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Adam Merberg on grazing and Allan Savory and TED

I wish I’d seen Adam Merberg’s excellent takedown of Allan Savory’s TED talk on “greening the deserts” before I wrote my own. Merberg provides a history of Savory’s career that’s remarkably detailed for its relative brevity, with a couple of damning quotes by Savory, including this one:

You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.

Merberg offers perhaps the best summation of both Savory’s attitude and the pseudoscientific impulse I’ve seen:

Savory argued at TED that Holistic Management “offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity.” What Savory does not tell us is that there is the distinct possibility that if we try to implement those ideas, we will fail. In this case, he will tell us that we misunderstood his ideas. How comforting it will be to know that his ideas were correct, as they always have been!

Also of interest, Merberg offers a sampling of credulous responses from people who pride themselves on being skeptical, including this one:

In Shermer’s defense, it may be that suspension of credulity isn’t really a guy thing.

One of the more interesting parts of Merberg’s piece is his conclusion, where he directs certain uncomfortable questions at TED:

In December, TED responded to concerns that independent TEDx authorized events were “dragging the TED name through the mud” by sending a letter to “the TEDx community” warning that bad science could lead to revocation of the TEDx license. The letter also included some advice for identifying bad science. I can’t help but think that Savory’s work should have raised concerns for anybody familiar with that list. At the least, Savory’s work “has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” much of it “is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others,” it comes from an “overconfident fringe expert,” and it uses imprecise vocabulary to form untested theories.

Of course, TED has no contractual incentive to apply the standards it sets for TEDx organizers to its own talks. However, the letter emphasizes that “your audience’s trust is your top priority,” and I think it’s fair to ask what TED did to respect that trust in this case. Did they research the science behind Allan Savory’s ideas? Are they satisfied that his talk amounts to “good science”? If Savory’s talk had run at a TEDx event, would that event’s license have been revoked? Now that TED has reined in TEDx, perhaps its next move should be to look in the mirror.

Go check it out.

Comments

  1. great1american1satan says

    In Shermer’s defense, it may be that suspension of credulity isn’t really a guy thing.

    Ahem…. BURRRRRRRRRRRRNNNNNNNN! XD

  2. Ichthyic says

    How do you make “moral” progress on a physical problem?

    example: Feeling self-righteous when you replace an incandescent bulb with a fluorescent one.

    Impact on global warming: not perceptible

    Impact on thinking you’ve made moral progress on the issue: tremendous!

    ;)

  3. infraredeyes says

    @2:

    How do you make “moral” progress on a physical problem?

    I amazes me how many otherwise reasonable people see climate change this way. There’s Al Gore, for one, claiming that it is a Huge Moral Issue. And an episcopal priest of my acquaintance, who is not usually barking mad, is persuaded that human-induced climate change is a modern example of original sin. Now, quite what all this means–as in “OK, so what do we do about it?”–I don’t know.

  4. says

    look to Bjørn Lomborg and others, solve problems like clean Water and malaria and the problems of Global Warming won’t be so impactful. Then spend as much as you can on developing new technology, rendering fossil fuels obsolete.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Flemming @3: “they’re not pier reviwed”

    Long talk off a short pier, maybe.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Flemming: It was fortuitous, since a short pier would be a fitting end for a couple of the TEDx talks we’ve heard about here lately. No criticism of your spelling intended.

    But Lomborg? What are his qualifications? Anyone who could call the greenhouse effect a myth as recently as 1998 is suspect.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    From what I’ve read and seen, Lomborg seems like yet another “maverick”, like Allan Savory and Rupert Sheldrake, making a name for himself by denying scientific consensus, and in his case, relying on people’s fear of bad news.

    Thomas E. Lovejoy:

    [F]ellow conservation biologists attending a Lomborg talk would correct his science, only to find the same assertions made in subsequent talks as if the corrections had never occurred.

  8. says

    the problem with the “tipping-point” climatist is that if they’re right we’re wasting our resources and if they’re wrong we’re wasting our resources, they cry havoc, but have no solutions, if we listen to people like Bjørn Lomborg, climate change or not we solve some real problems and get some R&D for the future, just in case, call it the Pascal’s Wager of climate change.

  9. evilDoug says

    I’m beginning to think Shermer should trade in his skeptic badge for a skeptic tattoo. It might keep him from dropping it into fresh cow pies.

    I haven’t mustered the ambition to watch Savory’s talk, so it may be that he has addressed some of the following. I can’t say I’m too surprised it has gone viral. I get the impression that the fraction of the population that has any understanding of the natural world is pretty tiny. The fraction of the population that likes dead cow parts for supper is pretty large.

