People’s Science or Pseudoscience? @ Int’l Permaculture Congress, Cuba 2013 18

I’ve assembled a playlist out of the major sections of my talk at the International Permaculture Convergence this past autumn in Cuba. Thanks to Koreen Brennan and Cathrine Dolleris for shooting video and sharing it with me. I hope to turn this talk into an article in the next month or two.


  • Dave Jacke

    If you read EFG carefully you will see that I do not equate NPP and yield, Rafter. I say that with diverse yields, food AND fuel AND fiber AND fodder, etc. we may be able to get equivalent or more yield out of EFG systems than single yield annual agriculture.

    • RafterSass

      Not at all intending to single you out here, Dave! The conflation of NPP and yield is a very easy misconception to make – and is very widespread. I was definitely pretty hazy on the issue just a year or so ago. You and Eric have done more to model a practice of rigorous literature review for permaculture writing than anybody – for which I’m grateful, and for which I single you out in print! 🙂

      I do think that any time we use the term yield to refer to NPP at certain moments, to harvestable product at other moments, without clarifying the distinction, we are playing into that misconception.

      • Dave Jacke

        Hey man, you’re awake! Me too! Should be in bed by now, but can’t stop watching your piece. Good stuff in this talk. Thanks for it. I agree the NPP-yield conflation is easy to make, and even when we do not make it, people can hear it anyway! So glad too that you hit home the point about the social side being key–amazing how few get that, though it is changing…. Listening to you makes me want to go back to school–but not sure I’m ready to do that…

        Sorry for the defensiveness, guess I’m feeling a bit low and vulnerable today! Rock on Rafter.

      • Ute Bohnsack

        Interesting discussion re NPP. Actually, according to my plant ecology textbook, in a ranking of median values of NPP “swamps and marshes” come out tops at 30 t/ha/a (range: 8-60), well above tropical rainforests (22 t/ha/a; range:10-35). Temperate deciduous forests are listed as 12 t/ha/a (range: 6-25) and cropland at 6.5 t/ha/a (range:1-40, though even higher values can be achieved by intensively managed C4 plants under favourable conditions, such as sugarcane at 80-85 t DM/ha).
        However, I think it is incorrect to say NPP=total photosynthesis. Total photosynthesis would be GPP. NPP is GPP minus respiration. Respiration in temperate forests accounts for 40-60% of NPP and in forests in the humid tropics as much as 75%.
        Very much enjoyed the talk (thanks to Dave Jacke for posting the link) and your excellent and timely paper. The points made strongly resonate with my own thoughts regarding the movement. With respect to the academic disconnect I’m happy to report that when I did a long-distance course in agroecology with Prof. Altieri at UC Berkeley in 2003, permaculture actually featured quite strongly.

  • Adam Grubb

    Great talk Rafter, thanks so much. I resonated with so much of this. Even the poster concept 🙂

    Re: feedback & people’s science, bring it. The quantified self movement has started to spread / democratise DIY science. It would be great to see a movement of backyard experimentation / mythbusting as part of permaculture. The spirit of it at least could cross over somewhat with the makers’ movements. A friend and I whipped ourselves up into a bit of excitement about these kind of things a few weeks ago but we’re both too time poor, as you are too no doubt, but it would be good to exchange notes.

    Focusing on social structures, hell yes.

    Presenting the controversy and that we’re still figuring this stuff out. So important for making people feel involved. In the concept of peak energy, we’ve still got a big safety net in the west, where you won’t starve. We tell students go out there and screw up a lot, and document it well. There’s still time for a lot of experimentation.

    Incidentally I did a PDC with Bill Mollison in 2005 and he said in reference to “a former colleague” i.e. David Holmgren, that (and I paraphrase) “There are no principles in permaculture. Just rules. We’ve figured it all out, you just have to go out and do it.” David himself is pretty philosophical about the (how did you put it?) simple solution popularist parts of permaculture, acknowledging that a lot of people wouldn’t make those very first steps if they didn’t think it was going to be easy. Some of them give up no doubt, but others pursue (thank you psychology of previous investment).

    Any way, thanks again.

    • RafterSass

      Thanks, Adam. 🙂 I’ll get to work on that poster. (I keep wondering what’s going to happen if Darren ever watches the video?)

      That’s a very interesting thought about the role of experimentation for practitioners in the First World. I’m going to be thinking about that.

      The anecdote about Bill is poignant. What a brilliant and caustic trail that guy has blazed through the world.

