard by which the scientific evidence was widely accepted: ‘managed’ grazing led to widespread and unsustainable environmental degradation without any further understanding (beyond climatic) why desertification continued to increase in the absence of any grazing practices – managed or not.

      So I hold an opinion that Savory’s argument is good in the sense that we need to better understand the environmental costs and benefits associated with specific kinds of land use including grazing. The fact of the matter is that we will continue to graze cattle and sheep and goats no matter how vociferous the ‘environmental’ lobby tells us it’s all bad. It’s still going to happen, so I think Savory stimulates us – especially the next generation of land use students and farmers (herdsmen?) – to find better methods of sustainability for this specific managed practice… to find that balance between what the earth can support and what we want the earth to provide. Changing land use by human actions is a fact of life and as much a part of nature as anything else can claim. But the difference has to be much more focused on sustainable practices in all areas of environmental use without being subjected to the knee-jerk rejection that acting in nature by humanity is always negative. I’ve heard exactly this position reiterated by dozens of primary school teachers (Humanity bad. Nature good.) as well as the starting position many in the environmental movement assume is true. But I think we need to remember that we have as much a stake in land use as any other critter with the means to implement policies sustainable or not. So let’s get a lot smarter and better informed to find this middle ground. Savory pokes us enough with his opinions to further exactly that – to reexamine our assumptions and understanding – whether his anecdotal evidence is equivalently compelling as our prior understanding has been or not. I know of at least one rancher who would welcome his poking and think it to be high time someone paid attention to reality’s say in the matter.

      Comment by tildeb — March 12, 2013 @ 9:30 am | Reply

  5. So I hold an opinion that Savory’s argument is good in the sense that we need to better understand the environmental costs and benefits associated with specific kinds of land use including grazing.

    I’m all for better understanding. Yet Savory’s positive claims are unsupported. He’s not entered the scientific arena.

    The fact of the matter is that we will continue to graze cattle and sheep and goats no matter how vociferous the ‘environmental’ lobby tells us it’s all bad.

    The ‘environmental’ lobby? Hmm.

    Switch the topics but keep the framing.

    “The fact of the matter is that we will continue to drive fossil powered cars and trains and planes no matter how vociferous the ‘environmental’ lobby tells us it’s all bad.”

    I made that switch not to irritate you in any way. I have nothing but respect for you. I just ask you to re-examine the words you chose and put then in the hands of the bad guys.

    …this was the standard by which the scientific evidence was widely accepted…

    If we are to talk about scientific evidence and the consensus of the scientific community then let’s focus on that and leave the ‘environmental’ lobby and the primary school teachers of the world out of it.

    …to find that balance between what the earth can support and what we want the earth to provide. Changing land use by human actions is a fact of life…

    I understand the desire andindeed support it but I’m leary of the assumptions.
    We have to entertain the possibility that there is no real “balance” as much as we’d like/need there to be.

    For example…
    There are fishing communities that are in a death spiral yet still lobby their politicians to force a “balance” with fishing quotas in the face of scientific evidence.
    There are major fishing communities that simply no longer exist. The warnings they received are left behind in scientific survey reports.
    If the reality of the situation as discovered by the scientific community is that there has to be (for example) a total and complete halt to cod fishing in Cape Cod, then that’s not an opening position in negotiations.
    That’s just the way it is.
    Anything less kills the fish population and permanently disrupts the food chain taking the fishing industry with it.
    The local fishing lobby can scream blue murder and win exemptions from “draconian” regulation allowing them to fish “responsibly” but they’ve effectively signed their own death warrent.
    The fish are not negotiating. They can’t appreciate the economic needs of the fishing industry. They are not going to meet the fishermen halfway with a counter-offer.
    They are just going degrade further at a slower speed on a one way lane to extinction.
    If that’s the way it is then that’s the way it is.
    Our needs or our current practices are not part of the equation.
    I don’t want the string of disaster stories of fishing communities going belly up to be an object lesson for us all on a global scale.

