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Science vs pseudoscience: euphoria and illusion

Aravindhan Vivekanandhan

Aravindhan Vivekanandhan is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Genetics, University of Madras. In this opinion piece, he discusses the damaging consequences that may result when analogies turn into claims and pseudoscientific statements are put forward in national scientific forums.

An 18th century painting depicting the demon Rakthabeeja; inset: Aravindhan Vivekanandhan
An 18th century painting depicting the demon Rakthabeeja; inset: Aravindhan Vivekanandhan   (Photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, the #savescience movement began trending on several social media platforms with a number of students, teachers and researchers participating in the debate. This is mainly because of the unscientific statements which are constantly being put forth in multiple scientific forums. The epithet pseudoscience is being used more and more in national debates.

Even though it is difficult to exactly define pseudoscience, any claim which is not fully supported by strong scientific evidence will qualify as pseudoscience. While the demarcating line between science and pseudoscience may appear blurred sometimes, it still exists. By this, I am in no way justifying the unscientific claims made by few Indian academicians in the recent past, which have stirred controversy. At the same time, what was considered a myth and impossible a few decades back is now rapidly becoming reality due to the power of science and technology.

Let me give an example from our own Indian mythology. In the popular story of Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura, a demon by name Rakthabeeja (Raktha – blood; Beeja – seed) plays a prominent role. The unique feature of this demon is that every drop of blood which falls from his body gives rise to a new demon. So, when I gave a popular science talk for undergraduate students in a college, I used this analogy to explain cloning, which was appreciated by the audience who were familiar with the story. Again, I used it only as an analogy. An analogy is an example to explain a complex concept in familiar terms – it is never meant to be taken literally. An analogy can be an excellent tool to explain a scientific fact to a lay person, but it can never be treated as a scientific fact per se.

Using analogies to explain science is not new and has always been an integral part of pedagogy. I still feel that the story of Rakthabeeja was a novel concept which somebody from India came up with many centuries back. Even though the technicality of cloning is way different from the process of a new demon springing out from a blood drop, the concept which I wanted to highlight was identical genetic constitution, which the students understood with the help of the analogy. I feel it is well within the premises of science to use such an analogy while teaching. But had I said that “Indians were the first to experiment with human cloning,” then it would be absolutely unscientific and would qualify as pseudoscience.

The utility of analogies in explaining scientific concepts depends upon the audience and forum. In popular science talks which are conducted to reach out to the wider society, analogies can be very useful for describing unfamiliar scientific phenomenon to the common man. In a classroom scenario where a teacher has to explain complex scientific concepts, analogies become powerful pedagogy tools. But these analogies are of less utility in scientific conferences, workshops, symposiums and seminars where both the speaker and the audience are from the scientific fraternity.

Another popular analogy which created a stir in the recent past is the pushpakaviman. Certain stories from Indian mythology mention a spaceship (pushpakaviman) which celestial nymphs use for their air travel. It is yet another fascinating concept, which also finds mentions in other mythologies (outside India), though of course with variations. So here, even the concept cannot be claimed to be of purely Indian origin. That being said, claiming that Indians were the first to invent aeroplanes is plain pseudoscience.

There is a difference between an idea and a claim. An idea is a concept which can lead to a hypothesis. But the hypothesis must be tested rigorously to become a theory or a claim. Anybody can come up with an idea or a concept, but rigorous scientific testing is required to prove the validity of the said idea and that is where the ‘lakshmanrekha’ of science lies. Falsifiability of an idea (i.e. we should be able to come up with an experiment which can potentially prove that the idea is false) is one of these tests and most pseudoscientific claims lack this criterion of falsifiability.

Coming back to this idea of analogies and claims, using analogies has its own advantages and disadvantages. First, it is the easiest way to reach out to a wide audience. Since we are in an era where the importance of dissemination of scientific knowledge to the common man is beginning to be appreciated, analogies serve as powerful tools for scientific dissemination. It is an easy method to induce enthusiasm in school children, which is the need of the hour.

However, when analogies become claims, then they simply nurture our false ego and pseudo-patriotism. This also puts us in a poor light in the international scientific arena. There is a sizeable number of Indian scientists working abroad, and incidents like these where pseudoscientific claims enter the national conversation, percolate to these academic circles as well. In a recent interview, Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan calls this a manifestation of colonial inferiority complex, which we need to come out from. For Indian scientists working in India, the situation can be worse. It can demotivate a good scientist and can even motivate a bad scientist to do pseudo-research, which lacks scientific validity.

Allowing scientific platforms to promote and propagate pseudoscience can have debilitating consequences for Indian science in the long run. Scientists and educators who fall prey to this kind of pseudoscience can even propagate it by training their students who become the torch-bearers of pseudoscience in generations to come. Further, these pseudoscientific claims also belittle and camouflage the true contributions of both ancient and modern Indian scientists, the latter of which include the likes of C.V.Raman, S.Chandrasekhar, J.C.Bose, S.N.Bose, G.N.Ramachandran, Hargobind Khorana, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan etc.

Having identified the problem, the next and most important step is learning to stop it. First, in any scientific meetings, strict regulations should be followed while determining the speakers. Only scientists with a good track record should be invited. For screening, the applicants should submit a small write-up about the topic of their talk which can be used to select the speakers. Most importantly, a chairperson should be appointed for every session and the person should be capable of sharply interjecting if the discussion heads in a non-scientific direction.

Finally, the media plays a very important role in controlling pseudoscience. In my opinion, the media should follow a name and shame policy without pity in identifying the torch-bearers of pseudoscience. In certain cases, all stakeholders can make a symbolic protest to show their solidarity towards science. The recent #savescience protests organised in several major cities in India illustrated this idea. As members of the scientific community, let us work together to denounce pseudoscientific claims, and promote rigorously-tested and valid science.


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