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This Idea Must Die: Using Filter Paper as a Primary Method for Water Potential

In a continuation of our popular series inspired by the book, This Idea Must Die:  Scientific Problems that are Blocking Progress,  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell relates a story to illustrate the filter paper method, a scientific concept he thinks impedes progress:

Folded old paper sitting on a wooden table with a gold antique pocket watch and pen laying in top

There are times when our independent verification turns out to be like the clock and the whistle, and we end up inadvertently chasing our tail.

I remember listening to a story about a jeweler who displayed a big clock in the front window of his store. He noticed that every day a man would stop in front of the store window, pull out a pocket watch, set the watch to the time that was on the large clock, and then continue on.  One day, the jeweler decided to meet the man in order to see why he did that.  He went out to the front of the store, intercepted the man, and said, “I noticed you stop here every day to set your watch.”

The man replied, “Yes, I’m in charge of blowing the whistle at the factory, and I want to make sure that I get the time exactly right.  I check my watch every day so I know I’m blowing the whistle precisely at noon.”

Taken aback, the jeweler replied, “Oh, that’s interesting.  I set my clock by the factory whistle.”

The Wrong Idea:

In science, we like to have independent verification for the measurements we make in order to have confidence that they are made correctly, but there are times when our independent verification turns out to be like the clock and the whistle, and we end up inadvertently chasing our tail. I’ve seen this happen to people measuring water potential (soil suction). They measure using a fundamental method like dew point or thermocouple psychrometry, but then they verify the method using filter paper. Filter paper is a secondary method—it was originally calibrated against the psychometric method. It’s ridiculous to use a secondary method to verify an instrument based on fundamental thermodynamics.

Tunnel looking up from the bottom with square holes in the sides going up to the top

Geotechnical engineers use natural material such as soil and rock in combination with engineered material to design dams, tunnels, and foundations for all kinds of structures.

Where the Filter Paper Method Came From:

Before the development of modern vapor pressure measurements, field scientists needed an inexpensive, easy method to measure water potential. I.S. McQueen in the U.S. Geological Survey and some others worked out relationships between the water content of filter paper and water potential by equilibrating them over salt solutions. Later, other scientists standardized this method using thermocouple psychrometers so that there was a calibration. Filter paper was acceptable as a kind of a poor man’s method for measuring water potential because it was inexpensive, assuming you already had a drying oven and a balance. The thermocouple psychrometer and later the dew point sensor quickly supplanted filter paper in the field of soil physics. However, somewhere along the line, the filter paper technique was written into standards in the geotechnical area and the change to vapor methods never occurred. Consequently, a new generation of geotechnical engineers came to rely on the filter paper method. Humorously, when vapor pressure methods finally took hold, filter paper users became focused on verifying these new fundamental methods with the filter paper technique to see whether they were accurate enough to be used for water potential measurement of samples.

What Do We Do Now?

Certainly, there’s no need to get rid of the filter paper method. If I didn’t have anything else, I would use it. It will give you a rough idea of what the water potential or soil suction is. But the idea that I think has to die is that you would ever check your fundamental methods (dewpoint or psychrometer) against the filter paper method to see if they were accurate. Of course they’re accurate. They are based on first principles. The dew point or psychrometer methods are a check to see if your filter paper technique is working, which it quite often isn’t (watch this video to learn why).

Which scientific ideas do you think need to be revised?

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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