Panel Against Pseudoscience
Panjab University Chandigarh
Speech by Rajesh Kochhar
During the past five years an extremely disturbing trend has emerged and is gaining ground whereby established forums like Indian Science Congress are being used to expound and propagate and give respectability to pseudoscience, insulting in the process not only modern science but also ancient Hindu sacred books.
Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) was established in 1914 as the first ever body of Indian scientists. One of the objectives stated at the time of its formation was ‘to advance and promote the cause of science in India’. The official website tells us that in addition, one of ISCA’s major objectives is to inculcate the scientific temper among the people.
ISCA is listed as a body under Government of India Department of Science and Technology (DST). It is almost entirely dependent on DST for financial support. I have looked up its most recent annual reports available on the internet. In 2015-16 (the latest report available) it received four crore rupees as “Grant from Government”, while its income from other sources was only 40 lakh. A year previously, during 2015-16, the grant was much larger, Rs 6 cr, and internal income less, 35 lakh. Note that a portion of the annual government grant is transferred to one or the other fund and placed with a bank as fixed deposit so that interest earned on it becomes internal income the next year. As much as 90% of annual money in the hands of ISCA comes from DST whose representative sits on the Executive Committee as an ex-officio member.
In its more than century old existence, it is only recently that Science Congress has opened its doors to pseudoscience. The tone was set up by the Prime Minister himself in October 2014 in Mumbai while inaugurating a hospital. He declared that the human body and elephant head of the mythical Lord Ganesh was proof of plastic surgery’s being prevalent in ancient India. Incidentally, there is a certain amount of naivete in the use of the term plastic surgeon. Incidentally, the surgery involved in an organ transplant is far more complex than a plastic surgeon is capable of.
The most discussed part of the proceedings of the 2015 Mumbai Science Congress was the claim that very sophisticated airplanes were in vogue in ancient times. The basis for this outrageous assertion was a so-called ancient text which 30 years previously had been shown to be an early 20th century fabrication.
We are all used to science-related frivolous statements from politicians and public figures. Old timers at Panjab University Chandigarh will recall Morarji Desai’s non-acceptance of fossils, and Giani Zail Singh’s reluctance to accept human links to monkeys. This was not done from a public platform but while examining the exhibits. One considered these things as amusing. What is worrisome is that anti-science statements are now being made from public and scientific platforms.
Over the years, pseudoscience and outrageous claims of various kinds have penetrated the Congress deeper and deeper. More and more persons with science degrees are falling prey to this. Most disturbingly, middle-rung academics who have steadily built a solid international reputation for themselves have joined the frivolous brigade. Obviously they think that saying such things will bring them benefits from non-academic sources.
A new trend has emerged this year, and that is of ridiculing established science itself. If Einstein’s general relativity theory is ever proved wrong, or inadequate, the announcement will have to come from a better forum than Phagwara!
Even though the stated objective of Science Congress Association is to promote science and scientific temper, even though Government gives a substantial grant to further these objectives, DST has not said a word about the degradation of the Science Congress; learned Science Academies have not said a word; and membership of the Science Congress Association has not said a word to the Executive Committee or the DST nominee on it. There seems to be an all-round conspiracy of silence.
Pseudo-support for pseudo-science
Pseudo-support for pseudo-science has come from the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. One would have expected a press release from his office. Instead what we get is a personal blog, which is clever and dishonest. It does not talk of situation in India but gives examples from Soviet Union and South Africa. आग अपने घर में लगी है और आप दूरबीन से इंडोनेशिया के वोल्केनो देख रहें है.( There is fire in your own house, and you are looking at the Indonesian volcanoes through your telescope)
The Scientific Advisor concedes that one or two presentations at Scienc Congress have been preposterous but believes that they receive disproportionate attention in national and global media. If a librarian tells you that 2% books have been lost because of the open shelf system, you say it is ok. But if a headmaster says that 2% boys have to be admitted to the hospital because of beating by the teachers, you cannot dismiss the phenomenon on the ground that percentage is negligible.
