DIY garden solutions are proof that we need better scientific literacy NOW

I opened my email this morning and there was one from Pinterest, simply titled “Homemade Weed Killer”, that said

Did you know vinegar is an effective weed killer? Unlike commercial products, it’s eco-friendly and won’t harm people, pets or the environment. Learn how to make your own all-natural solution with these Pins. Then dig into even more outdoor ideas…

I knew what was coming, and I clicked anyways. Fool that I am…

Snake Oil

It was a recipe called “Magical, Natural, Weed Killing Potion” (sounds totally legit, no hyperbole. Right?). 1/2 gallon vinegar, 1/2 cup table salt, 2 tablespoons dish soap, apply liberally. I get the theory behind it. Vinegar burns the leaves, the salt should help kill the weed, and the dish soap is a surfactant and helps make the snake oil solution stick to the target plant better. It’s not the worst home brew I’ve seen, even though vinegar has been shown to only kill foliage with no effect on the roots and salt can build up in the soil rendering it sterile. The lack of understanding in the comments, though, that’s what killed me. It’s pretty obvious that this will burn anything it hits, right? Nope.


OMG for real? You sprayed vinegar and salt on your lawn and it burned it? How ’bout that.

And then someone tried to warn everyone that salt could be problematic and was given what for:




Seriously the comments are a horrorshow. I’d rather read YouTube comments and see racist snot nosed 12 year olds being vicious than read these comments and see how my fellow grownups don’t have a handle on basic middle school science.

Now what?

I’m doing the 21 day no complaint challenge as a part of the commitment to wellness and mindfulness I’ve made for myself. One of Tim Ferriss’s rules makes sense here:

I defined “complaining” for myself as follows: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem. I later added the usual 4-letter words and other common profanity as complaint qualifiers, which forced me to reword, thus forcing awareness and more precise thinking.

So how do we fix the problem? I think it’s a two part process. First we need to find a way to demonstrate the value of science in everyday life. Then we need to make that science as accessible as possible.

The value of science

Full disclosure: I never finished college, and my major was sociology with an emphasis in criminology. It could be argued that I’m not particularly qualified to lead a discussion about science, except that I’ve always been deeply curious about the world around me.

Science is what helps us to understand the world around us. Our Founding Fathers showed that you can be a “citizen scientist”, someone who uses scientific principles to explore his or her world, even without a degree in the sciences. The scientific method is about as good a framework as you’ll find. Radically simplified, it’s just forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, and analyzing the results.


Science is curiosity about the world around us, it’s understanding the way things work, and it’s knowing that assertions without evidence are useless. Science helps us understand the systems at work in the world around us, and it helps protect us from getting suckered in by con artists and stupid crap on the internet.

I’m not saying that it’s at all reasonable for us to conduct experiments every single time we want to try something new, but scientific literacy helps us seek out the evidence provided by those who have (and separate the good research from the sketchy). Scams would be so much less widely effective if everyone used MJ’s favorite phrase: show me the data. If you’re not going to tell me what’s in your whizz-bang amazing organic fertilizer you’d better at least have data based on rigorous science to back it up.

There are also the intangible goods of science and wonder. Remember that sense of amazement in grade school that you got from watching that bean seed in a Dixie cup sprout and turn into a plant? Science can give you that all the time.

Making science accessible


The reality is that the US doesn’t do an awesome job with science education, but I don’t think it really comes down to what’s in the classroom. Those teachers are busting their butts and doing great work, in many cases in circumstances I sure wouldn’t tolerate. I think the problem is that for whatever reason we view science as Science – something big and opaque and inaccessible and completely separate from normal life. Science is every day.

That’s why schools love gardens. They give kids the context for science, from soil to water to plants, to the critters that are inevitably drawn to the garden. Suddenly it’s real. Food science is very similar. How do things react to heat? To cold? Heck, making simple syrups of varying strengths for cocktails is all about saturated solutions. Science can be fun!

And I think that’s the takeaway here. Science can, in fact be fun. Yes, science can be stuff we don’t understand easily, like climate change and hydrogen fuel cells. But it’s also understanding why food cooks faster in 350 degree oil than in a 350 degree oven. We can seek the mysteries of the Universe if we want, but science exists to help us get through the world better.

In light of that I’m putting together a blog series on basic science for the gardener. If you want to be sure you know when a new post comes up, like me on Facebook and you’ll get the link, or follow me on Twitter. Can’t wait for the first post!


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