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The View from Here: Entering the field as a participant

Mike Gangwer Published on 10 June 2013

While doing some fieldwork recently, I recalled my early years on the farm. Back then I knew certain things, but I did not yet have the formal training to understand why the world worked a certain way. As I moved into my college years, these understandings became known.

Models were made to depict the processes in the natural world. Flowcharts were built to show pathways. Gradients were depicted in directions of some variable change over a unit of time.

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Mathematics became my language of measurement, calculus my flux change or gradient, and I learned that chemistry and thermodynamics held the world together in standard ways. Physics combined these systems together so that I understood them.

I did not know the power of all of these things until, at an older age, I began to think of the natural world as a comprehensive system.

My theory is that when we begin our college education, especially in the sciences, we are taught deductive reasoning. A number of already known laws, behaviors, processes can be used to generate data from which knowledge is gained.

I remember seeing the enormous machinery of laboratory instruments and the field sensors that accumulate information as single datum that in a data logger become data.

Once digitized, these bits of information, using the language of mathematics and the gradient changes of calculus, can be sorted and combined so that an answer is found to a question a scientist asks.

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I view all of this formal training in the context of deductive thinking. Yet when I enter a field to work, I find the deductive approach to thinking at a deficit. There is more.

In contrast, I like to enter the field as a participant. As agricultural scientists, we know what we can see, hear, touch, smell and, if enough time, measure by the gradient change of the system.

Our study area is the biosphere that includes the bulk soil beneath us and the several-meter-high canopy of living plants above the soil surface. We have been studying this biosphere for centuries.

The formal scientific method is built upon deductive reasoning, whereby the scientist seeks to know from that which can be measured what is already known.

May I suggest that agricultural scientists include inductive reasoning in their work? As critical thinkers, the inductive approach seeks knowledge a different way.

It is brought about by experience, insight, imagination and years of deep thought. One must have a solid base of deductive reasoning before he or she can know how to think critically using inductive reasoning.

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As I recently stood in a cornfield in Eaton County, Michigan, I took a photo (on page 7) of the field surface. I have titled this image: “Beauty of the World.”

There is nothing in any classroom, no spreadsheet or no presentation software that can adequately explain what is in this photograph.

The multiple systems here are infinitely complex; the life systems here are more numerous than we can ever count, the interactions of the soil and air cannot be completely measured, and the totality of what was in that field on that day, compared with what was there yesterday and what will be there tomorrow, cannot possibly be known.

Inductive reasoning, however, seeks to explain what we see in this photo: a soil surface in spring with residue of a previous crop, the new germinations of weeds already growing in the sunshine, the ear of corn that somehow escaped both large and small critters seeking food in winter.

Inductive reasoning seeks to explain the spatial scale of microscopic organic and inorganic behavior, all the way to the biosphere level of an entire land mass.

Deductive reasoning gives us the skills to build systems, but it is inductive reasoning that attempts to understand these systems.

Graduates coming out of a university environment built upon deductive thinking may only be able to explain a model or build a flowchart, but here, looking down on the ground at images like this, few can understand how to take their classroom knowledge into the realm of inductive understanding of biosystems.

I suggest agricultural scientists must try to exercise deductive and inductive thinking. We cannot measure everything everywhere. And so we should enter a field, such as this one, and while there may be no instruments, bring knowledge and insight into what we see.

We should imagine what this field will be like tomorrow, what it was like a hundred years ago or even what it will be like in five years.

Deductive skills lack the insights to define this field alone. What should an inductive scientist do?

Turn to the humanities which can clearly help us out. The realm of what we cannot understand should not be a roadblock or constraint – it is a transition to the poet, the philosopher, the priest and the writer in all of us.

Good scientists know their limits and the constraints of the scientific method to completely understand the systems of the biosphere they study. It is the arts, the humanities and the sweeping cadence of the rhythm of time that completes our understanding of such a complex system.

Perhaps the challenge is for us to know the boundaries of the sciences and the arts, or if they overlap and how much so. May we assume that at some point what we cannot explain can be understood by using inductive thought?

To this answer, I make the case that yes, we can.

Deductive thought requires many years of experience in a plethora of different settings to know and understand how systems work. And even then it may reach a boundary of constraint.

The poet, the philosopher, the priest and the writer do not know such boundaries or constraints. Yet their contributions are significant; as creators of understanding, their masterpieces are based upon inductive reasoning and deep thought.

This is why, when I enter the field, I do so as a scientist and artist. To be just one of these is not enough.

My description of this cornfield photo, “The Beauty of the World,” is not so scientific as it is art. I simply cannot, as a scientist, come close enough to explaining the cornfield, or any field, completely. So I have turned to art. My trainees often do not know what to make of this, and explaining it to them is a challenge to be sure.

I do make the point that once we leave the classroom and enter the field, we should require additional thought – in this case deep thought brought about by insight, in other words inductive critical thinking.

To those who understand this concept, I say: What remarkable contributions you can make to humanity for the rest of your life. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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