Strangely, the Scientific Advisor finds it fascinating, not disturbing but fascinating, that preposterous presentations at the Science Congress are being perceived as having official endorsement. He says that the organizers do not filter the presentations at the Congress. This is untrue. The contents of a Science Congress are the admitted responsibility of the organizers. He further says that the Government does not have any role in the matter. It is true only in a technical sense. If Pseudoscience in Science Congress has emerged as a recent phenomenon, some tidal forces must be at work?
The Advisor says that the Science Congress Association raises funds from its activities and gets only some support from DST. This is factually incorrect. If he had consulted official reports of Science Congress Association duly submitted to Government of India every year, he would not have made such a misleading statement. As already pointed out, as much as 90% of Science Congress Association funds come from the Government as direct grant.
Legally speaking, since the Indian Science Congress Association is deviating from its stated objectives, the Government grant to it can be stopped. When your computer or mobile phone hangs, the first thing you do is to shut it down and restart. In a similar manner, there is need to reboot the Science Congress Association. Also, one would like to see high-profile scientists in their individual capacity and collectively through learned academies raise their voice against pseudoscience.
An aspect of the problem that needs attention from scientists, non-scientists alike as well as society in general is the insult heaped on ancient texts and their authors in the name of finding modern endorsement for isolated passages in them.
Modern science is a powerful knowledge system. But it is only at best 400 years old. During this short period no evolutionary change could have taken place in human brain. Human beings have always been imaginative and creative. Their creative urges finds expression in various ways. Poets, playwrights, and authors devise their own ways to convey their message. A scientist’s universe is very small. Imagination covers much larger territory. A statement should be interpreted not in the in the framework that is extant today but in a framework that prevailed in its own time.
Gandhari is said to have given birth to 101 children, 100 boys and a girl. The Mahabharat tells us that she carried pregnancy for two years after which she delivered a piece of flesh which was as hard as iron. It was irrigated with cold water and split into 100 thumb-sized portions. These portions in turn were placed in pitchers filled with ghee which were carefully kept at secret places. After another two years, each pitcher produced a boy. A small piece of the aborted flesh was still left from which, after a month, a daughter was born. Note that the whole process took four years and did not involve any chemicals other than water and ghee. Surely, a modern biologist would require more complex materials and tools, and much less time.
The description was not written at the time of the experiment but much later when Duryodhan’s credentials as a villain were already well-established. The Mahabharat continues the story: Immediately on birth, he started braying like a donkey whereupon, the ‘other’ donkeys, vultures, jackals and crows in the area also joined the chorus.
People who are finding modern scientific references in old texts have only extremely superficial acquaintance with the contents of Ramayan, Mahabharat, Purans, etc. Very often, we come across the statement: वेदो में लिखा है (It is written in the Vedas). One would like to be told the exact title of the work and the exact reference within the text so that one could check for oneself. Saying वेदो में लिखा है(It is written in the Vedas) is like saying: Some book in the library says this.
For some reason, only sacred texts are handpicked for frivolous interpretations. In Kalidas’ celebrated poem Megh-doot, a cloud is used as a messenger. Nobody has tried to give this a modern scientific twist. In folk songs and film songs, a girl routinely talks to a crow, parrot, cat, moon, river, ocean etc. People accept the song’s creativity and enjoy it. Why then should people ostentatiously committed to ancient Indian glory bring disrepute to it through their thoughtlessness?
False claims about ancient India detract attention from the genuine accomplishments of yesteryears which should be discussed dispassionately with a view to appreciating them in the world context. If colonial historiography belittled ancient Indian achievements, this does not mean that exaggerated claims be made now.
More important than scientific results is the scientific methodology. Ancient India is a genuine and important field of enquiry. This enquiry should be carried out with the same methodology as employed in modern science, that is, with rigour, detachment and open-endedness.