Friday Woo Pseudoscience Skepticism/critical thinking

Your Friday Dose of Woo: Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o, and on his farm he had some woo, ee-i-ee-i-o

This week’s been a lot of doom and gloom here on the ol’ blog, hasn’t it? I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I let blogging about dichloroacetate, the inexpensive small molecule drug that has been widely touted as a “cure for cancer” that “big pharma” (or the FDA, or both, take your pick) is keeping from cancer patients because it’s supposedly unpatentable and unprofitable, take over the blog for three whole days. Believe it or not, I really hadn’t meant for that to happen. It just sort of took over. Of course, big time Pharma Shill that I supposedly am (with the badge to prove it), no doubt supporters of the unscrupulous purveyors of an unproven (in humans) cancer therapy to desperate patients will accuse me of toadying up to big pharma in order to crush the “real cure” for cancer, when in fact it simply pisses me off to see people like that pose as being interested only in “information,” “education,” and “advocacy” about DCA on the one hand, while selling the stuff on the other.

I’m funny that way.

Fortunately, it’s Friday, and you know what that means. Yes, it’s time to take a break from such downers as contemplating all the desperate patients who are being taken in by the hucksters I’ve been blogging about. It’s the end of the week. Time to sit back, pop open a bottle of decent wine, and enjoy a glass or two (after I’m done with work this evening, of course). And, at the risk of trampling on fellow ScienceBlogger Abel‘s own Friday feature (The Friday Fermentable), I have to point out that I’ll be breaking open a bottle of wine produced only by the finest biodynamic wineries.

Oh, yes, my friends. This week, the woo is down on the farm (and winery), and it’s “biodynamic.” If you believe the hype, it’s the ultimate in farming technique that produces only the finest wine. Maybe it is and does, but, man, is there a lot of woo there! For example, check out these quotes:

Biodynamics is the aikido or ashtanga yoga of winegrowing — a way to focus energy and awareness for peak performance and exceptional health. Sick vineyards need homeopathy; biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt. Like Barry Bonds turning a 100-mph fastball into a soaring arc headed for McCovey Cove, biodynamic vineyards are completely aligned with their purpose, and therefore able to channel all the forces of the moment into a powerful result.”

The New York Times (Download the .pdf)
June 16, 2004 – Trying to Bottle Moonlight and Magic

“Biodynamics, its advocates assert, maximizes the personality of a given plot of earth. Like a homeopathic doctor, a Biodynamic farmer analyzes the land and determines what is out of balance. The aim is to turn the land into a self-sustaining, self-regulating habitat.”

The Press Democrat (Download the .pdf)
June 30, 2004 – Eco-friendly, high quality and tasty, too: Benziger releases Tribute, a wine made from biodynamic grapes
by Peg Melnik

“Like a homeopathic doctor”? “Sick vineyards need homeopathy”? “Biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt”? Uh-oh. Sounds like woo to me. And, boy, is it ever! And some of it in the New York friggin’ Times, yet!

So, what is “biodynamic farming”? Well, in essence, biodynamic farming’s a lot like organic farming, only with oodles of the most amazing woo added! If you believe what its advocates say, this is what it can do for your farm:

While it encompasses many of the principles of organic farming, such as the elimination of all chemicals, Biodynamics goes further, requiring close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine. It also emphasizes a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem.

OK, sounds good so far. Who could argue with eliminating chemical pesticides in farming wherever possible? But what on earth are these “varied forces of nature” they’re talking about? It’s starting to sound woo-ey to me. But let’s see what’s involved:

  • Employs a series of eight herbal-based preparations applied to the soil in order to promote soil vitality through increased microbiologic activity and diversity (think of these as vitamins for the plant and soil). The more nutrient-rich and biologically diverse the soils, the more character in the wine.
  • Uses cover crops and companion plants to maximize the health of the vineyard environment.
  • Promotes pest control through soil management; Biodynamic sprays and teas; crop rotations and diversification; and the encouragement of diverse animal, bird and insect populations that lead to self-regulating predator and prey relationships.
  • Aligns vineyard practices (planting, pruning, etc.) with the earth’s natural cycles (lunar, seasonal) for maximum health and development of the vines.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t be in favor of minimizing pesticide use and using crop diversification to minimize the harmful effects of mass farming on the environment? Unfortunately, along with all these laudable goals comes a heapin’ helpin’ of good, old-fashioned woo. You see, biodynamics was derived from the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner back in the early part of the 20th century. The philosophy based on Steiner’s teachings, anthroposophy, forms the basis of the philosophy behind “biodynamic farming.” Anthroposophy, which means “human wisdom,” is also known as “spiritual science.” According to Rudolf Steiner, anthrosophy is:

Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge to guide the Spirit of the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in man as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling: and it can be justified inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need.

