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

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 is considered revolutionary. Originating with R.A. Fisher within British agricultural science in the 1920s and 30s, 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 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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DOI 10.1007/s40656-015-0076-8
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Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism.Hasok Chang - 2012 - Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science.
What’s so Special About Model Organisms?Rachel A. Ankeny & Sabina Leonelli - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (2):313-323.
Are Rcts the Gold Standard?Nancy Cartwright - 2007 - Biosocieties 1:11-20.

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