After years spent going to conferences and workshops and working with farmers and ranchers all across the country, I noticed two things. First, while there is a lot of great information available to help farmers and ranchers, that information doesn’t always get to them, either because it is written in “Science-ese,” or because it isn’t clear how to turn that information into useful farm and ranch practices. Second, there was some not-so-great information out there, and that was getting to farmers and ranchers, giving them ways to spend their money and time that wouldn’t really help. It seemed like a problem I could do something about, so in March of 2013 I began publishing On Pasture, an online magazine for graziers.
One of the important tenets of On Pasture is to ensure that farmers and ranchers are using the best tools out there. So each week for nine-plus years, the On Pasture team and I shared seven articles that translated research and experience into practices farmers and ranchers can use NOW! I also tried to help farmers and ranchers distinguish between scientifically valid practices and pseudo-science involving things that are just out there to make a buck for the person pushing it.
The bad news is that it’s not too easy to tell the good science from the pseudo/bad science (often referred to as B.S.). But, we can all learn what questions to ask to help us tell the difference between the two. To help you with that, here are some examples of the process I go through when sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Getting bamboozled: We’ve been taken for a ride too!
It is easy to mistake science for pseudo-science, in fact. When my Dad and I visited the Gem and Mineral show in Tucson, I was approached by a man selling Power Balance bracelets. He explained that these special bracelets are very effective at helping people be stronger and more balanced thanks to a special material in the bracelet’s hologram that draws on the energy of the earth.
The salesman demonstrated by having me stand on one leg while holding my arms out. When he pushed down on my arm when I wasn’t wearing the bracelet, I swayed and almost fell. When he put the bracelet on my wrist and pushed again, I didn’t waiver, but stood there strong. He did this several times and demonstrated on my Dad with the same results. I couldn’t figure it out, but for $10, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. I bought the bracelet, and for the rest of the day, I laughingly told Dad, “Go ahead, try to push me over. You can’t! I have a special bracelet.”
Once I got home, though, I researched the science behind the bracelet, and realized that I’d been bamboozled. There was plenty of research out there debunking the pseudo-science of the Power Balance bracelet, but I just didn’t have access to it when I bought it.
Being bamboozled for $10 isn’t so bad. But when it comes to real time and money for new practices or equipment, the risks are higher. That’s when you can ask yourself the same questions we ask ourselves as we’re gathering information for On Pasture articles.
1. How reliable is the source?
In this case above, should Kathy have trusted someone at a carnival? Probably not. How can you tell if a source is reputable? Call someone you trust. Heck, call us!
2. Does the source make similar claims that seem implausible?
That wasn’t something Kathy could tell about this salesman, since this was the first time she’d seen him.
3. Have the claims been verified by someone else?
If someone is selling you a product or service, has an independent party proven that the product or service will do what’s being claimed?
In this case, the only verification was the balancing test the salesman performed on Kathy. And it turns out the test was a trick that had been pulled on lots of people. When the salesman pushed on Kathy’s arm the first time, he pushed her arm a bit forward to knock her off balance. When she was wearing the bracelet, he pushed her arm straight down toward he center of gravity, so that she wasn’t pushed off-balance. Here’s a video showing the trick at work along with a few others. Try it out at a get together with your friends and see if you can convince them that you have a magic rock or something. 🙂
4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
In this case, Absolutely Not! If something is too good to be true – it probably is.
5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
Yes, plenty of people had successfully disproven the “Power Balance” bracelet. Kathy just didn’t know this until she got home. Here’s a video that she shared when she and Rachel made this presentation at the National Conference on Grazing Lands in December 2015. It’s an excellent demonstration of how scientists go about checking the validity of a claim.
6. Where does the preponderance of research point?
Unfortunately for Kathy, it points to the bracelet being bogus. In fact, you can go here to see a scientific experiment of the effects of the bracelet.
7. Is the person making the claim playing by the rules of science?
Not in this case. He was using the rules of physics, true, but in a tricky way.
8. Does the claimant provide positive evidence?
Kind of, but only based on a trick that played to Kathy’s belief that she’s too smart to be tricked.
9. Does the new theory being promoted account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?
In this case, the personal belief of the salesman drove his claim. If he could sell this bracelet to Kathy, he’d have $10!
Next – Using This on Practices Farmers Are Told Will Work
We use these questions every time we look at a practice that is suggested to farmers or ranchers. That can be a little more complicated than testing the claims of a Power Balance bracelet, so in upcoming articles we’ll show you how we use this on farm/ranch examples and share how you can even do your own research.