Indeed, the very concept of biodynamic farming is based on a series of lectures that Steiner gave in Germany in 1924 at Schloss Koberwitz in what was then Silesia, Germany. (In actuality, Steiner was a prodigious lecturer and gave an incredible number of talks in his lifetime, many of which are archived here.) Reasonably, Steiner was concerned about the increasing use of chemicals in the form of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides in farming. Not quite as reasonably, he viewed this form of farming as having “spiritual shortcomings.” The central aspect of biodynamic farming is that the farm is viewed as a single organism, which should be viewed as a self-nourishing and self-replenishing system. So far, this is not that far out of the mainstream, although you can already feel a bit of woo creeping in, as if this is “Gaia Lite.”

But if you really want to get the full feel of the woo involved in biodynamic farming, you really have to check out the recipes for eight different fertilizers that Steiner prescribed to “strengthen the life force” of the farm. These are numbered 500 through 507 (why 500 through 507 instead of 1 through 8, I have no idea). First, we have field preparations for stimulating humus formation:

  • 500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by stuffing cow manure into the horn of a cow and buried into the ground (40-60 cm below the surface) in the autumn and left to decompose during the winter.
  • 501: Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It can be mixed with 500 but usually prepared on its own (mixture of 1 tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 litres of water) The mixture is sprayed under very low pressure over the crop during the wet season to prevent fungal diseases. It should be sprayed on an overcast day to prevent burning of the leaves.

Both 500 and 501 are used on fields by stirring the contents of a horn in 40-60 litres of water for an hour and whirling it in different directions every second minute. About 4 horns are used for each hectare of soil.

This is some serious woo, stuffing cow manure into a horn and using crushed powdered quartz for…no apparent reason. Why dilute it in 40-60 liters of water? Why not 100? Or 25? “Whirling it in different directions every second minute”? What’s the reason for that? Why not every minute or every third or fifth minute? I suppose it must have something to do with the life force of the farm. But it gets woo-ier. Just check out the compost preparations:

  • 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Cervus elaphus, Red Deers, placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 503: Chamomile blossoms (Chamomilla officinalis) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
  • 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca, and the whole plant in full bloom) is stuffed together under ground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
  • 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of some domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs by.
  • 506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into peritoneum from some cattle is buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) is extracted into water.

One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other, except for the 507 preparation, which is stirred into 5 litres of water and sprayed over the entire compost surface. All preparations are thus used in homeopathic quantities, and the only intent is to strengthen the life forces of the farm, i.e. the preparations fulfill spiritual goals and nothing else.

Alright, the parts about stuffing the intestines or peritoneii of cows or the urinary bladders of deer (what did the deer ever do to deserve this fate?), burying them on the farm for the winter, and then retrieving them in the spring are truly disgusting. Just imagine how much fun it is to dig this stuff up in the spring–probably even more fun than stuffing the various animal organs and burying them in the first place. I somehow picture sandal-shod, long-haired, tambourine-playing woo-meisters chanting magical spells as they bury these various “composts” around their farms in order to “strengthen its life force” before finishing up the day with a little drum playing and a mini Burning Man ceremony. But, hey, that’s just me. I do wonder, however, what’s the deal with all the horns used in these recipes? Thanks to Skeptoid, I get an idea, as this is what Rudolf Steiner himself said about it:

The cow has horns in order to reflect inwards the astral and etheric formative forces, which then penetrate right into the metabolic system so that increased activity in the digestive organism arises by reason of this radiation from horns and hoofs.

Ah, yes, when I start hearing talk of “astral and etheric formative forces,” I know I’m right at home in some serious woo and that Friday is the perfect day to write about it.

