Farrukh writes

Wages of pseudoscience

In February this year, Coronil kit by Yoga guru Ramdev’s company Patanjali Ayurved got a formal nod by the Indian government as an evidence-based ayurvedic cure of Covid-19. The event launch of a report supporting the wild claims of the company was attended by the Indian federal ministers of health and transport. Pantanjali CEO even claimed that it could cure the disease in five to 14 days, was WHO certified and was ready to be shipped to 158 countries. The WHO’s regional office for South East Asia soon put out a statement on Twitter debunking the claim and asserting that the organisation had not even studied any traditional medicine for this purpose. And yet two federal ministers, including the one with the health portfolio, had thrown their weight behind it.

At the height of the India-Pakistan face-off in 2019, a video clip emanating from the Indian media emerged and became the talk of the town. In this video a gentleman, probably an expert of some sort, can be seen telling his audience that cow dung when used in building materials can shield people from nuclear radiation. In one show I was asked to comment on the matter. As I began to rebut the claim based on scientific evidence, a co-panelist and a friend, accosted me. It wasn’t before the break that I could inquire about the meaning of this. In response, Napoleon’s quote, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, was thrown at me. My answer: “Because when you don’t stop him the false sense of invincibility can mean that after inhaling his propaganda he starts a war that kills everyone on both sides.” Pseudoscience is now an existential health and security hazard. 

Before we move ahead let me disabuse you of any residual sense of superiority. The situation is no better in Pakistan. Only a few days ago I chanced upon a video where a doctor is relating a story of a wasted, unconscious patient of his out of whose nose (pardon the graphic imagery) maggots would flood out whenever holy texts were recited in his presence. Upon inquiry the doctor learned from a third person account that the dying man was a sorcerer who indulged in black magic. And while we are told this no evidence is produced. Now, I have no experience of black magic, or any other supernatural phenomenon, but I can tell when I see an embellished breach of doctor-patient confidentiality or an attempt to deprive a dying patient (if not fictitious) of all dignity. 

You already know about the water kit grift where the ‘inventor’ managed to get endorsement of a federal minister and many prime-time anchors. But guess what? Pakistan has very little impact on the international discourse. So expect very little harm to science. India, however, is a different story.

After the Modi government came to power it arranged many academic conferences where pseudoscientific papers were read on explaining how Hanuman and Ganesh were products of cosmetic surgery, head transplant and similar scientific miracles. Similarly claims were made that ancient India used spaceships. This should have caused an international uproar. But only a few local scientists objected to such papers.

Two recent incidents really underscore the point. First, Narendra Modi’s interview following the Balakot attack in which he claimed to have advised the defence chiefs to use cloud cover for the warplanes to evade radar detection. Look at the implication. Here he was bragging about something he knew little after two months of the incident. Nobody, including the country’s powerful services chiefs could pluck up courage to correct him. And the story doesn’t end here. After enduring tweetstorms of derision, the government’s spin masters went into overdrive and suddenly news reports disguised as scientific analyses found their way into the press substantiating his claim. And within days it was being treated as the new dogma. Then a hurriedly written academic paper by an expat Indian postdoctoral scholar stationed abroad trying to scientifically validate the comment surfaced. Is it science’s new job to prove every dim-witted thing that comes out of a mal-educated strongman?

Another example is the Indian media’s hasty promotion of a paper published in a medical research journal more or less justifying public gatherings like this year’s Kumbh Mela. If the writers were to be believed there was no chance of the virus’ spread there. We know better now. There is a chance that this paper may not have been specifically written for the purpose and that the Indian media only picked out an outlier study just because it helped get some pressure off the government’s back. But what if it isn’t and researchers are being pressured to substantiate preconceived notions for political purposes?

In your life you must have come across many impulses to bend the scientific truth to fit unrelated agendas. The first comes naturally to every mortal. The desire to validate one’s faith or religious beliefs through science. But that is akin to building a castle on shifting sand. It is in the nature of the scientific inquiry to challenge and often disprove every theory that is taken for granted today. Subjecting what you consider self-evident universal truths to such a fickle-minded inquest can wreak havoc on your deeply held belief system a few years down the line. 

Then the attempts to substantiate prejudice through the use of science. The Nazis did it. So do many other racists or casteists. That’s where monism’s dogma creeps into the works of psychologists and social scientists with an undying faith in a hierarchical society. Science keeps changing its outlook. While it correctly generalises in the study of inanimate objects or insentient beasts, it cannot do the same for humans. Too many variables in play. That’s why social science is such a poor substitute for natural sciences. And in any case, if you have chosen to be prejudiced for your whole life what do you need science for?

And then the worst grift. Science for political validation. The great leader always knows the best, right? If you are really that bothered about science then do us a favour and stick to the first rule of business: choose an informed leader. Also, keep faith in causality and empirical evidence. Sense perception and the scientific method have served humanity faithfully so far. 

Make no mistake. This threat is real. Politicians usually have too much power already. But Modi’s minions are unique in that they now have access to the infinite resources of the Indian state and diaspora abroad. While by virtue of sheer size of its market and population India will have a voice and a role to play on every stage, this threat actually is an obstacle in India’s mainstreaming. The sooner this virus is caught and isolated the better it is for everyone. Otherwise, we are already witnessing the wilting of the tree of knowledge. To anyone still not convinced of the need to confront this problem, a look at the unfolding man-made tragedy in India today should suffice. Always bet on knowledge and competence my friends. When have they ever failed you?

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