A view from Dave Trott: Big pseudoscience
A view from Dave Trott

Big pseudoscience

After independence, the US was 13 states hugging the coast of America.

Of course, this represented a massive opportunity: the chance to take over the rest of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

For politicians, industrialists, railroad barons, real-estate speculators, it was almost too good to be true.

But it needed a focus, something motivating.

In 1845, John L O’Sullivan wrote an article claiming it was their "manifest destiny".

And "manifest destiny" became the term for the expansion westward.

The language made it seem obvious, as if it was what Americans were meant to do.

They wanted people to settle and farm in the centre, the Great Plains, even though the plains were known for their lack of rain.

So they had to find a way to convince people that lack of rain wasn’t a problem.

They needed a mnemonic that would seem unarguable in its logic.

Charles Dana Wilber coined the expression: "Rain follows the plow."

Suddenly here was something anyone could understand: credible pseudoscience.

Cultivated and tilled soil absorbs more moisture, so it attracts more rain.

Even the Bible seemed to agree – Genesis said: "The Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth for there was not a man to till the ground."

Here was pseudoscience backed up by religion, proof that "rain follows the plow".

Except it didn’t.

In fact, the plow was the very thing that caused the terrible droughts that followed.

By plowing the land, they removed the topsoil and tore up the grass roots that were holding any moisture in.

The land became a giant dustbowl.

Nothing would grow and, over the decades, everyone moved away losing everything.

Nearly 100 years later, they found that it was possible to farm the land.

Not with the plow.

But by disturbing the land as little as possible – it’s called "dry farming".

The truth is "rain follows the plow" is a good line, but it isn’t true.

Drought followed the plow.

But humans are always susceptible to pseudoscience.

Susceptible to poor thinking disguised with impressive language.

Just tell the people what they want to hear and make it sound credible.

Whatever we’re selling, turn it into a theory and describe it using scientific-sounding words.

Just the way we do to ourselves.

For instance, Facebook says it is the medium that attracts young people.

And they can prove it with statistics.

In the US, Facebook claimed to reach 65 million people aged 20-29.

(Even though only 45 million people that age actually exist.)

Facebook claimed to reach 41 million people aged 18-24.

(Even though only 31 million people that age actually exist.)

So Facebook is claiming to reach more people than actually exist.

But it doesn’t matter – it’s pseudoscience.

The numbers aren’t there to be accurate, they’re a security blanket for marketing people.

No-one will bother checking the numbers, they just sound so reassuring.

Numbers and pseudoscientific language will help us believe what we want to believe.

And we don’t need to question it because the language is so credible.

Advertising is no longer about selling products to ordinary people.

Now advertising is about selling media to people in marketing.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.