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On the Interpretation of Garden Observations

We watch the behavior of plants and animals in our gardens every day.  In time, these observations lead us to form logical interpretations which are related to a supposed causal relationship.  The more often the observation can be related to the same cause, the quicker we form the interpretation.  We pass them on to other gardeners in the form of plant nicknames, gardening advice such as siting preferences, anecdotal remedies, etc., and occasionally we even go so far as to request confirmation of our interpretation.  When we ask people with formal training in biology, botany or horticulture, there seems to be no body of work from which they can form an explanation that fits our specific observation.  Why is that?  Does that occur only in the sciences, or does that phenomenon extend to all areas of human knowledge?   The purpose of this note is to briefly explore the significance of "anecdotal evidence" now that the internet has made the dissemination of personal interpretation both rapid and world-wide.

A significant portion of the "advice" appearing in the gardening mail lists and newsgroups on the internet is presented as truism, but is merely opinion, repetition of what one has read, or faulty interpretation of what one has seen. Here are a few recognizable examples (all untrue):

You see these and hundreds of other "old wive's tales" in print over and over again  --  so, one must conclude that they are surely true.  Here is another well-known example from another field:  Environmental writers at the Chicago Tribune newspapers and other sport magazines have reported the following lie for 30 years.  "Coho salmon were planted in Lake Michigan in the late 1960's for the purpose of cleaning up the excess alewives that were littering and stinking up the beaches."  After spreading this false statement for so long, there is not a writer in the world who does not repeat it, while believing it to be absolutely true.  In fact,  the biologists at the Michigan DNR planted the first 200,000 Coho salmon in 1965 in the hopes that they would survive in fresh water and ultimately provide a sport fishery. It was an experiment.  Except for Perch, there was no sport fishery after the demise of the native Lake Trout.  The alewife population at that time was less than 2% of the forage base in the lake, and the public did not even know they existed until two years later when the first of these fish began washing up on the beaches at the end of their life cycle. How do such lies get started?   It is logic.  They are the logical interpretation of the known facts (but only those facts which are known).  Here are some facts:

Surely, you would come to the same conclusion if those were the only facts known to you.  And, that is the whole point of this example.  Being human, we must have a satisfactory explanation of every set of facts.  For some reason we don't seem to care that every set of facts is a subset of a more complete set of facts, or that a lie, once told, seems to live forever.

Gardeners too,  readily pass on information they have received from other sources as though all gardening information is both true and universally adaptable. Yet, science is not much better if you are looking for absolute truth.

If knowledge is derived from the application of logic in selecting the best alternative from many choices, surely the number of choices available is limited by the totality of man's experience, and so therefore, is his knowledge.  And, as man's experience is limited to but a few seconds of time relative to the life-span of this planet, his knowledge can be applied to only this time and space.  That knowledge is incomplete, but it is the best we have; it is called "science".  What distinguishes science from other information is authoritative presentation of fact, supported by predictive repeatability, and the disproval of all other logical conclusions.  It is "current knowledge" because it interprets the largest set of facts known today. Garden writers operate on a smaller set of facts.  And, gardeners interpret their observations using an even more limited set of facts.  As "science" filters down to the garden writer, fewer of the adages and "old wive's tales" get repeated over time (too long to suit me).  That period of time stretches through generations before gardeners stop repeating the earlier falsehoods they have learned.  A falsehood in a book or magazine always outlives the book or the magazine.

My advice to garden writers is to confine their research to "current knowledge", and ignore the writings of their counterparts, in order to speed up the cleanup.

My advice to gardeners is  to believe what you see as temporal entertainment; a gift from nature. Do not pass on your interpretation as gospel.  Do not seek interpretation from others.  Remember how the lives of those who have seen a UFO has been lessened rather than enhanced by the experience, once reported.  As usual, it is the interpretation which causes the problems. Share your own successful techniques, and try those reported by others once you have stripped them of their embedded adages.

Of all the flora and fauna on earth, it is only man that desires or needs rules. We crave categorization and predictability.  Formal training consists of learning the rules.  Scientific advance consists of making new rules and refinement of the old ones.  But in nature, there are no rules.  Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all the same in nature; only time passes.  This is why today's rules are often disproved by tomorrow's scientists.  There is nothing about which all the facts are known.  Our lives are so short, that we are not disturbed by these changes.  When you become elderly, the differences that occur between your formal training and what you observe (cognitive dissonance) become more noticeable and more frequent, but are rarely disturbing since you have forgotten much of your formal training anyway. Across several generations however, the rules changes are disturbing indeed.  In the big picture, it is easy to conclude that, like nature, we really don't have any rules. That will never be more true than in gardening where there is no adage, no rule of thumb, and no absolute truth that you can rely upon all of the time.

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