Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

Add some healthy skepticism to the toolbox

Dustin Sawyer for Progressive Forage Published on 01 December 2020
Healthy skepticism

Every day, it seems, we hear about a new idea, concept, program or way of thinking that will dramatically improve our lives. Agriculture is a particular target of these new ideas and emerging technologies.

That’s fitting, as agriculture is full of creative thinkers and problem-solvers in an industry historically plagued with financial turmoil. Finding a way to get by is a common thread of the farming lifestyle and is perfect fodder for people or companies who want to sell miracles.

Not every new technology is automatically a fraud, but it’s always wise to exercise healthy, scientifically based skepticism when heading into previously uncharted territories – especially when money is involved. When a new idea catches attention and an investment is being considered, those of us in the agriculture industry should follow a few guidelines:

1. Who is talking about it?

First, determine whether the product information is from the person or company that’s selling the product or service, or from an independent third party. Many articles are disguised advertisements with the intent to either drive readers toward a new way of thinking or introduce them to a new product. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to pay attention to where and how the presented data were collected and be consciously on the lookout for bias or attempts at persuasion.

If an article cites “internal” studies or research, was the research really unbiased? Are citations presented? Internal research without any ties to published data is a red flag that there may be bias, and the information should be looked at with a skeptical eye. Generally speaking, data collected by a known, trusted institute and cited with clear references to a publication are most trustworthy.

For example, this sentence: “Research has shown a 90% improvement,” is vague and doesn’t allow a path for the reader to find and verify the research. Conversely, the statement: “A study conducted by Dr. Smith of Awesome University and published in the Journal of Miracle Science found a 90% improvement” offers a place to follow up on the study (the Journal of Miracle Science) and observe the data firsthand – suggesting the authors trust the data and have nothing to hide.

2. Who can be consulted?

Peer review and replication of results are two of the most important tenets of the scientific community. Those same tenets should be used in everyday business affairs, especially with big financial decisions. Is there a group of trusted peers that know about the subject? If so, have they been able to replicate the claims made about the product or service? It’s not uncommon for truly sound research results to fail in real-world conditions, especially in agriculture, when weather can make all the difference between a study conducted in a greenhouse versus applying the same practice in a field.

Local universities are great at investigating agricultural products and are valuable resources for such information. A local extension office can also provide a knowledgeable resource; contact them regarding what is known about the product in question. If no trusted local peers are available, a simple internet search may also help. But be careful and keep tip No. 1 in mind when using the internet as a source.

3. Dip a toe and collect firsthand data

If, after the aforementioned recommendations, an investment in the product or service is still interesting, proceed cautiously. The great thing about agriculture is: There are respected, independent laboratories ready to help. Let’s say a person wants to try a new soil amendment that claims to make soil nutrients more available to the plant. This is a perfect scenario to collect firsthand data. The key is to dip a toe into the decision water. Set up an area that will receive the treatment and a different area that will not. A soil testing lab can help set up a robust experimental design, collect samples and analyze them to procure truly unbiased data that can investigate the specific situation.

These data can help definitively decide whether or not more soil nutrients moved into the crop under treatment than the control crop. It’s important here to use real data, not visual comparisons or anecdotal information, to decide whether or not the treatment worked.

Most importantly, always keep in mind: The ultimate goal of the farm is to make more profit, not to be confused with getting higher yield or making more milk. In the end, did the treatment make more money than it cost? Truly unbiased data from personal research is the only way to know for certain. In times of great abundance, as well as times of belt-tightening, it’s important to scrutinize product and service decisions that affect the bottom line on any farm. Adding a bit of healthy skepticism to the decision-making process through the aforementioned tips can help ensure those decisions lead to success.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Dustin Sawyer
  • Dustin Sawyer

  • Lab Director
  • Rock River Laboratory
  • Email Dustin Sawyer