    We have to focus on the science and crunch the numbers and accept the results no matter how bitter or ugly they might turn out to be. A fishing industry may well have to be abandoned. Grazing animals in a territory may well have to be stopped. Not reduced but stopped. Completely. Certain crops must never be grown again in an area no matter how profitable they might be etc.

    I would like to see sustainabity in the way we use the world around us. I’d like to see the the things that we feel entitled to in the way goods and services continue. I am prepared to tweek my lifestyle and sort my garbage bags in order to keep things ticking nicely. I want the spice to flow no matter what House controls Arrakis. However, it may not be possible. There may be practices that we take for granted in the way we feed ourselves that we may have to completely abandon. I say that as a committed carnivore that is uncomfortably aware of how much damage he indirectly creates in the way he consumes resources.
    (Again, no offence meant in any way. Not even a little bit.)

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — March 12, 2013 @ 10:50 am | Reply

    • Yup. We’re mostly on the same page with a few quibbles. It’s my understanding that in order to receive funding from TED, Savoy is going to have to provide a plan on how he intends to scientifically demonstrate these advertised results. This is the kind of ‘bookkeeping’ that is required to show efficacy and it’s what’s lacking from his current efforts. And, like you, I sincerely hope he can succeed at it. Until then, as you quite rightly point out, he hasn’t proven his case and I’m not trying to suggest he has.

      I, too, want much better science produced about real costs in environmental terms. Those terms need to be about environmental sustainability regarding the effects of human activities. It is this focus on sustainability that tends to get lost in so many current environmentally-related debates (with what I conveniently call the environmental lobby) because one can always find negative and detrimental environmental consequences to any behaviour (even breathing as well as not breathing!). So the trick is to have a metric against which we can honestly measure, honestly and forthrightly compare and contrast competing needs and wants, and I think that has to be in terms of environmental sustainability. In other words, burning fossil fuels in and of itself, (or producing garbage) is not inherently good or inherently bad (there are both environmental costs as there are environmental benefits) but the current rate can be shown to have a very real cost using the method of science to determine its cumulative adverse effects on a sustainable climate. The same is true for fishing or any other human activity that affects the environment. The analysis currently used too often ends up using the metric of either economic benefit OR stopping environmental degradation… as if the two are and must be in eternal competition with either one side or the other winning in local confrontations.

      It’s very difficult to find any meaningful way to balance these competing factors other than by turning to some external and usually coercive authority. There is, I think, a middle ground that needs to be the final arbitrator, namely, the metric that should be used by everyone for all activities: is the practice sustainable in terms of environmental stability? If it is, then I’m willing to go along with it no matter how much or little I support the specific activity. If it’s not, then what I think doesn’t matter: the environmental cost outweighs any narrow interest benefit. If this metric can be pushed into the forefront of our scientific inquiries into causal effects then the global response can be locally supported to make necessary changes. This is what I think needs to be taught in curriculum: an empowering recognition that fosters and promotes this idea for individual, corporate, and governmental stewardship of our environments that is demonstrably responsible – at home, at work, during our leisure activities, whether investing money or gardening or whatever. Our treatment of our environments in all aspects of our lives needs to be elevated in our collective consciousness so that environmentalists can sit at the same table as mining engineers and politicians and business owners and all talk the same language because we’re all people. If I want to do something to the local environment then it’s my job to show how it first meets the requirement for local environmental sustainability. If I am not willing to do that first, then I have no claim to some other and lesser merit to justify why I should proceed.

      Comment by tildeb — March 12, 2013 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  6. A valuable response (and take-down, let’s be clear) of Savory’s TED presentation can be found here. I don’t much like the beginning bits that associate Savory with suggesting that all deserts can be brought back to lushness by grazing; deserts exist (sometimes with thriving ecosystems) because of historic climate patterns and local geography. Altering these natural effects simply by rotational grazing seems to me to be ludicrous. But areas that were lately grasslands (or even forests) reduced to arid wastelands are coined to be areas of what we call desertification. If rotational grazing can be shown to reverse this creep of desertification, then I’m all for it. The anecdotal evidence Savory supplies seems to be positive. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen. But attributing desertification to grazing alone – especially over-grazing – also is problematic.

