Early settlers of the American Great Plains experienced what appeared to be a causal effect between newly cultivated fields, subsequent increases in rainfall, and resulting increases in crop yields. This perceived effect led many farmers to invest time and money into arid and previously unproductive land in the hope that the theory that “rain follows the plow” would prove a wise investment. It did not.
A “Convenient Truth”
Promoters of the western frontier such as railroad operators, real estate developers, journalists, and manifest destiny purveyors marketed the theory effectively and greatly increased interest in settling the west. Additionally, notable contributors in the scientific community (conveniently located at Midwestern universities) lauded the finding as a model to architect the cities of the future regardless of the previous habitability of the geography.
Why did people believe this? Being wrong (every so often) is to be human, so it is believable to see how people could have been swayed by this quintessential American idea – that the individual, through hard work, actually is her own savior. The western frontier was the perfect place for this type of idea to thrive and the beneficiaries of western expansion used this knowledge to their great advantage. My point is not to say that this idea isn’t true, but to stress the motivations and logic of the messenger.
Why didn’t the theory persist? The most obvious reason is that the previous apparent correlation between agriculture and rainfall ceased to exist (dust bowl). However, another reason why I would like to think the theory fell out of favor comes from another powerful American idea – that the fact that an opinion is popular doesn’t make it right. It is hard to oppose an idea as seemingly revolutionary as “rain follows the plow” when it appears to be working well and farm yields increase year-over-year; but how many people would believe this to be true if you heard it without being biased by the knowledge that farm yields had been increasing? Very few I would hope.
When confronted with a new way of thinking, it is in all of our best interests to consider two questions about how potential “convenient truths” can sway you toward illogical beliefs:
- Does my desire for this to be true/untrue outweigh my ability to logically consider the issue?
- If I had no idea of the popularity of this issue, would I feel the same way about it?
Where are you being asked to plow in the hopes of making it rain?