Planting Seeds of Scientific Understanding
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Planting Seeds of Scientific Understanding

My Earth Day activities recalled the time I debunked the bogus science of using energy flow to grow beans

At Charles River’s Malvern, Pa. site, our sustainability-minded Social Responsibility committee sponsored seed planting in reusable containers to commemorate Earth Day. As I planted seeds and later compared my plants’ growth with my coworkers’ plants, I was reminded of the time I stood up for science over hoaxes.

My neighbor had invited me to join her Life Improvement for Everyone (LIFE) group, which was all about inspiring and empowering us to take ownership of our future. I love my neighbors, but little did I know this club would test my skills as a diplomat and a scientist.

The author of the book we were reading suggested we plant 12 bean seeds in an egg carton (recycled of course), water them, and then “direct our energy flow” to one half of the beans, while depriving “energy flow” from the other six bean seeds. The idea was to see whether the groups grew differently.

Wait, what? Energy to beans? And only half the beans, while somehow scoffing at or ignoring the other six seeds? I was rendered momentarily speechless (and that NEVER happens). My 80-year-old Aunt Dorothy, who grew seeds her whole life, would have laughed at this experiment. Energy to only half the bean seeds… Aunt Dorothy’s biggest efforts were to keep the cat from knocking over the plants!

I’m a scientist and an optimist and a gardener. I knew this “energy thing” was bad, bogus, rotten and ritualistic science – so wrong on so many levels – yet I really hated to disappoint my sweet friends. What could I say? They were SO excited for me, skeptical scientist, to perform this experiment. They even waited for me to return from vacation so that we could start together.

The scientific method

Before we jumped into the business of passing on energy, I took the golden opportunity to educate and share real plant science (After all, I have a PhD in Plant Biology from a world-class department at Cornell University), and to discuss the scientific method. I told them that if I could expend energy to plants, it would NOT have taken me seven years to finish grad school!

I knew this “energy experiment” was bogus science because the book referenced “The Secret Life of Plants”. As a summer lab assistant, I worked in classical Plant Physiology laboratories where I heard first-hand many stories from my mentors debunking this experiment. A former CIA investigator, Cleve Backster wrote a famous but flawed book in the early 1970’s about the use of a lie detector instrument hooked up to a plant which he “demonstrated” could perceive pain and give emotional responses to the environment, including the death of brine shrimp – or destruction of live yogurt cultures. I know plant electrophysiology is intricate and worthy of research – but “feelings” are not covered in any plant course I ever took!

In 1975, Cornell researchers Kenneth Horowitz, Donald Lewis and Edgar Gasteiger investigated these seemingly impossible claims (Plant Primary Perception: Electrophysiological Unresponsiveness to Brine Shrimp Killing. Science, 189. pp. 478-480). Instead of simply scoffing, they undertook a serious repeat of the experiments. A critical experimental design was included – the use of a Faraday cage to prevent external electromagnetic field interference. Multiple replicates and controls are important to any bioassay, due to the inherent variability in living organisms, which were not included in the Backster work. The Cornell University testing yielded no evidence to support the Backster hypothesis of plant perception.

And yet, the folklore of plant feelings, that originated prior to the Internet, remains to this day.

Makeshift hothouse

So I educated my neighbors, and of course they teased me in fun. There was no way I could take this bean experiment seriously, but I dutifully planted my seeds and just remarked that I wasn’t even sure if I would remember to water them. I did water them — and I placed them in the one spot I knew where I would remember to keep watering them — my warm sunny Subaru.

Yes, I grew the plants in the car!

As for the half and half energy expenditure, I thought about laughing it off, but during my morning commute, I decided to do something meaningful rather than just say “the dog ate my experiment.”

I decided to research and write to the best-selling author, whose website claimed an “email pile the size of Mount Everest”. Much to my surprise, SHE REPLIED! I thanked her for wanting to inspire folks, but I explained very clearly that I was concerned with her science facts and spreading false hope. And while I had her ear, I explained the flawed science. We conversed about “energy” (even reminisced about Uri Geller faking spoon-bending on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson). Honestly, I doubt I made an impact on her mindset through those multiple email exchanges, but: “Wow, did I have a good story for my neighbors!”

Two weeks later, at the Book Club meeting, I optimistically went – beans and emails in hand – to show and tell! They told me that they didn’t think that I would have done the experiment, so when I set my beans down my neighbors freaked! Freaked for a very good reason – my beans were like FIVE inches tall – theirs barely one! I’m an optimist, but I never saw that surprise coming! The impressive email exchanges with the author was simply icing on the cake.

If you are as amazed as my book club friends were, don't be. At the end of the evening I confessed to the group the real reason my beans grew so high; it was because I grew them in my Subaru greenhouse of sunshine and warmth.

Bean seeds, the Subaru, and defending the Scientific Method – my memory of their faces and the photos of those beans is one for the ages.