Allan Savory is not Galileo

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending The UP Experience in Houston, TX, and, just to be clear, it was awesome. I was invited through the Eagleman lab and I hope I can attend next year. There were plenty of interesting people (not just the speakers) and seeing everyone’s excitement over community service, science, and medicine was … refreshing.

But there was one problem though.

One of the speakers was a gentleman named Allan Savory who recently gained internet fame for his TED talk (below) on how to fight desertification and reverse climate change. His argument goes something like this: by introducing more livestock into a region and rotating them – as was the case when vast herds roamed the world unrestrained – the ecosystem will recover, trap carbon, and combat climate change. Bam. Next problem. (“Give this man a Nobel Prize already!“)

I can understand the appeal of Savory’s thesis: complex global problems don’t always require complex solutions. Rather than forcing my generation to be fatalistic about the most pressing policy issue of our time, we now have the silver bullet (but just need the gun). Knowledge is power – and we’ve finally got the knowledge backed by science.

Unfortunately, Savory ignores that some deserts are actually stable ecosystems and the research behind his thesis has been rejected and discredited for its methodology and conclusions. In fact, one recent overview of Savory’s Charter Grazing Trials (’69-’75) concluded that

[T]here were problems during the Charter Grazing Trials, ones not mentioned in Savory’s dramatic talk. Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat. And even though Savory’s Grazing Trials took place during a period of freakishly high rainfall, with rates exceeding the average by 24 percent overall, the authors contend that Savory’s method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity” [emphasis mine].

Now, I’ll admit that I was spellbound by Savory’s speech at The UP Experience and even attended his breakout Q&A (each occurred simultaneously in separate rooms). He seemed very kind and, truthfully, it was stimulating listening to him expand upon his theory of holistic management. Hanging on his words (as did the other ~25 in the session), I was already mentally preparing for what I’d say to him when, afterward, I would ask to shake his hand. But then he said something that caught my attention.

While commenting on the criticism of the scientific community, he made the Galileo Defense. Quoting from memory, his argument went something like this: “I’ve shown my ideas to work and I have the papers but nobody wants to publish them because rather than follow the data they’re stuck in the old paradigm. The same thing happened to Galileo but look at how his ideas turned out.”

If you’re ever listening to someone and they compare their persecution to Galileo, that should be a cue that they’ve been pushed up against a wall and know it. It’s a martyr’s complex that suggests rather than engage in the scientific method they’d prefer the dogma of their own conclusions. By presuming all critics to be corrupt, bought off, and conspiring, all other evidence but one’s own is invalid. The Galileo Defense is a paranoid man’s dream, the last defense of those on the fringes, and reprehensible in how easy, as a rhetorical tool, it can mislead a lay audience.

Galileo was Galileo – not Allan Savory. One was a scientist and the other is a charlatan.


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