  • Phillip Kendall

    Right around 11:54, you start talking about how when you create a diverse edge ecosystem, that mimics nature, that often times there is an increased correlation in the number of pests that ultimately become competitors for the “crops” you are wishing to grow and consume. I agree, this certainly can be the case. But, you mention that as if it is a problem. That’s where I get triggered a little bit.

    When we copy and implement nature’s design, we are also implementing the underlying intentions behind those designs & systems. Which is almost always to create a space for ALL of life to thrive. I think as permaculturists we have to connect with and understand this principle. We’re not designing eco-systems so that just humans can thrive (although that is certainly a huge part of what we’re doing). We’ve got to consciously connect to the fact that we are connected with all other life in existence on this planet and beyond.

    Of course, this provides challenges that are often uncomfortable and can sometimes seem like failures. But, we’re intelligent people, and to be quite honest failure is one of our greatest teachers. When we fail, it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to try harder to figure out how to achieve our own set of intentions so that we can force what we want to happen. Often times, it can be telling us that we might need to try harder to understand other dynamics that are in play, so that our understanding of how to be effective becomes easier and easier.

    In this case, I believe that we need to look at the work we’re doing as designers and practitioners as ultimately something that goes far beyond our own individual selves or our species as a whole. Because, that is part of the underlying intention and potential in what we’re doing as permaculture practitioners/ land-stewards. We’ve got to really see ourselves as stewards of the land, serving for the benefit of all species. If life thrives on all levels, then we thrive on all levels. That being said, I think we are a keystone species on this planet…and in many ways we really need to start acting like it.

    If pests become a problem, one of the quickest solutions is to introduce predators into the equation. That’s how nature does it. As designers then, we’ve got to think about what sorts of predators will be most effective at controlling our proposed pests. We have to see that when we have a problem with pests, nature is showing us that there is an ecological niche that needs to be filled: predators. We already work with animals as part of managing an ecosystem, such as cows, pigs, goats, sheep, etc. Why not start to work with introducing predators (or better yet, becoming the focused & intent predators ourselves) into the given ecosystems we’re learning to manage?

    When you start talking about the “principle of expect a mess”, that’s getting into understanding that we are totally experimenting with things. I like that a lot. Cause it’s true! I’m sure you understand what I mention above, but I just felt like making a point of it. Awesome talk, really inspirational and chocked full of good stuff!

    • RafterSass

      I’m all for designing for multifunctionality (rather than simply for yield)! And yet, yield (for human use) remains an important function, and we need to be able to critically evaluate the trade-offs between it and other functions. We can’t do that unless we talk about those trade-offs realistically and openly.

      Or, what kind of mess should we expect? 😉

  • streamfortyseven

    Interesting talk. I’ve got a fair amount of background doing science (PhD, Chemistry) and I’ve had a number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals, drafted grants, and suchlike. From what I’ve seen of Permaculture so far is that it is in large part a system of beliefs, lots of conjectures and buzz-phrases, but there’s little in the way of doing any sort of real research to lay down a strong fundamental basis. Dave Jacke’s work is pioneering in this respect, of what I’ve seen, his work is the most solidly rooted (no pun intended).

    I’d suggest a good look at – The Art of Scientific Research, by Beveridge (1957).

    In this work Beveridge lays out, and explains the methods and techniques of scientific investigation when computers were rare and often human, and thus hands-on direct experimentation and observation was the rule.

    Rafter brings up the fact that the Keyline “theory” (actually a conjecture) when tried in practice does not seem to give better results than normal practices and in fact gives worse results than normal practice. This means that the conjecture is false as practiced, and the reasons for this failure to produce – in terms of products which humans can use – must be found out before trying to base a hypothesis, and later a theory, on this technique.

    Farmers must produce a surplus – a significant surplus – or they will be unable to pay their taxes and equipment loans and mortgages. In order to successfully advocate for permaculture in modern farming, both the cost of the inputs must be minimized (fertilizer, seed, costs of cultivation, harvest, and storage) and the outputs must be maximized, and that means that only the humanly-usable part of the NPP is of concern. If you create a permaculture that supports all manner of life, where there is competition for use of the crops used by humans by other species (“pests”), this won’t be a big selling point. If you end up with a “mess”, it’ll be pretty difficult to get a reasonable harvest out of the farm. Since most farms operate on a slim margin, this sort of thing is an invitation to failure. Farming goes beyond simple stewardship of the land – the intent is to seek an increase in one’s assets as the result of one’s labor. And farmers do not intentionally run wildlife preserves – the wildlife have to eat, too, and if there’s a crop nearby, that’s a convenient source of food.