    The frequent comment “but there used to be great herds of (bison or …) there, so it must be able to support grazing” overlooks a very significant thing – when a bison died, it was returned to the soil whence it came, or at least soil pretty nearby. It wasn’t shipped off to New York restaurants. A half-ton cow requires 2.5 to 10 tons of dry-weight feed to grow. Now admittedly cows are prodigious poopers, and lots of that mass will be returned to the soil, but any way you look at it a lot of nutrients from the soil won’t be returned.

    Using ruminants to reduce greenhouse gasses is, to be generous, a dubious idea. They happily convert carbon compounds in their food to carbon dioxide, and also to very substantial quantities of methane, which is much worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

    If you put a bunch of cattle into a grossly overgrazed area with little standing water, they will do one of two things: die of thirst or die of starvation. The work-around, of course, is to transport food and water to them, until the “magic” begins to happen.

    Once cattle are introduced to an area, at least in North America, there will be huge resistance to getting them out. I can hear the cries for subsidies, should the experiments fail, from the ranchers now.

    I wonder if it can be substantiated that Savory used to be against grazing as he states (according to linked articles). It rather has the ring of “I used to be an atheist.”

    ~~~
    I saw an interesting thing on animals contributing to plant growth some time ago. Researchers were examining the contribution of bears to growth of certain areas of coastal forest. The belief was that salmon that the bears would catch (during spawning runs), drag up onto land but only partially consume were contributing nutrients to the forest (presumably pooping in the forest helped, too). Even though the nutrient contributions were rather small, the soil was so poor that the relative effect was large. And, very significantly, relative to the case of grazing cattle, the bears were effectively bringing in nutrients from elsewhere.

    Question regarding North American deserts: how much of the available nutrients are “tied up” in the vegetation, versus readily available from the soil?

  10. Azuma Hazuki says

    Everything is in flux, everything is flowing. Water is a carrier, air is a carrier, life is a carrier. Everything affects everything else; people who can’t think in fractals and feedback loops are going to be completely lost.

    The major challenge of rehabilitating formerly-not-deserts-that-are-now-deserts is that the topsoil is gone, and with it went many of the feedbacks and equlibria that kept the region green in the first place. The topsoil is gone, all gone, blown away as so much lifeless dust…

    So, I think the solution is going to be multiply-staged, and involve trying to mimic nature’s usual methods of reclaiming waste areas; if anything, it’s a question of changing the timeframe more than the actual methods.

    First, the remaining soil must be anchored in place. At this point only scrubby, drought-tolerant plants will do. Once the region has been somewhat stabilized, one may introduce nitrogen-fixers; I like the idea of killing two birds with one stone by planting tepary beans, which are not only drought-tolerant but delicious! Eventually I’d want to see xerophilic grasses and cacti and other succulents take over as climax vegetation…and then you can start grazing. But graze goats, please, not cows or sheep.

    Irrigation is always going to be a problem in places like this, and we may do more harm than good by trying to saturate the soil too quickly with water. Odds are good these places will never be as green as they used to again simply because of climate change, but we can probably restore them to functioning steppe/dry plains within a century or so.

  11. vaiyt says

    You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries.

    I absolutely hate this “Great People Having Eureka Moments” model of scientific progress; this pervasive notion that scientific discovery and invention comes ex nihilo from the brains of some smart people. Things like concurrent research and precursors don’t seem to exist, throwing the historian in me into apopletic fits.

  12. mildlymagnificent says

    Geoff Lawton is a much better example of what can be done, both local and global, to produce more food and stabilise local growing conditions, water and carbon retention, and microclimates.

    Savory’s approach may work in places where large herds of grazing animals were recently an important feature, and functional driver, of some ecosystems. Africa and the USA/Canada plains are pretty good examples – if you stick to the core areas – and nearly impossible to replicate at the necessary scale. Australia cannot possibly be included in such a scheme by even the wildest stretch of the imagination. What extensive, seasonal grasslands, what large herds of urinating, defecating herbivores would we be thinking of here? Saltbush, sandalwood? Kangaroos, wombats? As for the Middle East and Eastern Europe through to Russia, Geoff Lawton would likely have the much more suitable – and achievable – model.

  13. thumper1990 says

    You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.

    Actually, the last two sentences of this quote are true.

  14. says

    In your KCET piece you write:

    Savory has been around for a very long time preaching the same fallacious grazing gospel, and his name raises curled lips among land management scientists the way Velikovsky’s name raises the ire of astronomers.

    But given the possible ecological damage if his techniques were tried and caused further soil degradation wouldn’t another possible comparison be to a potential Lysenko? (potential because he doesn’t have a powerful politician to make it possible to implement his ideas on a very large scale).

