[Editorial] Science Vs Pseudo-Science – The Truth and The Lies

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.

The Scientific Method: What It Actually Is

What is a scientific model?

Here’s the central point: Science is a model of reality, not reality itself. It tries to approximate reality as closely as possible. For example, in the kinetic theory of gases, the molecules are considered as rigid spheres. However, it is not correct to say that the molecules are hard spheres. They are modeled as hard spheres and the theory works wonderfully well. Of course, it doesn’t exactly match experimental results, and we should not expect that either.

Another important point: Experiments are supreme.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.

– Richard Feynman, late theoretical physicist at Caltech

How true. Nothing else matters. If theory predicts a rise in temperature and the experiment shows a decrease, the theory is wrong. Feynman also makes the brilliant point that we can never know that we are right. We can only know that we are wrong. Say we have a theory. We test it in a case in which it applies. If   the result agrees with prediction, can we say that the theory correct? NO! Just that it isn’t proved wrong. There could be an experiment conducted in the future which may produce a result that will contradict the theory. Till then, as long as experiments keep on verifying the theory, it will be proved less and less wrong. But it cannot be proved absolutely correct.

Albert Einstein Cartoon
Think! It helps.

From hypothesis to theory:

  • Make a guess

A theory starts off as a hypothesis a good guess. The guess needs to be checked for simple cases first and then for more intricate ones. The hypothesis needs to produce numbers which can be checked against actual experiments that can be conducted, i.e. it needs to be falsifiable.

  • Falsifiability: What can I do to prove it wrong?

Falsifiability is a vital criterion of a hypothesis to be even taken seriously. (The first thing to ask: How can I prove this wrong? If there is no answer, forget about the hypothesis! It’s Not Even Wrong‘ is the worst insult!)

  • Can it explain the known? Finding faults is not enough.

Next, we need to see how general the hypothesis is. Can it explain all of the results that are explained by the existing theory? We have to find where they clash, and find out which one prevails at that point. Does the hypothesis say something more than what the old theory says? Does it cover for the limitations of the old theory? The important point here is that it is not merely enough to show that the old theory lacks explanation for a certain phenomenon, but the new hypothesis should be able to be successful at explaining all that the old theory can explain. (Thus, creationism is NOT a theory, not even a valid hypothesis!)

  • Peer review, peer review, peer review.

THE most essential step for a hypothesis to become a theory is peer review. It needs to be published in a science journal. A hypothesis is rarely completely correct, but the good parts are generally noticed by readers.

It’s redundant to say that not every accepted theory is a revolution. You never know if a theory will be a revolutionary one. Don’t do science aiming for that! You’ll be disappointed.

Richard Feynman-Key to Science on youtube