    We are too easily swayed to attribute the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to a particular general cause based on a specific effect and too ready to vilify whomsoever participates in using the ‘bad’ practices or products of such causes without understanding the variables that are as much a part of the cause as they are the specific effects so vilified. It is this willingness to attribute simplistic value terms that I find so disagreeable, and probably the main reason why I think Savory’s ideas on rotational grazing may actually have some positive environmental impact in specific local environments. They may not, but I’m not willing to go along with the vilification of the entire beef industry on equally flimsy evidence when I know many farmers on marginal lands who raise very environmentally sustainable beef. I would very much prefer that we spend time and effort actively seek ways and means to make beef environmentally sustainable throughout the industry without vilifying it as if it were one ‘bad’ thing in general. It’s not in many specifics.

    Savory offers us a glimpse of what this sustainability may be in practice, even if his science is not yet up to the task of demonstrating it beyond his specific and positive anecdotal examples. Our job is to figure out if it can be a sustainable industry generally by using what works specifically. Misrepresenting him in such an article (at least, I didn’t hear Savory suggest that all deserts can become lush grazing land in the TED video, although he does show a map of the world’s deserts) is not an auspicious way to begin this task.

    But I include the link because it does offer a lot of really good information about deserts, some excellent scientific rebuttals to specific claims made by Savory, warnings about the scientific quality of some of Savory’s generalizations, and why short-term grazing on them can be so harmful in the long term to their ecosystems.

    Comment by tildeb — March 22, 2013 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  7. For what it’s worth, I used to work in environment protection and the management of rivers and catchments/watersheds. As such I had to look at the interface between agriculture and conservation, and talk with both working farmers and agricultural scientists. I have read Savory’s book (or one of them if there are several).

    I found many farmers and scientists prejudiced against him, the farmers because they found his ideas threatening, and the scientists because they didn’t have the resources or the methodology to sufficiently test his approaches, and so duty of care forced them to be negative until and if they could even do the testing.

    But I found at least one agricultural scientist working as an extension officer for a government-run agricultural college (he ran correspondence courses for farmers), and the Principal of the college, who were strongly supportive of Savory’s main ideas (not necessarily avery single thing). I also attended workshops and visited farms where experienced graziers were using Savory’s methods (small paddock, short rotation grazing, heterogeneous pasture composition, using native grasses, etc) and finding their profits were multiplied several times (up to about 5 times) while they also better protected the natural environment, especially creek lines. The large increase in profit resulted from working with very small margins, so a small increase in output and small decrease in input resulted in a large increase in margins.)

    I don’t know what people are saying about Savory, and I don’t suppose everything he says is right, but using small paddock short rotation systems to optimise grass consumption and regrowth makes sense and has been proven to work in many locations and situations. But doubtless his ideas shouldn’t be implemented blindly. One farmer I know who has a degree in agricultural science several times took me to a paddock and asked me what I noticed. I of course noticed little, but then he would point things out to me that were clues as to what the best strategy was for that location – the point being that the farmer has to think and understand, not just follow rote rules.

    Whether a “desert” can be rehabilitated, or not, is surely a case in point. Some locations never had large animals on them, or the climate has changed so much that they never can now. Other deserts are human-made and more temporary, and if there is rainfall and soil (or the potential to recreate good soil), then who knows? I am not an expert at all, and have little practical experience, but I have listened to those who are and have.

    I say we should take notice of Savory, and also his critics, but take some of the criticisms with a grain of salt.

    Comment by unkleE — March 23, 2013 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for this comment, unkleE. I think many people are justifiably wary of Savory’s wider claims and take with your suggested grain of salt that those who disagree (even if self-interest is involved) to be prejudiced. Perhaps I’m just a softie for anyone who is willing to admit to being wrong before; maybe that will make him willing – if the evidence suggests as much, to admit to being wrong again! But the notion for grazing on marginal lands is intriguing enough to warrant some serious scientific follow up.

      Comment by tildeb — March 23, 2013 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

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