  15. objdart says

    I don’t know that I am hugely offended by a fringey type giving a TED talk. Wrong and speculative information which has traction in the general zeitgeist has a place in the format I think. Even that indian doctor who publishes all the new age spiritual stuff. A condensed version of popular and potentially influential ideas is what TED delivers or tries to deliver. They don’t need to be vetted by a group of approval judges to be popular or potentially influential.

    Also, wrong ideas which promise results while we are alive are not as dangerous as ones which promise results after we die although some can kill individuals who try them.

  16. says

    I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Savory until this TED talk went viral. Having watched it, it seems like he’s talking about using livestock to mimic previous herbivores on former grassland; yet there were some vague suggestions that he was thinking about bioengineering *all* desert land. It wasn’t clear in the talk, but is he actually out there suggesting we run cattle on the Sahara or Namib to turn it into a nice little prairie?

    It would also be nice if somebody explained how groundwater works to him – at least judging by the way he flubs it in the video.

  17. windycity says

    This seems more like a ad hominem attack on Savory than a refutation of his evidence presented at TED. How do you answer his photographic claim of reversing desertification at the sites he showed in his A/V? Also, so what if he made comments critical of the “scientific method”? That in itself isn’t a refutation of the results of “holistic management”. Even the absence of rigorous scientific testing—if that’s true—would disclaim Savory’s results. At the worst, his assertions should stimulate such studies. If there’s any value at all to Savory’s method, it should be looked at closely. I found the talk highly invigorating and hopeful. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater: if he approaches the problem of desertification unconventionally, outside mainstream science, that should not automatically discredit him.

  18. says

    If grazing animals and grass have a symbiotic relationship, under-grazing can be as detrimental as overgrazing. It’s that simple. The only people who don’t get it are vegetarians. I believe vegetarians are well-meaning people but I feel compelled to bust some vegetarian myths.

    Myth #1. Killing animals for food is unethical.
    It’s not unethical for a naturally omnivorous species to eat animals. There is a mountain of evidence that our ancestors were omnivorous going back millions of years.

    Myth #2. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for our health.
    When vegetarians make this assertion they make no distinction between confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and pasture raised animals. The difference is huge. Grass fed beef is every bit as healthy as wild-caught salmon. http://www.eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm

    Myth #3. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for the environment. Again, vegetarians make no distinction between CAFOs and pasture raised. The difference is huge. CAFOs are an environmental nightmare. When vegetarians will not even acknowledge there is a viable alternative to CAFOs, other than abstaining from meat, it’s probably due to their strong feelings about myth #1.

    It’s obvious vegetarians want myth #2 and myth #3 to be true because it supports myth #1. As far as I can tell, the vegetarian belief system is based on confirmation bias.

    If you want to exclude meat from your diet you’re free to do so but stop trying to convince others to follow your belief system based on concepts proven to be false.

  19. dondon says

    I apologize if this a little rambling but I’m pissed at the above comments on this site, which are mostly crap. I’m a scientist I guess. I have a PhD. I spend my life solving problems. I’m no fool. It is my responsibility to NOT be prejudiced to new ideas but to keep an open mind. Example: Make packaging from mycelium? Impossible. It seems sites like this are full to the brim with the gleeful deniers of all that offers hope. As to my response to Allen Savory’s talk? I recognize in Savory a good man with a great mind. It seems amazing that he thought to try such a radical idea and then get results that are impressive. Can anyone deny that his results are impressive? It is easier to yank some comment out of his entire public record and sneer at it, or make it a debate about vegetarianism. I must admit some curiosity about who all of you are? Reading these posts I would say that “windycity” is the only open minded one who has responded to date.

  20. John Morales says

    dondon:

    I apologize if this a little rambling but I’m pissed at the above comments on this site, which are mostly crap. I’m a scientist I guess. I have a PhD. I spend my life solving problems. I’m no fool. It is my responsibility to NOT be prejudiced to new ideas but to keep an open mind. [...] I must admit some curiosity about who all of you are? Reading these posts I would say that “windycity” is the only open minded one who has responded to date.

    Your rambling aside, seeing as how you guess you’re a scientist and have a PhD and spend your life solving problems and are no fool and it is your responsibility to NOT be prejudiced to new ideas but to keep an open mind, who could possibly deny your authoritativeness?

    As to my response to Allen Savory’s talk? I recognize in Savory a good man with a great mind. It seems amazing that he thought to try such a radical idea and then get results that are impressive. Can anyone deny that his results are impressive?

    You recognise a good man with a great mind who amazes you, and his results are undeniably impressive.

    (Hey, he got a blog-post by PZ about his talk!)

  21. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    (Hey, he got a blog-post by PZChris Clarke about his talk!)