    There are, of course, people in the US, for example, who manage to survive quite well, although simply, while not dependent on electricity or fossil fuels – for example, the Old Order Amish. Certain monastic orders are also self-sufficient and even manage a surplus, while again living simply and minimally. Perhaps permaculturists should have a look at those communities.

    • RafterSass

      Thanks for your comment. Your description of permaculture is a little ironic given what you follow it up with. That’s not what I said about Keyline, nor is it a fact.

      The lack of results (other than earthworm count) from the small Vermont study can be attributed to Keyline not working – or to it being applied inappropriately in that context, the wrong research methods being used, bad experimental design (the study is unpublishable because of the small number of samples and high variability), the methods being applied incorrectly (researcher error), and/or participating farmers not following the protocol.

      Interested parties should read the article, and be sure to read Mark Krawczyk’s comment. here:

      I certainly would love to see a peer-reviewed journal of permaculture research!

      • streamfortyseven

        “Out of the hundreds of samples, and readings, and measurements, we saw no changes. No changes to the very responsive indicator, active carbon, and no changes in other soil or forage characteristics, such as soil organic matter or bulk density, or forage NDF. What this trial told us is: keyline plowing didn’t change soil or forage quality on these four farms over the 2 ½ years we were monitoring pastures.” … “Since we didn’t find any increase in forage, forage quality or other soil quality indicators, we’re left wondering if opening up the soil to more worms is worth it.” and, finally: “we’re still asking, what will we see in the long run? We haven’t seen the 8” of topsoil that was touted, with no increase in organic matter or active carbon. Since we burned a good bit of diesel for those worms, we definitely didn’t do the environment any favors.”

        I read Mark Krawczyk’s comment as well, and note that he did not disclose that he sold the keyline plows therein, as noted by another commenter (Troy Bishopp) below: “I would like to see opinions from Mark Krawczyk (since he is selling the plows and the system)” and these plows and system aren’t terribly cheap (Rachel Gilker): “many farms are only 200 or so acres, which might not necessarily justify the cost of a $7-10,000 plow.” Usually in scientific research the possible conflicts of interest which might arise are disclosed by the respective authors.

        If the researchers didn’t find any *increase* in forage, forage quality or other soil quality indicators” amongst other methods, by analyzing for: “% Moisture, % Dry Matter, % Crude Protein, % Available Protein, % ADICP, % Adjusted Crude Protein, Soluble and Degradable Protein as % of Crude Protein, %NDICP, % Acid Detergent Fiber, % Neutral Detergent Fiber, % Lignin, % NFCC, % Starch, % Water Soluble Carbs, % Simple Sugars, % Crude Fat, % Ash, % TDN, Net Energies, Relative Feed Value and %s of Ca, P, Mg, K, S, and Cl, as well as % Lysine and % Methionine” and did this at four locations over a 2 1/2 year period, I’d say they have a pretty solid result – although it does tend to disprove the Keyline hypothesis, at least for this particular area.

        In scientific research, it’s quite possible to have “negative results” – results which disprove and falsify the theory whose assumptions you’re working under. If you’re a lowly grad student working for a professor whose career is based in part on that theory, you’re going to be in for a rocky road and a lot of sleepless nights – until you either convince Prof that he’s in the wrong (unlikely if he’s got FRS after his name) or figure a way to explain away the negative result, which gets you back into his good graces and eventually your PhD, but which results in bad science being perpetuated – not outright fraud, mind you, but not an accurate picture of what’s going on, either.

        Publishing “negative results” is very important, because it can lead to a better understanding of how things actually work, and the requisite evolution of the theoretical basis. Sweeping negative results under the rug, or explaining them away, may help people sell products in the short term, but in the long term it will do damage, because word *does* get around and unprofitable ways of doing things get left by the wayside.

        Perhaps the best thing to do is to repeat the work of Gilker et al in other places, and see how it works out, and if the keyline hypothesis holds up.

      • RafterSass

        Please don’t put lengthy quotes in your comments.

        Sorry for the lack of clarity – I should have written “impacts” when I wrote “results.” Obviously the study produced data.

