Science versus expertise and winemaker trust (and chickens)

I recently wrote an academic manuscript on, among other things, winemakers’ attitudes toward the relative importance of scientifically-supported information and information from personal experience. Some I’ve interviewed trust the science first, last, and always. Some trust experience (theirs or a neighbor’s, but usually theirs) and question the science, and many more fall into more complicated patterns somewhere in-between. To make it clear from the outset, my research takes the stance that none of these attitudes is better or worse than any other.

On what I thought was a completely unrelated topic, I took an hour out of PhD-ing to walk to the library for a book on chicken keeping on Saturday morning. I’d discovered a relic of a chicken coop at the house I’m renting and, as of yesterday, it has two new occupants*. Browsing around on the internet mostly told me that I wanted the coherence and completeness and ease of use that a book could offer.

My tiny neighborhood library had five books on keeping chickens (which tells you something about the neighborhood). Two were memoirs of woman-chicken romances; not what I needed. One was a tiny and poorly type-set volume that tried to cover ducks and guinea fowl and turkeys too; I set that aside. That left two for serious consideration.

I flipped through the much larger volume: professional and impersonal tone, readable text, black and white diagrams, detailed discussion of the various pelleted foods available and exhortations about how to choose the appropriate variety in the few pages I skimmed. The smaller: personal with lots of references to the author’s experiences, strongly authoritative, readable text, cheerful color pictures. I skimmed a page about kitchen scraps as feed with statements like “my chickens can tell the difference between real food and fake food, so don’t try giving them those plastic rolls you get on airplanes” and “people will tell you that citrus is bad for chickens and I’ve never had any problems but you should probably avoid it.”

I took home Jennie French’s Guide to Chooks** and left the Someone’s Guide to Backyard Fowl on the shelf.

On the walk home I realized what I had done. I had chosen the neighborly voice of “well, I tried it this way and it worked for me” over “poultry scientists agree that…”

I had decided between experience versus (not and, but versus) science. I didn’t want to believe that my chickens needed a diet of > 90% commercial feed plus a few kitchen “treats.” I assumed that that advice descended from nutritional guidelines developed for crowded battery farms looking for maximally efficient short-term egg production. I’m different. I want to live with my chickens, all two of them in their jungly run. The research doesn’t apply to me. But Jennie French talking about keeping chickens on her Australian avocado farm…Well, her farm is hot and dry and my garden is cool and wet, but at least she’s being sensible about chickens as productive members of a household.

I’d done exactly what so many of the winemakers I’ve interviewed do: decide that the research probably doesn’t apply to me and trust the more experienced peer who knows how it really is. Even though I’ve been thinking about this stuff (i.e. where stuff = my research on winemakers’ use of/attitudes toward science) for months now, my chicken book experience clarified two things:

1. I didn’t trust that the research applied to me because I couldn’t tell whether the research applied to me. The book didn’t tell me enough about where it’s authoritative recommendations came from for me to know whether or not to believe them. I heard exactly the same thing from winemakers about many of the recommendations in trade magazines: we need more. So, as a writer, the question becomes: how do I provide enough context to be useful?

2. I decided to trust the authoritative recommendations that were closer to what I wanted to do. I was looking to those books not just for information but for validation, to know that the half-formed plan in my head was probably okay and wouldn’t produce immediate chicken death. I sought confirmation, not challenge, because I didn’t want to have to change too much.

Old-fashioned science communication assumed that the scientists were enlightened, people who didn’t agree with them were backwards, and if they were only told about science they’d agree with it anyway (the much-maligned “deficit model”). It treated scientists like a different species of person or, rather, treated non-scientists like they weren’t quite right in the head. I wonder if guys who preached (and still preach) that model ever take home the neighborly chicken book.


* The ladies are hand-me-down trial chickens — a bit elderly, not laying for their previous owner, and acquired for free — so, backyard poultry enthusiasts, forgive me for not knowing their details. Mixed-breed both, I think: one smallish standard-looking red one (maybe a Shaver-RIR mix?) and one larger but still light white-blue girl with a bit of a fluffy head. And don’t worry. They’re getting a good, high-protein-with-oyster-grit feed alongside pumpkin seeds and rutabaga peels and outer cabbage leaves.

**Chooks = chickens down-under. For all their laid-back attitude, folks seem to want to abbreviate everything around here.

7 thoughts on “Science versus expertise and winemaker trust (and chickens)

  1. Very good. Couple of comments:

    · My chickens (8 brown shavers) live in a coop I had to lift over our house with a 25 tonne crane, obviously well thought of beasties. They love Kale by the way and have an uncanny ability to be able to select what they eat based on (my view) its nutritional value.

    · There are two excellent books on language in your university book store (where I bought them last year). Everyone abbreviates language, as they also string words together (which is why they abbreviate them again). “Au jour d’aujourd’hui” being a wonderful example (on the day of the day of today).

    · I have a degree in Food Technology, which is why I’ve happily called myself a technophobe for the last thirty years. Once you understand a thing you see its limitations, as below.

    Well done on the post.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Dave. On the abbreviations, I know, I know (my MA in rhetoric and composition included some linguistics). I was just being the American who finds things like “brekkie” and “mozzie” and “chook” unfamiliar. No offense intended.

  2. I would have taken both books – I’m like that! I add together all the different vantage points and often spend more time than necessary. Do either book say which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or which wines are recommended with chicken?

    Rick Schofield
    Port Ewen, NY

    • I would have taken both books — I’m like that, too! — but for knowing that I have at least four (and I think it’s actually five) very interesting and enticing and mostly unread books related to my research already sitting at home. Too easy to allocate more than a few hours to chicken-related reading, and I needed not to.

  3. That’s the problem with elderly chickens: After year 3 their production drops off dramatically. Its cheaper to buy fresh eggs, and nobody will take your old hens (In the chicken business thats what ends up in Campbells soup.)

    I think you are on to something though. You will have lots of takers from backyard chicken fans to take their aged birds.

    This isn’t spam or an advertisement. I have nothing to do with this site, but it is my favorite for information. (Check out the coops if you want to really lose money on this project.)

    • Rob, that’s why these are trial chickens. Their former owner didn’t want them because they weren’t laying, but they were also not receiving any sunlight. They’re going to live here for a few weeks. If they settle in and start laying, they stay. If they don’t, they turn into hen au vin. And in either case, I get a chance to see how keeping chickens works for us. Sounded like a good deal!

  4. Pingback: On Palate Press: Water footprints and Waiheke (and chickens, again) | The Wine-o-scope

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