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Random order – if there is such a thing

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 28 April 2017

So, I’m wondering if it’s better to choose randomly or wisely. My husband prefers to choose wisely. “We can’t burn those tree limbs today,” he says, “it’s too …” hot, cold, wet, dry, early, late – there’s always a reason.

My decision looks more like, “I don’t have anything to do for about an hour; why don’t I go burn that pile of branches I’m tired of looking at?” I don’t care about cold or wet – anything will light up with a little help from the gas can. Of course, my somewhat random decision required me to sit on the slope of the draw enthusiastically waving to passing farmers, as if to say, “Yes, I started it on purpose; it’s fine. I’m not panicked.

Whatever you do, don’t call the volunteer fire department … or my husband,” as that fire billowed fantastically to the 80-foot cottonwood treetops. It was glorious. I was 50 yards away and still singed my eyebrows, and that sucker burned for two days.

The Kantu’ tribe makes random decisions. They are subsistence farmers in the tropical forests of Borneo, Indonesia. After clearing a field, they grow a crop and then abandon the field at the end of each growing season. The Kantu’ decide where to place the next fields through ritualized bird watching. They believe certain species of birds divinely guide human beings, and when those birds are spotted, that’s where the next field should be cleared.

An anthropologist studied their method and finally came to the conclusion the birds were not serving as some kind of ecological gauge (gravitating toward good soil or another agronomic indicator) but simply provided the benefit of randomness. After all, droughts shift, pests move, and lots of unpredictable things happen – and by choosing randomly, their chances would be 50-50 in any given year.

Humans as a whole, however, aren’t real fond of randomness. We mostly prefer order. We like to look at last year’s production records, precipitation and market shifts, and try to eliminate as much randomness as possible. The problem, it seems, is when we think our experiences and acquired knowledge is representative of the actual when it’s probably biased.

In Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg says we use logic quite effectively to predict outcomes within 10 percent of actual data – as in predicting how well a movie will do in a box-office run based on the opening weekend receipts. We’ve seen how movies perform in the past, and we have a pretty good handle on how popular it will continue to be. But sometimes we’re wrong.

For instance, in one study when students were asked to predict the reign of an Egyptian pharaoh, their responses were based on familiar and similar kinds of royalty, as with European kings. But the ancient pharaohs had a much shorter life expectancy that wasn’t factored in, so their well-considered predictions failed spectacularly.

Duhigg suggests the only way to make “right assumptions” is to increase our exposure to a full spectrum of experiences. If the agricultural industry has an Achilles heel, I suspect this is it: We assume because we’ve watched our farm, our cattle and our crops perform for years in certain ways then we can predict how any new technology, product or process will perform on the farm.

The problem is our experience is often drawn on biased samples without the benefit of full-spectrum experience. Another problem, Duhigg says is that “in particular, we are much more likely to pay attention to or remember successes and forget about failures.”

I don’t necessarily know how to rectify that. Even in this magazine, you’ll find success stories. Very few folks (none I know of) want their mistakes exposed to critical readership. Therefore, we focus on success and unfortunately overlook or don’t choose to remember failures. Thus, we are disproportionately exposed to success.

So my conclusion is: Based on last year’s production and your experience with your operation, you will likely predict within a 10 percent margin how your year will go, unless you have information bias – emanating from lack of full-spectrum experience or a disposition to disproportionately focus on success.

The third skew would be if an unpredictable catastrophic event occurs (in which case, you might as well make your decisions from bird watching).

Do you know your bias? I’ll just admit mine: I’m guilty of disproportionately focusing on success, which is why I will justify burning the accumulating pile of tree limbs again this spring. (Like I needed a reason …)  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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