The resisted rise of randomisation in experimental design: British agricultural science, c.1910–1930

Abstract

The most conspicuous form of agricultural experiment is the field trial, and within the history of such trials, the arrival of the randomised control trial (RCT) is considered revolutionary. Originating with R.A. Fisher within British agricultural science in the 1920s and 1930s, the RCT has since become one of the most prodigiously used experimental techniques throughout the natural and social sciences. Philosophers of science have already scrutinised the epistemological uniqueness of RCTs, undermining their status as the ‘gold standard’ in experimental design. The present paper introduces a historical case study from the origins of the RCT, uncovering the initially cool reception given to this method by agricultural scientists at the University of Cambridge and the (Cambridge based) National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Rather than giving further attention to the RCT, the paper focuses instead on a competitor method—the half-drill strip—which both predated the RCT and remained in wide use for at least a decade beyond the latter’s arrival. In telling this history, John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing is adopted, as the most flexible and productive way to write the history of science, particularly when sciences and scientists have to work across a number of different kinds of place. It is shown that those who resisted the RCT did so in order to preserve epistemic and social goals that randomisation would have otherwise run a tractor through.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This research is derived in part from Chapter 2 of Berry (2014a).

  2. 2.

    While WoK forms only one part of Pickstone’s overall framework, which partners the latter with ‘ways of working’, ultimately constituting ‘working knowledge’ (Pickstone 2007, 2011), for simplicity's sake, only WoK will concern us here as it is the part of his framework most directly related to experiment.

  3. 3.

    A large number of the reports of the Norfolk Station have been digitised and made available on the website of the Morley Agricultural Foundation website. For Wood’s involvement in particular see the report for 1922–1923. www.tmaf.co.uk/archived-reports. Accessed 1 March 2015.

  4. 4.

    Morley Agricultural Foundation Archive, Norfolk Agricultural Station Report:1909–1910.

  5. 5.

    Morley Agricultural Foundation Archive, Norfolk Agricultural Station Report:1915–1916.

  6. 6.

    In the final year of the Great War Beaven’s daughter married T.B. Wood, mentioned in Sect. 2 as amongst the first to adopt Beaven’s half-drill strip. UK agricultural science was an intimate business.

  7. 7.

    National Archives, MAF 33/22 ‘Memorandum on the Establishment of a National Institute of Agricultural Botany’ January 1918.

  8. 8.

    Parolini disagrees and considers it just a matter of statistical good sense. I prefer the dramatic interpretation. This footnote now signals my potential error. My thanks to Parolini for pointing it out to me!

  9. 9.

    NIAB, C-1, Council Papers, No. 103, ‘National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Methods of Trial’, dated June 1930.

  10. 10.

    In an earlier draft I had called this ‘replicability’ outright. In discussing this paper with Matt Paskins however, he suggested that imitability would be more accurate, and I have adopted his suggestion (for which he has my sincere thanks).

  11. 11.

    NIAB, C-1, Council Papers, No. 106, ‘Draft: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Eleventh Report of the Council’, dated Jan 1931.

  12. 12.

    My thanks to Charlotte Sleigh who recommended this important work to me when I panicked on twitter.

  13. 13.

    NA, C-8.60, 11th Annual Report (1929–1930).

  14. 14.

    NIAB, C-8.60, 12th Annual Report, 1930–1931.

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Acknowledgments

Firstly my thanks to Giuditta Parolini for conceiving of this special issue and inviting my contribution. Giuditta gave extensive feedback on numerous drafts, for which I am very grateful. Two anonymous reviewers and Staffan Müller-Wille greatly improved the article with excellent criticisms and suggestions. Greg Radick, Lijing Jiang, and Carl Warom gave generously with their time scrutinising final drafts. Matt Paskins and Mike Finn discussed the paper with me on a number of occasions, suggesting important changes. Lastly I thank those at the 10th iHPS meeting in Durham (and the conference organisers) who responded to this work with exciting questions (particularly Sabina Leonelli, William Peden, Alper Bilgili and Nadia Moro), and Liz Watkins and Kiara White for always wanting to know more about agricultural science. This work was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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Berry, D. The resisted rise of randomisation in experimental design: British agricultural science, c.1910–1930. HPLS 37, 242–260 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-015-0076-8

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Keywords

  • Field science
  • Agriculture
  • Randomised control trials
  • Epistemic goals
  • Ways of knowing