An unfortunate opportunity for misdirection, or, lack of evidence to support a biodynamic tasting calendar

A group of New Zealand sensory scientists have just published an article entitled “Expectation or sensorial reality? An empirical investigation of the biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers” with the open-access journal PLoS One. Without any offense whatsoever to the researchers, this is a bad paper, not because of how the research has been done, but because of how easily it’s likely to be misunderstood.

The study’s question was whether tasting wine on a fruit versus a root day, as determined by a biodynamic tasting calendar, affects how the wine tastes. The study’s method was to have 19* wine experts tasteT the same 12 New Zealand pinot noirs on a root day and again on a fruit day (or a fruit day and again on a root day; half of the tasters followed each order), scoring each wine (a few times over, for statistical consistency) as “low” to “intense” on each of twenty factors like “sweetness,” “tannins,” “expressiveness,” and “overall structure.”

The study’s conclusion was that the difference between fruit and root days made no difference to how tasters perceived pinot noirs in any way. That’s unsurprising for two reasons – that the idea of a biodynamic tasting calendar is hogwash, and that biodynamics is a spiritual system that can’t for the most part be relevantly tested by reductionist scientific means – but that’s not my main point.

My main point is that this paper is far too likely to be taken as empirical evidence that biodynamics is a load of nonsense, even though that’s not what the paper says. The paper says that perceptions of what’s in a bottle don’t systematically change between days categorized in a particular way by a calendar devised by Maria and Matthias Thun in 2010. Information about how they devised this calendar is difficult to find online, though I admittedly didn’t try very hard.

The question doesn’t address a core principle or practice of biodynamic agriculture. All the same, it’s far too likely to be inappropriately co-opted to support the “biodynamics doesn’t work when put to the empirical scientific test” argument even though the paper doesn’t support that argument. This danger of inadvertent misapprehension (or deliberate misapplication) is worse because of the relatively few peer-reviewed scientific papers published about biodynamics, which means that this one will get a relatively larger share of attention now and in future reviews than it would otherwise. Moreover, PLoS One is a generalist journal, and so this paper will be read by a lot of people who don’t know enough about biodynamics or wine to clearly distinguish biodynamic-guided tasting from biodynamic agriculture. That’s unfortunate. 

About those two reasons why this article’s findings are unsurprising. The first is that the idea that wine tastes different depending on astral movements just doesn’t cohere with, and indeed is contradicted by, enough other forms of knowledge to give it any credence. Bottled wine changes over time – call it “alive, “if you’d like – but over months and years, not days. And even without attacking biodynamics as a knowledge system, we have a lot of reasons to believe that astral movements don’t affect day-to-day life on earth.**

The second is that biodynamics is a “spiritual” system, which is to say that its efficacy is at least in some ways tied up with belief and personal development. Biodynamics treats the farm as a coherent ecosystem or “single, self-sustaining unit,” of which the farmer is a part. By that biodynamic logic, it makes sense that the caring, positive, trusting farmer is part of the efficacy of biodynamics on a farm, and that removing that person – or, indeed, isolating any one element in the biodynamic system away from the rest for the purposes of a controlled scientific trial – will disrupt the system.

All of that applies to biodynamic agricultural practices which, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think make a good deal of sense for the same reasons that following strange diets often benefits the dieter: in paying caring, positive attention to what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it better. Call it the placebo effect, though thinking about the farm as an ecosystem affected by everything you put into it and a living thing deserving of care is more than just the power of positive thinking; that’s good environmental stewardship. I can’t say the same about the biodynamic tasting calendar.

Of course, the placebo effect usually isn’t a bad thing, either. If opening your favorite bottles on fruit days helps you enjoy your wine more, who am I to say that you shouldn’t enjoy your wine? Just don’t use this new research as a reason why you (or, heaven forbid, someone else) shouldn’t enjoy a biodynamic one.

 

*Which makes you wonder what was wrong with the twentieth person’s data, or whether someone came down with a cold or had to go home to clean up an overflowing toilet.

