Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Some people, especially in this part of the world, are so obsessed with science that they use it for everything they do including pushing their views through (pseudo) 'scientific' explanations. Some do it out of respect and trust too! Others do it to attract people and give strength to their weak arguments. People are trying to give their ideas, views, opinions, agendas a scientific twist and as a result , pseudo-science is developing parallel to the real science here in India.
The big difference between science and pseudo-science is a difference in approach. While a pseudo-science is set up to look for evidence that supports its claims, a science is set up to challenge its claims and look for evidence that might prove it false. In other words, pseudo-science seeks confirmations and science seeks falsifications (3). Scientific claims are falsifiable -- that is, they are claims where you could set out what observable outcomes would be impossible if the claim were true -- while pseudo-scientific claims fit with any imaginable set of observable outcomes. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudo-scientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not.
The important difference seems to be in which approach gives better logical justification for knowledge claims. A pseudo-science may make you feel like you've got a good picture of how the world works, but you could well be wrong about it. If a scientific picture of the world is wrong, that hard-headed scientific attitude means the chances are good that we'll find out we're wrong and switch to a different picture. Science discards it if some idea or theory was found wrong. The scientific attitude is aimed at locating and removing the false claims -- something that doesn't happen in pseudo-sciences.
Also real science is a very slow process because, scientists have to prove their work is right all the way to the last bit unlike people who deal with irrationality and need not provide evidence for any of their silly beliefs and logic. They just go ahead merrily preaching their views in the name of science in attractive ways as if they are absolute truths in much less time and unfortunately they stick with people.
I came across some strange things several times in the media especially on the internet people cleverly pushing their fixed beliefs and thoughts with the aid of outside evidence of "scientific research data" and "references". Some cherry pick only the data that suits their arguments without showing the full picture and propagate false ideas (2). They sometimes "twist the data" to provide proof to their beliefs! Some do it for commercial purposes too. They smartly and selectively give references to the scientific explanations and don't give details how their beliefs and ideas can be supported by the scientific data. If we are not careful, even people like us who are trained in science might fall victims to these pseudo-science (or anti-science) theories. I can imagine how the man on the street without any scientific base can easily fall pray to this false propaganda in the name of science. I will give an example. One of my friends read somewhere about the health benefits of magnetic belts. So she started wearing them on her arms. She even showed me the article in which it was argued that the magnetic waves from the arm band traveled through the human body and reached the vital parts of the body -especially the brain - and gave relief from certain ailments and with full scientific evidence and references. If we read the article we would think all that is true.
But I watched a programme on Discovery science in which it was shown (with experiments conducted before my own eyes) that these magnetic waves from the arm belts were so weak, they couldn't even penetrate human skin leave alone having health benefits or curing the diseases! Had I not seen the programme on Discovery Science, even I would have believed what the article my friend showed me said! It was so cleverly written with all the scientific data fully supporting the magnetic wave cure! One should be very alert to these "full-proof pseudo-science stories".
Did my friend get any health benefits because of wearing magnetic belts? The moment you came across the word 'pseudo-science' in my article, you might have guessed that the answer would be a 'no'! Yes, your guessing is right - it is a big NO!
Several people say- with several conflicting reports on scientific research they come into contact everyday through media, they will be in a state of confusion and don't know which ones to believe and which ones to ignore. "What is the way out?" - they ask me.
Yes, I agree, there is a chance of vested interests "influencing" the research outcomes by manipulating the data. So we get conflicting data from different sources - some true ones and some manipulated ones confusing the people more.
