Each state has a Land Grant College that focuses on agricultural topics, and ours has a research facility in Aberdeen, Idaho, near where I worked on a commercial farm for fifteen years. As in most rural areas, it’s great sport at coffee shops to make fun of academics and bureaucrats like those who worked at the University Experiment Station, and I recall a tale that made for great fun for many years as a point of anti-intellectual ridicule.
It seems that a worker at the facility was weeding the area one day, using a method unlike that undertaken by most anyone who gardens. He first went through the area pulling one species, then again pulling another, until the area was clean. It was an example of inefficiency to the local farmers, showing just how dumb those smart PhDs really were in comparison to them, the salt of the earth. I repeated the story myself a number of times when I wanted to be “one of the boys”.
It wasn’t until years later, after a graduate level Research Methods class, that the penny dropped for me, when I realized the dumb weeder was probably measuring the biomass of each species so he could calculate which was most noxious, which was requiring the most time to eradicate, which was stealing the most nutrients—among other possible findings. It turns out that those of us ridiculing those “dumb intellectuals” were the real idiots, our minds stuck in one context as we were observing quite another.
Academics typically get a bad rap in the hands-on sector. “Those who can’t do, teach,” is a common refrain used to denigrate intellectuals, almost always by those who were taught everything they know—their knowledge came from somewhere, they conveniently forget. Trained to be precise and accurate, academic researchers do experiments in controlled situations to make sure their data jibes and that their work can be replicated and thus verified or disproven by others. Sometimes their efforts seem trivial because the rest of us don’t understand the entire paradigm they operate in, but closer looks usually reveal a broader picture of more importance. I’d challenge anyone who pokes fun at researchers to give it a try, see how hard it is to summon the talents to carefully plan and complete a project that bears the close scrutiny of peer review.
While academics can make mistakes, too (after all, they’re human) you can depend on information coming out of land grant universities because it’s stringently vetted. You may have to alter their findings to fit your soil and climate, change them to work with your philosophy, but they come about via hard work—they’re not just opinions. The same can’t be said for those of us out in the field, where we rely on immediate impressions in a constantly changing milieu where no two occasions and two settings are exactly alike. We can perhaps be forgiven for making premature conjectures, making off-the-cuff judgments, accepting anecdotal evidence, and fudging our perceptions to meet our beliefs, but there’s no forgiveness for not understanding that our findings are tentative and incomplete. A good scientist knows that science is only as good as the information already derived and that new findings can change accepted conclusions, and the rest of us should follow suit, keep experimenting and making conclusions but taking our findings with a grain of salt—actually, for most of us, a tablespoon or the entire shaker might be more appropriate.
The internet gives the impression of all information being equal. It’s all just words on a screen, so information derived lazily can’t be sorted from hard-earned information that’s been tested. Hence, magic potions and methods for insect control, planting times, disease inhibition, take hold and spread much like gossip—sometimes intentionally, the purveyor out to get your money or support, more often carelessly, without thought as to veracity or the damage done by passing on falsehoods. Not infrequently, Internet information comes from people who try to make up for their minimal experience with an excess of certainty. Consequently, the amount of misinformation and disinformation on flower growing far exceeds the amount of accurate information available. Beware.
If academics reside in an ivory tower insulated from the real world—and some, no doubt, do—laypeople dwell in cloud cuckooland, unconstrained by fact (most, I hope, don’t—though the final tally hasn’t yet come in). We imagine connections, sometimes outlandish, between substances, methods and the real world that seem more appropriate in the sandbox than in an adult setting. We surmise without really thinking, not realizing that events temporally joined, that objects spatially connected, don’t entail a cause and effect relationship—instead, they may just happen to exist side by side. We don’t consider that even cause-effect relationships that have occurred in the past may not in the future, since conditions change in the ongoing world. The list of possible misjudgments reaches to the infinite, the number of logical fallacies isn’t far behind, and the truths we desire are few—we need to cultivate our minds like we do our fields, with a constant process of care and feeding, not to mention a good deal of weeding out the unwanted and unnecessary detractors that get in the way.