**Beyond things like the psychological and sociological influence of full versus new moons, for example, which is a different matter and an important point, given how human psychological influences can ramify.

5 thoughts on “An unfortunate opportunity for misdirection, or, lack of evidence to support a biodynamic tasting calendar

  1. Your point that it’s a ‘bad paper’ because it might be misconstrued by a broader audience who can’t discern between an article on lunar cycles versus the practice of viticulture is disingenuous.

    Firstly, I don’t think you’ll find too many people reading research papers who don’t have a strong interest in the subject matter; they’re often pretty boring things even for those with a vested interest.

    Secondly, if someone chooses to use an article to support a separate claim without understanding the context, then that argument is unsubstantiated and will fall through. I don’t see how this is the fault of the authors and the paper itself is quite clear in its objectives. The fault will very much be with the reader.

    Whilst I understand you’re worried that the information might be used incorrectly, calling it a ‘bad paper’ is simply wrong. It’s a very good study and should be spread to every student of wine. That way we can start to remove some of the nonsensical mysticism surrounding biodynamics and focus on the admirable, practical improvements in viticultural practices as a result of harnessing these methods.

    • Fintan, to your first point, plenty of people scan titles and abstracts, and plenty of people have a strong (if often extracurricular) interest in lambasting people and systems they perceive as unscientific and therefore as stupid, ignorant, and worthless. To your second point, part of doing science is choosing a research question; another part is framing the results. I’m not saying that the research is poor-quality, nor am I trying to attack the authors. I am saying that science communication doesn’t work the way you suggest it does. Unsubstantiated arguments don’t fall through, every journalist who picks up on science headlines doesn’t understand context or even read the entire article, and how science is communicated creates what people think. My core point, once again, is that the way the question is phrased and the way the conclusions are framed unnecessarily reinforce an us/rational/scientist vs. them/irrational/biodynamic binary. In short, it’s not necessarily a bad study; it is a bad paper.

      • I believe you’re wrong in your conclusion. Not only is the research solid but the paper is well presented and clearly sign-posted in terms of what it aims to achieve. I’ve yet to speak to anyone about this who thought it was related to anything other than the concept of the Biodynamic Calendar and its relation to the taste of wine.

        “Expectation or Sensorial Reality? An Empirical Investigation of the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers”

        I don’t see how it could be much clearer short of:

        “Expectation or Sensorial Reality? An Empirical Investigation of the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers. PLEASE NOTE, WE’RE NOT DISCREDITING BIODYNAMICS AS A WHOLE SYSTEM”

        I’d be interested to know how you’d frame it differently as for any individual actually reading the paper, this is quite clear. Those with an agenda looking for supporting evidence will interpret it as they wish regardless of the title or disclaimers. If there is a Western Science vs Biodynamic barrier then studies like this will only help remove them and bring the two closer together, albeit with a slight hit to the pride of those who held these beliefs strongly.

  2. I think you are being unfair in saying the paper is bad because some people might misunderstand it. The first few words of the abstract are not a good start (I would not say they are investigating a central tenet), but apart from that the authors are very clear about what they are doing and what they found.

    But I very much agree with your point about BD being a spiritual system impossible to test using conventional science. It is certainly impossible to use science prove or disprove in its entirety. How should we argue against biodynamics then, I wonder?

    • Steve, I think that your question about arguing against biodynamics is the wrong question, though it raises a good point. I think that its the wrong question because it assumes that biodynamics should be argued against. A better question is “Is biodynamics a good system?” with all of the messiness that that word “good” entails. Asking that question, we probably find that BD does some good things and does some worthless and even bad things. The good point you raise is that conventional science isn’t the only way to build an argument. Science isn’t the only valid knowledge system, nor is “science” a single knowledge system. Without falling any further down an epistemological rabbit hole, our mindsets need to be both pretty narrow and pretty imperialist to think that modern Western science is the only way to know anything.

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