        What are those data good for? They are good for raising questions, and outlining questions for future research. They aren’t rigorous enough to pass peer review – according to the researcher – and *even if they were* they wouldn’t provide a credible basis for you, or anyone, to declare that Keyline is “false as practiced.”

        Investigating an alternative agricultural practice in development for over 60 years, that is being practiced by 100s (at least) of farmers globally, demands an attitude of humility. The hubris of believing that an admittedly flawed study on four hillsides in Vermont is sufficient to dismiss the experience of these farmers is flabbergasting.

        Reading the article, and the comments (as well as the previous article/comments on the study), one can identify a dozen reasons to doubt the significance of the results – grouped variously under The Wrong Questions, Asked Clumsily, within a Limited Context. This is not to disparage the study itself, because I applaud the researchers, and this great, modest, overdue beginning of research into Keyline. Here’s to more like this, and more different from this.

        What I object to is the fetishization of ‘research’ that disregards even the cautionary measures coming from the researchers themselves, and never approaches a broader critical evaluation of the internal and external limitations on any given study. This is not the way to support science literacy or to build a people’s science, that can fight the anti-science agenda of the right. If we can’t identify the limitations of any given piece of research then we can’t be trusted to interpret the results.

        Thankfully, it’s clear that in the end we agree: more study is needed. But let’s *improve* the study while we bring it to other contexts, rather than replicating flaws along with strengths.

      • streamfortyseven

        Religion, and orthodoxy, and dogma “demand… an attitude of humility.” Science does not and should not. The Gilker study, according to the author, is the first scientific study of the method: “As a soil scientist, I look for data and so I began the search. I found nothing online, in journals, or from farmers who had tried it.” And in her first article, she states: “We sampled before, during, and after the two years of plowing. With thousands of soil samples, and hundreds of readings and scores, we found nothing; no increased organic matter, no changes in penetrometer resistance, no change whatsoever, unless you measure in worms.”

        There’s no reference to anything in her work where she admits to any sort of procedural “flaws” – in fact, the person who actually *did* the plowing was Krawczyk: “He worked with each of the farmers, showing them how he found the keyline in their pastures. He also keyline plowed each of the target pastures four times over two summers, following the recommended protocol for keyline plowing.”

        And still no change whatsoever was found. Unless Krawczyk deliberately sabotaged the study, the technique was performed by the main proponent and acknowledged expert to the best of his ability – with no result except for a larger worm population.

        That’s the epitome of a negative result – and it produces hard evidence against the keyline hypothesis. Now, this could be an outlier, the land could have some special characteristic which makes it refractory to this method, but we really don’t have much objective data which shows that the method works on other types of soils. If such data existed, it would be useful as a comparison to the Vermont soils – to see what the differences are. But the data are apparently lacking – even with 100 farms and 60 years of the use of this practice – which I find rather odd, but there it is.

      • RafterSass

        Scientists need not bother with humility? Wow. Simply wow.
        Your arguments make much more sense when they proceed from that absolutely insane premise. Since you’re a fan of recommended reading, please check out _Farmer First Revisited_ by Scoones and Thompson, or _Agroecology in Action_ by Kenneth Warner.

        No one, as far as I can tell, is denying the *direction* of the results from the study. You are inappropriately distorting the *scope* of the results. Maybe you’re walking back some of your earlier statements now, in which case – great! But this study provides us with no ‘facts’ about Keyline en toto – it tells us about some of the effects of Keyline plowing on four hillsides in Vermont over two and a half years. No matter how inhumanly flawless you believe the study to be, the scope of the findings are constrained. They are valuable, and I applaud the study – but let’s not abandon all our critical thinking just because somebody calculated a p-value.

        And now I’m repeating my arguments, as you repeat yours. So if you respond, please say something new.

        I deleted your last comment because, in addition to not saying anything new, you posted a link to an unrelated (and rejected) 2007 SARE Grant application and attributing it to the study we’re talking about.

      • streamfortyseven

        Actually, I’ve read Yeomans’ 1954 book – available online for free – in which he describes his technique and the practical application of it in great detail (The Challenge of Landscape, at He doesn’t give much more than anecdotal evidence – although the anecdotal evidence is quite impressive, judging from the plates on the site – no actual numbers or anything like that. And for a practice that has been done for the past 60 years, the lack of research is rather shocking. Techniques like this would be of great value here in Kansas, where we’ve been having a bit of a drought – if they actually produce results. Rachel Gilker suggests that the results simply aren’t there – and her work was done under what appears to be non-drought conditions. It appears that the object of this technique is very similar to what would be obtained using swales along keylines, and then planting buffalo grass or other deep-rooted plants in and along the swales, rather than engaging in intensive cultivation of the soil.