Moreover, some researchers don't take all the factors into account while conducting studies. Resolution in the form of reasoning gives "clarity" to science as the field demands clarity. In order to get it you have to consider and take into account several things that might effect the result of an experiment. Otherwise the results of scientific research becomes cloudy. An example here will help understand how this happens. I read an article in one prestigious science journal about research on lie detection which showed how forensic scientists should go about detecting lies. One of the important points mentioned there was on "establishing eye contact". The paper says if a person is unable to look directly into the eyes of an investigation officer, it suggests that the person is lying and is hiding something therefore can be considered as "suspect". I pointed out that the research was flawed as it was not fine-tuned to all the possible truths. I told the researchers - in my part of the world the culture tells women not to look directly into the eyes of men who are strangers as it is considered as bad manners. So if we go to some other part of the world and there if we are being investigated for some crime we haven't committed, and our minds that are conditioned by our cultures don't allow us to look directly into the eyes of a male investigating officer, does that mean we are lying and therefore can be treated as suspects? In the research work done by the forensic scientists the aspect of cultural conditioning of the mind was not taken into account. Therefore the work is not of "high resolution quality" and flawed. That is why peer - reviewing of scientific research is important in pointing out these flaws. It acts as high resolution instrument where all the aspects of your work will be put under a microscope, details will be thoroughly searched - especially for the flaws, tells you whether you are correct or not, whether you followed all the rules or not and ask you to correct yourself if your work is flawed. Here the criticism is based on facts and rules. Therefore in science you should have clarity (of high quality) of what you are doing. In order to get it your thoughts must be tuned to high resolution to get all the details correctly.
And when you take one or two aspects to study, their influence on something in lab conditions, the results cannot be treated as full proof as they might vary in natural conditions where several things might influence each aspect. Therefore the evidence obtained in lab conditions is incomplete because the complexity of different factors governing a phenomenon is ignored here! In such cases, the results will not show the full picture and therefore become faulty! Testing under various natural conditions, therefore, is very important in scientific research.
And some vested interests who have completely closed minds propagate anti-science theories. They fear if science becomes popular, they will lose their jobs. Also a scientifically educated mind will never come under the influence of people who try to hoodwink people in the name of beliefs, baseless theories and superstitions. Rejection of evolutionary theory is one such thing (ref 1) . There is a mission to try to completely remove scientific theories like Evolution from school curricula altogether! We will have to be careful in identifying the dramas played by these anti-science institutions.
When asked the question, "What is the most widely accepted pseudo-science?" , several scientists said these interesting things in a survey:
* 'Science' explaining traditional and cultural rituals.
So how can we identify the pseudo-stuff?
Intellectuals don't believe everything they read or hear. They don't accept the face value of a theory! They give a thorough thought to everything that comes to their notice using logic, rationale and reasoning power. They take each individual case and study it analysing each and every point given as reference or proof and how they relate to the case using their grey matter and try to find out if there is any truth in it or not. Just believing in any scientific theory is just a description about you. It’s not an account of how you reason. Studying, understanding the data, neutrally and critically thinking about what you come across, tallying it with natural laws, then accepting what makes sense is what makes you a real person of science.
If common people cannot understand scientific theories, they can take the help of experts who can do this for them - like my sister does - she always consults me whenever she comes in contact with such stories. An intelligent person after listening to or reading interesting stories, doesn't come under their influence immediately. S/he gives it a thorough thought . S/he dissects it taking each and every point into consideration, finds out the truth and falseness aspects of them using his/her analytical abilities. Then depending on the evaluation, s/he decides whether to accept the stories or reject them. Following the routes that are taken by intellectuals is the only way to protect yourself from not falling into the traps laid by the pseudo-science promoters!
The very first thing to do is to check the source of a claim. Was it published? If it was, where? If it’s in a news article, does the article give a citation to a reputable journal? Then it’s probably reasonable to accept it - at least for your purposes…you’ll likely need more than a lay person’s education to distinguish between scientific articles after they’re published. Why a journal? Scientific journals are peer-reviewed, a process based on the simple idea that only experts are qualified to evaluate the work of other experts. Peer review is a pretty high standard, though it can’t always detect deliberate deception. Deception that makes it through peer review can often be identified when other researchers try to replicate or build upon the results of a scientist’s published work. Therefore, it is not easy to fool experts on the subject. Books are tricky, because you can’t tell which are peer reviewed and which aren’t. Like blogs, people can publish anything they want in a non-peer-reviewed book. Be very, very skeptical when someone cites a book as their source for a finding.
Journalists, even some who specialize in science reporting, get things wrong much more frequently than you might think. So if a news source reports a science finding that you are really interested in, it can be worth checking the journal article they’re basing the report on. Or, alternatively, read several different news reports about the same story. See if they differ, and how. Because these days even the journalists are not neutral. They are sometimes associated with religious groups, commercial organizations, political parties, and several other vested interests. Therefore they might try to 'influence' people with pseudo-scientific stories.
Science is based on the philosophy that there are natural explanations for natural phenomena. Any non-natural explanations ( magic, “energy”, ghosts, anything that violates the laws of physics) are by definition non-scientific.
