Is fact-free talk now the most normal thing in science?

Jan Schaefer (1940-1994), the confectioner who became a politician and Secretary of State for urban renewal, immortalized himself with his statement ‘You can’t live in bullshit’. Even then, hordes of civil servants were producing illegible policy documents.

In an expurgated form (‘You can’t live in rabble-rousers’), the PvdA has made good appearances on its election posters. That’s what I had to think about when I got to know a Perspective in Nature Sustainability about sustainable agriculture.

Nature Sustainability is a top scientific journal from the prestigious Nature family completely devoted to ‘sustainability’. A Perspective is an article that does not itself contain new research, but provides a brief and concise overview of the current state of affairs in a research area. That can be very useful, especially for journalists. Through Nature be asked for such Perspective to write is quite an honor; it indicates that you count as an authority in that field. Logically, a Perspective usually only one author.

In the exact sciences, someone writes such an article in the evenings, next to his real job as a researcher. However, Sustainable agrifood systems for a postgrowth world (Sustainable Food Systems for a Post-Growth World) has 32 authors. The Netherlands is well represented, with authors from the Copernicus Institute of Utrecht University, the CSTM of TU Twente and the environmental institute of Leiden University.

Again, this is a Perspective, so none of these authors present new research here. Nevertheless, grants have been awarded for the production of these five pages of prose in, among others, Canada, Spain, the Czech Republic and by the European Union. And by NWO, the Dutch science funder that Marcel Levi now holds sway.

Because it concerns an overview of a field, it is logical that a lot is quoted and referenced; it is less logical that a large part of those references go to publications by those authors themselves. 17 of the 32 authors give themselves a few pats on the back in this way, because being quoted in a top magazine is important for your career on the university monkey rock.

And what is the perspective for agriculture?

All that would be up to that point, if this brigade of sustainability thinkers had delivered a piece that, yes, offers perspective on how to move forward with global agriculture. With as much respect for nature as possible, it must feed an additional two billion mouths within a few decades. The discussion about more sustainable agriculture is also highly topical in the Netherlands.

Can we indeed do with less, or even no fertilizer, and the same with pesticides, as the ‘organics’ claim? How can we better connect resource cycles? What role can GM and other technology play? If extensive, ‘organic’ farming is necessary to protect the environment, how do we compensate for the lower yield per hectare? How does that differ per region?

Where and how is animal husbandry desirable in order to make poor soil unsuitable for agriculture productive? Under what preconditions is international transport of food more effective and more environmentally friendly than producing everything locally? There are plenty of research questions, and you would think that among those 32 sustainability thinkers there are a few who could comment on something meaningful.

Drowning monologue about feminist agriculture

Unfortunately: the brain-dead dogmatism of Sustainable agrifood systems for a postgrowth world is mind blow. As with the first reading of the Green Deal by Frans Timmermans, the idea came to mind that this piece comes from an online bullshit generator, as witnessed by gems such as ‘post-growth metabolisms’.

And what flesh-and-blood person gets a sentence like this from his pen? Meeting these challenges requires imagining and re-creating circuits of food production, processing, distribution, consumption and management based on humanity’s best experience of agriculture as an immediate source of community welfare and a fundamental field of interaction with nature.’

In form and tone, this prose is reminiscent of the droning monologues about class struggle and the Marxist utopia that sociologists produced in the 1960s. So today their academic heirs ramble on about “Indigenous, feminist, growth and post-development communities essential to food sovereignty.”

It’s not easy to get out of this woke roar to distil some content. The predominantly social scientists dismiss all known practical measures to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in a subordinate clause, because truly sustainable agriculture can only come about if we all start thinking differently, and above all talk. For example, the concept of ‘efficiency’ must be replaced by the concept of ‘sufficiency’ (sufficiency), and the concept of ‘control’ by the concept of ‘care’.

It doesn’t get much more concrete than that: ‘By re-embracing nurturing farming-system relationships, a multispecies approach to sustainability focuses on meeting the diverse, changing, interdependent and irreducibly intertwined needs of all present-day species, all the while increasing the capacity of future generations of all kinds to meet their own needs.”

And so it goes on. There is not a single table or graph in the entire article, and the text is entirely numerical, except where ‘ecological reparations’ are demanded from the North to the South. Nowhere are regions, soil types or climatic zones distinguished, as if all this is one pot wet in terms of agriculture. That makes all their grand claims about comprehensive agrifood system redesign to pure bluff, gratuitous academic impress. You really can’t eat such sustainable crap.

Fact-free has apparently become normal in science

Why bother with such an article, which is only read by a handful of people, and has any significance only for the career of the authors? This is not fraud, not plagiarism, it is not even a mistake; this is common in science these days, and that’s the disturbing thing. I estimate that until about three years ago a fact-free argument like this would have been unacceptable for a Naturemagazine.

Recently, there has rightly been a great deal of attention for fraud and misconduct in science, which is much more widespread than previously thought. Someone like Elisabeth Bik, and others, have exposed thousands of data-tampered articles. Last week it was revealed that the experiments that underpinned decades of Alzheimer’s research were likely fraudulent, but flawed.

That is bad enough, but in addition there is also the woke rot that eats away at the scientific system, of which this Perspective is a symptom. The Copernicus Institute mentioned above is the sustainability flagship of Dutch universities. If this is the best they can add to the hot topic of making agriculture more sustainable, especially in the Netherlands, then Marcel Levi can give his no-nonsense reputation a nice boost by turning off the money tap to this institute.

science journalist Arnout Jaspers publishes weekly in Wynia’s Week. Wynia’s Week is supported by the donors. Are you in? Thank you!

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