Waiting for more data vs. acting in good faith

By Chad Kruger

Source: WSU CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability

In the comment string of my original post Reflections on Savory, reader Rondi Lightmark asked a very legitimate set of questions:

How much closer are we going to get to catastrophes far worse than the Dust Bowl while scientists sit around and debate the merits of a new idea? Allan [Savory] has adequately demonstrated the success of his work to warrant significant support for implementing his methods on a large scale. What do we have to lose if we do? Who can answer that question?

While I responded to the comment in that post, I’ve had several similar questions raised in other settings recently so I thought this topic justified its own more general post. Do we wait for more data or act in good faith based on what we know? Here is the rub between science and action on challenging issues like climate change, soil erosion or desertification. I completely understand the frustration that it often seems as though science moves “too slowly” to enable us to respond effectively to increasingly complex global problems. On the question of climate and global carbon emissions, scientists like James Hansen (Hansen et al., 2008) have actually indicated that we may, in fact, have waited too long to take serious action and that we may be too late to curb the more detrimental global effects of a changing climate. With this in mind, it makes acting seem more urgent and often leads us to make significant societal investments in ideas that don’t have solid quantification or evaluation to support.

The word that best describes acting in this context is gambling.

Since we only have one planet with which to experiment, an “all-in” gamble on what seems to be a good idea now may actually be the worst thing we can do!

The simple reality is that we, as society, have limited resources and capacity to invest in any specific pathway to confront a major global challenge like climate change. If history is an example, society is really bad at predicting the future, and there is little reason to believe that all of a sudden we have or will become better gamblers.

After all, this is precisely what Savory himself indicates is our fundamental flaw – that conventional human decision-making processes generally lead to the wrong decisions and bad outcomes. While he believes and strongly advocates that Holistic Management can correct the decision-making processes that have ruined rangeland ecosystems around the world, many other rangeland scientists have pointed out that the aggregate results of applying HM to rangeland grazing systems are scientifically inconclusive. Savory has consistently argued that the grazing experiments evaluated by other scientists weren’t “managed correctly according to his principles” or that the reviewing scientists themselves evaluated the wrong criteria. He has ultimately concluded that modern scientific methodologies may never be able to validate his principles – and that the problem is the scientific approach or the scientists themselves – not his principles. Therefore, we’re stuck in an intractable “we need more data” but “can’t get it” paradox.

If we want to take major societal action to mitigate climate change using HM principles (or any other grazing/cropping system) we must have more conclusive scientific support to indicate that the action will in fact achieve what Savory believes it will. Otherwise, we’ll be betting the planet on an idea that may or may not prove correct.

There have been similar efforts to advocate for using our croplands as a sink for global carbon emissions – and I’ve been much more directly involved in the scientific evaluation of this strategy. The idea is that by reducing the use of destructive practices (i.e. tillage, fallowing) and implementing more progressive practices (i.e. no-till, better crop rotations, organic) we can mitigate climate change. While the more progressive practices have many benefits, part of what makes the strategy so compelling (similar to Savory’s grazing strategy) is that the suggested potential global carbon mitigation is a HUGE number, but that number is based on very optimistic, best-case scenario assessments of the potential and ignores much of the available data that doesn’t look as good. While the mitigation potential is compelling, it isn’t based on ALL the data and therefore isn’t necessarily the likely outcome.

I recently described two studies published from our Climate Friendly Farming Project that provide an excellent example of why the “we need more data to inform our actions” argument is important for actually achieving our desired goal of mitigating climate change. In Brown and Huggins (2012), a review of the broadly available experimental data (hundreds of studies) on soil carbon in PNW dryland cropping systems provided a wide range of possible answers to the question “how much can good crop management practices improve soil carbon sequestration?” The high-end of the range of reported values looks fantastic from a carbon mitigation perspective, but when you average all of the data it doesn’t look nearly as good. If we choose to act arbitrarily by selecting only the studies that provide the best results as the basis for our actions (i.e. policies, research and development, farm management, consumer efforts, etc.) it might actually be way too late before we realized that our gamble failed and we are that much closer to the point of no return.

Our second study (Stöckle et al. 2012) used a different methodology (modeling simulations) built on an understanding of the scientific mechanisms that influence soil carbon sequestration. This holistic scientific approach is based on rigorous experimental research that focuses on understanding of ecology and human management and study results are evaluated against experimental measurements from real-world studies. The results from Stöckle et al. provide a much more modest and conservative estimate of the potential for soil carbon sequestration from good crop management practices when compared to the high-end values reviewed by Brown and Huggins. In fact, the Stöckle results are consistent with a conservative interpretation of the average range of all the experimental studies reviewed by Brown and Huggins! Therefore, we can say now that by investing in promoting good crop management practices on the basis of this more rigorous, multi-method scientific approach, we are likely to actually achieve positive results (though more modest than we initially thought). More importantly, we can more accurately project the realistic outcome of the aggregate of farmer actions across the region than we could with a “best guess” gamble based on a limited number of optimistic anecdotal observations.

What this tells me is that not only are we more accurately projecting the impacts of our actions, but we now know conclusively that our current best management practices (our proposed actions) will provide a modest and insufficient solution and that we will need additional actions to achieve our ultimate goal of mitigating a global environmental challenge. We actually saved time and reduced the likelihood that we would misallocate societal resources and still fail to reach our goal. In the meantime, while the scientific questions were (and are) being worked out, many of our leading farmers were acting in good faith on the principles that scientists were working to evaluate and understand. That balance of partnership between good faith action by farmers and getting more data by scientists is a critical approach because the most innovative actions generally come from farmers while scientists can provide the rigorous, quantitative insight into what is actually happening and why an action may or may not lead to the result we expect. It’s not an either/or, but a both/and proposition.

Remember, the reason we now face such high-stakes environmental predicaments is because we have a societal habit of gambling too much and too often on inconclusive understanding of the world we live in. If society is intent on gambling, it should come in the form of investing in science on smaller, representative scales that will push the envelope of our knowledge to better inform global societal action. When scientists gamble and fail, we learn and can apply the knowledge gained to the next innovation or experiment. When society gambles and fails, it leads to insurmountable problems that not even the best science will necessarily help us solve.


Brown, T.T. and D.R. Huggins. 2012. Soil carbon sequestration in the dryland cropping region of the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 67:406-415.

Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008. Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231

Stöckle, C., S. Higgins, A. Kemanian. R. Nelson, D. Huggins, J. Marcos and H. Collins. 2012. Carbon storage and nitrous oxide emissions of cropping systems in eastern Washington: A simulation study. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 67:265-377.


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