Oct 01 2015

Yogic Farming in India

If I had to choose the one thing that has most transformed human civilization it is science. Prior to this remarkable invention history was characterized by conflicting ideologies, philosophies, superstitions, and religions.

Some practical knowledge managed to move forward, including various technologies and even enlightenment philosophy, but our attempts to understand and manipulate the world were burdened with magical thinking. Science set us on a new track, and in the last few centuries we have systematically replaced our old traditional thinking about the world with scientific thinking.

A thousand years ago European physicians attempted to understand and treat illness by manipulating the four humors while their eastern counterparts were faring no better with an astrology-based system of blood letting. If we wanted to anticipate future events, an astrologer would consult fanciful charts that have no actual influence on reality.  If we wanted to make our lives better, ensure a good harvest, or survive a plague we would pray to imaginary powerful beings.

We wasted a tremendous amount of time and effort on what is essentially worthless magic. Science, however, has given us the most powerful tool humans have devised for actually taking control of ourselves and our environment, for understanding and manipulating the world.  Humans, however, do not surrender their beliefs easily, and so many people still waste time and effort on magical solutions to real problems.

One recent example of this comes from India. The BBC reports:

The Indian agriculture minister has said his government is supporting “yogic” farming to “empower seeds with the help of positive thinking”.
Radha Mohan Singh said it would help improve yield and soil fertility and contribute to making India prosperous.

Mr Singh is part of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is accused by the critics of trying to promote traditional beliefs even when they are not backed by scientific evidence.

Unfortunately magical beliefs are often part of “tradition,” which means they are tied to cultural identity. This gives such beliefs respect and power they don’t deserve.

The idea behind yogic farming is simply making something happen by wishing. This is just a traditional version of “The Secret,” and is at the core of much magical thinking. Advocates of yogic farming also support other similar magical beliefs, such as the idea that your thoughts can affect the pH or crystalization of water.

The claim that thoughts and emotions can affect water almost always reference the experiments of Masaru Emoto, who believes that yelling at water will make it form “ugly” crystals. This is an excellent example of the unholy marriage of science with magical thinking, resulting in rank pseudoscience. While some people today are happy to maintain and promote their spiritual beliefs against the tide of science, other try to use science to support their beliefs. The result is often terrible pseudoscience, as Emoto demonstrates.

Another example of this is the scientific study of intercessory prayer. Overall such studies show that prayer does not work, but all research generates noise, and the noise has been used to claim that science supports the power of prayer magic.

Radha Mohan Singh is in charge of agriculture in India, which as the BBC points out supports 50% of the Indian population (not to mention feeding the population). It is difficult to imagine a greater malfeasance than to use that position to promote one’s personal religious beliefs rather than promote effective measures to improve agriculture.

Rather than fixing predatory lending practices that drive some Indian farmers to suicide, Singh wants farmers to think happy thoughts so that their seeds will be more fertile. Rather than engaging thoughtfully with the science of genetic modification, Singh wants farmers to project their positive thoughts into the soil through meditation.


When I read about the lingering of magical thinking into our modern world I can’t help but ponder how much more efficient, just, and prosperous our world could be if we simply removed the yoke of superstition and pseudoscience from around our necks. How much of our resources are wasted due to belief in complete nonsense?

On the positive side, I do think as a species and a civilization we are moving in the right direction. We will likely never be rid of magical thinking, but its power in the world is on the wane while science and reason are gaining purchase.

Every time someone sharply criticizes the Radha Mohan Singh’s of the world for promoting magic, we take one more step toward rationality. Every time someone attempts to promote magic and superstition, that is another opportunity to point out the advantages of science and reason.

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