One thing you should notice is that 500 and 501 mixes one tablespoon of quartz powder into 250 liters of water and that 502-507 involve spreading mere ounces of the disgusting potion of decomposed plants and animal organs into many tons of compost. Truly, as the advocates of biodynamic farming say, this is indeed a homeopathic amount of whatever stinky concoction it is that they’re making. But, hey, it doesn’t matter, you know. After all, none of it has anything to do with any scientifically measurable phenomenon. Its purpose is to “strengthen the life force” of the farm. (I’m guessing that the stinkier the mixture, the more the “life force” is strengthened.) Also, like homeopathy, there’s a rather bizarre element of “like cures like,” except that it’s extended to an entire farm. This “like” is diluted to, in essence, undetectability but still somehow manages to retain some sort of therapeutic effect. This whole concept is taken to a ridiculous extreme when it comes to pest control. To Steiner, pests and weeds are are the result of “imbalances” between life forces emanating from the earth. Most biodynamic strategies to control pests or weeds involve ceremonially burning the pest or weed in question and then sprinkling the ashes over the farm, preferably at the right astrological time. Check it out:

Since Steiner viewed the full moon, Venus and Mercury as cosmic powers influencing the fertility of plants, the biodynamic techniques for pest control involves blocking the fertility influence from said planets on different pests. Steiner dictates that this is achieved in different ways for pests and weeds:

  • Pests such as insects or Apodemus (field mice) have more complex processes associated with them depending on what pest is to be targeted. For example field mice are to be countered by deploying ashes prepared from field mice skin when Venus is in the scorpius.
  • Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, which will according to biodynamic philosophy block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile.

All I can say is: Woo-woo!

Oddly enough, even today, the whole concept of “biodynamic farming” is pretty well accepted, at least in the wine industry. Some wineries go to great lengths to make sure that they plant their crops at the right phase of the moon or under the right astrological alignments. It’s also not at all uncommon to see gushing reviews of wines from wineries that use biodynamic farming techniques, coupled with claims that the wine coming from such farms “tastes better.” The problem is, wine varies from year to year and from vineyard to vineyard, even when using the same species of grapes. There are good years and bad years; similarly, there are vineyards that do a better job at making wine than others. There’s also a whole lot of subjectivity involved in the tasting and evaluation and rating of wines. It’s thus not too hard to see how confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and other logical fallacies could lead wine makers, wine drinkers, and wine reviewers to detect a salubrious effect on the wine from biodynamic techniques that may or may not be there.

What’s really irritating about biodynamic farming is that it’s quite possible that the non-woo components of the technique may actually result in better crops or better wine, depending on whether we’re talking about farms or vineyards. After all, minus the woo, biodynamic farming involves nothing more unusual or special than hardcore organic farming with little or no pesticides. There’s no need to invoke magic or woo to explain why biodynamic farming, stripped of its mysticism, might potentially result in better crops or tastier wine. Yet, woo is what is invoked, in the form of bladders, horns, or or skulls full of herbs or blossoms buried in the farm, and biodynamic farming is considered quite natural, normal, even respectable. Almost nary is heard a skeptical word from wine reviewers, for instance.

I could be wrong (in fact, I hope I’m wrong), but I’m guessing that most of these vineyards that advertise that they use “biodynamic” farming probably steer clear of the most blatant woo associated with Steiner and the technique. Either that, or they downplay the mysticism and burying of animal parts stuffed with various plants to decompose followed by the spreading the resultant mix over the soil and instead play up the organic farming angle. I’m also guessing that most of them probably don’t believe in the woo-iest aspects of biodynamic farmings. However, because somehow the term has become fashionable to the point that reputable newspapers publish glowing and credulous accounts of the wonders of biodynamic farming, few people seem to be aware of the serious woo involved or that biodynamic farming is nothing more than a form of organic farming gussied up with a huge helping of truly bizarre woo.

You know, thinking about all this, perhaps I should postulate my own “philosophy” of farming or medicine. If I got EneMan involved, I bet I could come up with some sort of homeopathic farming woo that involves wine enemas and the depositing of the outflow onto the farm. (For a vineyard, like=wine, plus some human-made natural fertilizer added to the mix to “increase the life force of the farm.” What could be better?)

Nahhh. Even I wouldn’t sink that low.

Well, probably not, anyway. A lot of it depends on whether I can renew my R01 grant when it’s up for renewal in a couple of years.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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