  • Adam Grubb

    Incidentally, there’s a thread going on in parallel about spirituality vs. science in permaculure over on Reddit…

  • Zach Elfers

    Hey Rafter, I enjoyed this talk and found it interesting. What I liked best was your highlighting of the importance of the social aspects of permaculture. Yes, yes, and yes!! Above technique, what permaculture needs to teach more to greater society are the parameters that get us to where we are. Permaculture is a consciousness change. It represents a new paradigm of thought, and one of the ways it tries to get us onto its level is presenting a new conceptual framework for us to learn, and thereby adapt ourselves. That’s part of the people-care dimension.

    The principles you listed were nice.

    That said, I’m a little unclear about what the core of your talk is. Are you trying to say that fundamentally, permaculturists need to be more scientific / build more institutional affiliations? That they need to be less socially marginal? More skeptical? Less dogmatic? Or some combination of all of the above?

    I think every reasonable permaculturist would assent to these needs. I guess the biggest issue I take is the word Pseudoscience in the title of this talk. Right away it starts off on a confrontational note (but that’s not bad: we need a voice of confrontation at times to challenge our notions!). But it’s a note that doesn’t sit entirely well with me.

    I reference works such a philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s book “Against Method.” In it, he argues for an anarchic epistemology, saying that as far as advances in science go, “anything goes.” Feyerabend claims that people such as Galileo would never have advanced forward a heliocentric model of the universe had they adhered to a singular methodology. In other words, it’s because he didn’t tow that line, and he wasn’t afraid of the margins, that he got to the understandings that he did.

    Permaculture is a newcomer to the scientific world — it’s a new paradigm — and it has operated in much the same way. One of the reasons why it IS so productive right now is for the very reason that it is marginal, it is anarchic, experimental, and yeah, it’s also got it’s share of bullshit and hocus pocus.

    I don’t think we should necessarily try to cut off from ourselves those wrong ideas or failed avenues. They are an important part of the dialogue, and show us down the correct path. We learn from our mistakes, so we shouldn’t be afraid to make them. That’s how we can remain creative.

    The margins give us character. Even a Holmgren principle of permaculture is to “value the marginal.”

    That’s the difficulty — reconciling the anarchic nature of creativity and insight with the more methodical and normative nature of institution. If you ask me, I think what permaculture needs is simply more leaders. Getting permaculture into the scientific institutions and academies is great! If that is your calling, then do it! Getting permaculture into wider society by cultivating the human beings, community, and teaching new ways of thinking is great! We should all be striving to maximize our influence with others. Maximize our social yield, not just the natural resources yield. Permaculture can reform any institution it comes into contact with, if we simply do the work and take the lead, wherever we find ourselves involved.

    • RafterSass

      Hi Zach – thanks for your comment.

      I would say ‘provocative’ rather than ‘confrontational,’ but otherwise – yes sir. The title of the talk was crafted so that people would show up. 😉

      That being said, the use of the term pseudoscience is not unwarranted, for two reasons: (1) It’s already applied to permaculture, and it merits a response, (2) It’s a useful frame for the sloppy and/or straight-up deceptive language that mars the power and utility of the framework. By naming it we can better avoid it.

      I haven’t read Feyerabend, so I can’t comment on his stuff. But as far as epistemology goes, I practice a utilitarian version of critical realism, which I’ve come into contact with through the ‘hybrid science’ tendency in political ecology (E.g.

      There are margins and margins. Which ones should we value? I think the tendency toward playing fast and loose with evidence in permaculture keeps us precious, rather than fosters innovation. The dark side of First World bohemia is that we are chillin’ here in the heart of global empires, with historically and globally unprecedented levels of access to resources, within spitting distance of tremendous levers of power, and celebrating our cultural marginality. It fosters the tendency to be impractical and irrelevant to the real people living and dying at the much harder-edged political and economic margins.

      I’m not recommending excommunicating anyone, and I would never suggest that we cut ourselves off from the fertile ground of backyard experimentation (and back alley, and back 40). I do propose is that we get better at spotting bullshit, and name it. I’m proposing that we adopt a cultural of critical thinking and experimentation so that we can learn faster and innovate more.

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