[Editorial] Science Vs Pseudo-Science – The Truth and The Lies
By on July 5th, 2011

It’s the most comforting feeling in the world to know that you’re the object of the greatest affection, the benefactor of all creation terrestrial and beyond and the focal point of a grand plan, one that spans the entire length and breadth of the entire cosmos. How wonderful it is that mumbling a few thoughts with clasped hands may give us what we want! Is it not great that faraway Saturn influences us through its faint light, or that a particular congregation of stars   – a constellation provides a blueprint of one’s future? It’s secondary that Saturn’s influence might be negative; primary to the source of transcendental joy is the fact that a celestial body, far enough so as to appear as little more than a dot on the sky, can bother itself enough to influence our lives. It’s a wonderful feeling or would be, if it were true.

‘Offensive’, yet effective

The lure of the glitter of ego-centric importance is too much to resist too much, it seems, even in the face of multiple and repeated failures of the pseudo-scientific methods. Science is unnerving. Central to it is the pursuit of truth, no matter what that turns out to be. Right now, it seems that the truth doesn’t favor the centrality of humans in the grand scheme of things. There seems to exist no grand scheme of things. In this relentless search, science has rid itself of cherished notions, primary amongst these being the supremacy of man. Yes, science hits people where it hurts the most their ingrained belief of being a part of a grand plan. What more, it snatches away the right to be offended at this if you’re wrong, you’re wrong’ is just too rude!

Yet, science is the only thing known to deliver. If you have cholera, you can pray your heart out or get administered 250 mg of tetracycline three times a day. (Historically, this is the claim to fame of tetracycline a magic drug against cholera mortality). If you wanted to know the occurrence of the next solar eclipse accurate to within a minute, you might request an astrologer to consult his charts or ask a scientist. If you wanted to know how we developed and why there are dinosaur fossils, you may read the Genesis literally, or study Darwinism. It’s proven time and time again that only the latter methods work.

It’s been far too long…

We have seen too much evidence to the contrary to deny this; too many tragedies have unfolded before the eyes of History. Many sick children have died, because their parents chose to pray instead of administering them anti-biotics. (There is still a religion Christian Science which prefers prayers to drugs!) Too long has the social stigma of witchcraft claimed the lives of innocent old women. Far too long have actions been dominated by myths of holy books and morals of the long by-gone stone-age for humans to call themselves civilised. And it has been a really long time for which science has suffered the branding of being heartless and immoral, while a far more corrupt and demented sense of morality –   the one that allows the stoning of disobedient children and cheating wives and hacking to death of apostates has dominated. By increasing longevity, the sure shot index of happiness (afterall, happiness is the monopolistic pleasure of the living), and improving the quality of life, science has done more for morality than anything else. Without better farming methods or HYV seeds, I would like to see how moral people would be, given the Ten Commandments or any holy book of their choice.

Take your pick: Voodoo doll and HYV seeds. (Hint: Correct answer doesn't have needles jabbed all over it!)

Still, science is tough. It often speaks of abstract objects and then connects them to reality. There really is no royal road’ (as Euclid, once, famously told his king) to understanding how a complex (not complicated; complex’ is used in the mathematical sense of complex numbers) quantum-mechanical wave-function reveals truths about our world, which seems too real to ignore. It seems utterly unimaginable that a disease, which is externally manifest in all-too-visible symptoms, may require treatment involving tiny shreds of DNA hidden away in the heart of cells. How rude that science challenges age-old myths and proclaims them wrong!

Even practitioners of pseudo-science know this. They often garb their speech with elaborate scientific terms (you want an example? Hear Deepak Chopra speak, but not for long for your own good!). It’s a sure-shot method. The public knows that science works and now an apparent stamp of science is proof’. It allows one to be merrily deluded in, what they believe to be, science’, unfettered by the rigors of the game of scientific evidence. Wondrous notions like alien abduction, the City of Atlantis, telepathy, ESP all sound so scientific. Can they be wrong? Aren’t they too good to be wrong? Well, no! Nothing’s too good to be wrong.

Arrogant? Really?

That’s how it is. Science has long lived with the ignominy of being called arrogant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Scientists not only collect data from experiments and observations, but they spend day-after-day establishing error bars, which are a measure of how confident they are of their own results. Years are spent trying to justify hypotheses and building theories. It’s the utmost test of humility. Theories are accepted on the basis of how many times they have been proved correct, not how long they have existed. In fact, the older a scientific theory is, the greater its chances of undergoing a revision. Tradition means nothing. Modern science is more correct than science a few decades old. Try this: Take out the pioneering papers of any science subject. You should see, first hand, how much things have changed since the 1930‘s or 1950‘s (if you’re into physics) or 1859 (if you’re into biology). Self-correction is such an integral part of science that the two might be considered synonyms.

Popcorn and the Pope: One can hold popcorn for love-struck couples at a movie theatre and the other, well...

Compare this with our belief systems. No religion has liked persistent questioning, preferring instead to force a veil of respect along with numerous attempts at gagging free speech. No religious leader has ever stressed the incompleteness of his (and it’s never her’) beliefs (As Dawkins once put it, Has a clergy ever said from the pulpit We are waiting for more evidence’?). How many times have you heard the word authority’ in the religious context? How many times have you been told to kneel in reverence of the person in the elaborate white garb? Is the garb a standard of proof? Apart from the necessary attire the lab coat for protection, the space-suit for survival or the mere shirt-trouser combination for covering oneself up science has never required any practitioner to dress abnormally.

Signing off…

Carl Sagan once wrote, Not explaining science seems to be preserve. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. Science is too wonderful not to fall in love with, but, for many, too high-maintenance to stay in love. However, attractiveness of charlatans like Uri Gellar or Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (or transcendental meditation fame) or the garden variety astrologer or religious teacher pale in comparison with the wonder of a truthful explanation of a natural phenomenon, even though it might be partial.

Curiosity is integral to everyone’s mental toolkit. Being curious about Atlantis, Near Death Experiences or psychic powers is, thus, natural. But there is much more out there than you can dream up in your philosophy. Carl Sagan, always wise, puts it beautifully, There are wonders enough out there without inventing any.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.

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