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In pursuit of a science of agriculture: the role of statistics in field experiments

Parolini, Giuditta

FG Wissenschaftsgeschichte

Since the beginning of the twentieth century statistics has reshaped the experimental cultures of agricultural research taking part in the subtle dialectic between the epistemic and the material that is proper to experimental systems. This transformation has become especially relevant in field trials and the paper will examine the British agricultural institution, Rothamsted Experimental Station, where statistical methods nowadays popular in the planning and analysis of field experiments were developed in the 1920s. At Rothamsted statistics promoted randomisation over systematic arrangements, factorisation over one-question trials, and emphasised the importance of the experimental error in assessing field trials. These changes in methodology transformed also the material culture of agricultural science, and a new body, the Field Plots Committee, was created to manage the field research of the agricultural institution. Although successful, the vision of field experimentation proposed by the Rothamsted statisticians was not unproblematic. Experimental scientists closely linked to the farming community questioned it in favour of a field research that could be more easily understood by farmers. The clash between the two agendas reveals how the role attributed to statistics in field experimentation defined different pursuits of agricultural research, alternately conceived of as a scientists’ science or as a farmers’ science.