Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: What IS Science?

File:Cangkul.jpgGreat piece on NPR’s All Things Considered last night about the agricultural crisis in India. In a nutshell, America encouraged India to take an American approach to farming beginning in the 1960s. Our motives were mixed. On the one hand, Indians were starving in places. There was real human suffering. On the other hand, we were worried that starving people are more likely to become communists. So, Uncle Sam helped Indian go from diverse crops with rain, manure, and sunshine to high-yield monocultures with tons of fertilizer and irrigation. Fast forward 30 years and the Punjab region of India is apparently on the verge of a dust bowl.

This is all very troubling, of course, but what I want to focus on are the last words of the piece, which is reported by Daniel Zwerdling, who does amazing work for NPR. Zwerdling is articulating one optimistic view on how India might solve the problems.

“Scientists will develop new ways of watering crops. They’ll invent genetically modified seeds that won’t need so much water. Science will save the day. Of course, that’s what they said 40 years ago.”

I think this gets right at the heart of a problem with how we tell stories about science, and food issues are, not coincidentally, tightly linked to this problem. I think there is a false dichotomy here between “scientific” farming and “traditional” farming. Earlier in the piece, Zwerdling talks about how Indians used to grow diverse indigenous crops using rain and manure fertilizer. This was traditional Indian agriculture, but it was proving insufficient to feed a growing population. So, they switched to the aforementioned “scientific” American approach to farming, which failed just as completely (perhaps more completely—the traditional method was at least sustainable). Now the solution that essentially proposes more of the same is “science” saving the day. The implication is that revisiting the traditional methods of Indian agriculture would be “unscientific.”

File:GLEANER L2.JPGScientists understand in scientific terms why a lot of traditional agricultural practices worked well over a long term. Objectively speaking, it’s not like farming with rotated crops, manure, sunshine, and rain is religion, while farming with petroleum-derived fertilizers, irrigation, and monocultures is science. Both can be understood scientifically, and yet when we tell stories, we always set up this dichotomy between old ways and modern ways, as though returning to traditional farming techniques is a repudiation of science, and only entirely new ways can be called scientifically valid. This is obviously nonsense, but it’s unintentionally reinforced all the time—even in great pieces like this.

Picture the page of an old school book on farming. The page that discuss “modern” farming (monocultures and synthetic fertilizer) probably has a picture of someone in  lab coat or at least a picture of a huge tractor in a field of corn, while the page about “traditional” agriculture (manure and sunshine) probably has a picture of some craggy-faced farmer hoeing a row of short, unidentified plants  in a dusty garden. If it’s a newer book, perhaps there’s someone in Birkenstocks and tie-dye picking arugula (for eventual sale at Whole Foods).

We confuses science, which is a way of understanding the world, with its most iconic tools and techniques— modern equipment, chemicals, genetics, etc.--and think that where those things are not obvious, science must be absent. This is a problem of rhetoric, of storytelling, and anyone who’s writing about science for children is on the front lines of fixing it.