Personal experiences don’t count for the purposes of scientific research. People are flawed, however well-intentioned. Their observations of the world can be distorted by incomplete information and their personal biases. A single person’s testimony isn’t useful for scientific knowledge, which requires reproducibility. If people claim that they have done 'research and studies' on the products they are promoting or selling, ask them whether they have published their work in peer reviewed journals and if they have, to give references to their papers. Then, read them, ask tough questions to identify the facts and differentiate them from half-truths.
Scientific discoveries are progressive, building upon a history of tested and accepted or rejected ideas and experiments. Generally, the most recent discoveries are the most useful because of this process. With pseudoscience, however, the opposite is true: the oldest findings are considered the most valuable, and “lost” knowledge is revered more than research published yesterday. Ancient knowledge was built on the conditions and information processing available then which was very limited both in terms of quantity and quality. It was untested too. Therefore, it need not be correct always.
Keeping these things in mind would definitely help you in identifying real science form pseudo-science. "Cautious approach" is better than getting deceived or cheated by 'pseudo-scientists'.
Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance - G.B. Shaw
My art work based on the theme of this article:
Copyright 2012 Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa.
Dr. Challa's poem on pseudo-science:
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
STEM Learning vs. Pseudo Science
Making direct eye contact - this one was difficult for me but I got better at it. I spent so much of my youth bowing down to elders and revering them. You knew your place and elders are held in such high esteem and regard - think of how much life and wisdom they have! It was unimaginable to directly look at an elder in the eye - so startling and confronting! I shudder at the very behavior even though I am more "elder" ranking now - still there will always be someone older than you. Anyhow - juxtapose this "norm" to what is expected in the US - direct respectful eye contact.
In India, pseudo-science is highly prevalent. We trust in science so much that we give a scientific twist to everything Indian. Some areas of Ayurveda too are misleading . For example some Ayurvedic medicines -those with Bhasmas -have high contents of lead and other toxic metals. Some contain steroids that are harmful when taken over a long periods. Ayurveda is an untested field. Some of the Ayurvedic medicines are banned in the West because of this.
I love my country and respect its ancient culture and traditions. But that doesn't make me accept everything they say. As a person of science, I can differentiate between science and the pseudoscience embedded here. I wrote an article sometime back on this. You can read it here:
You can read several of these on my network.
And why don't scientists here speak out? Scientists think they have better things to do than listening to politicians and react to all the silly things they say. But science communication is important too.
Imagination without knowledge is like having only wings and no feet. What will your work or words stand on then? Absurdity! In one of my articles on science communication I wrote - it would be better if people don't talk or write about science if they don't know enough of it. And I asked them to just listen and read about what the experts have to say.
But here everybody has an opinion about science. In science, only facts and data counts. Your beliefs, opinions, emotions, and affiliations don't. if we keep reacting to all the silly things people keep saying based on the latter set of things, we don't get time to do our work. That is why scientists ignore these things. And science communicators will deal with them.
Letter: Pseudo-Science Only Misinforms Us
To the Editor:
Bjorn Lomborg continues to spew the noxious gas he is most widely known for — disinformation (“Warmer, But Not Necessarily More Extreme,” Sept. 17). He is cherry-picking the data and using the devices he is railing against to defend his own arguments.
Facts are, if you look at land, sea and air temperatures in aggregate, global temperatures are continuing to rise as predicted with carbon dioxide levels. As we have all learned with statistics, if you cherry-pick the data, you can support any argument you want. But looking at the entire data set (not cherry-picking), it is clear that:
∎ The world is warming.
∎ Carbon dioxide emissions and their equivalents released by the activities of humans are causing the warming.
∎ Weather, in general, is getting wilder as a result. (Example: the 1,000-plus-year rain in Colorado. Example two: two 50-year storms locally this summer.)
The Valley News can find many sources of helpful news to report and inform us, but quoting widely discredited pseudo-scientists is not in the public interest or a public service. It is time for the Valley News to step up, understand the issue, and present a fair and balanced view of the facts and solutions, not pseudo-experts spouting doubt to make us delay action until the fossil industries have wrung every penny, and every ounce of hope and opportunity, from us. Opposing information is fine, but opposing obfuscation has no place in journalism in the Upper Valley. The Valley News can do a real public service by presenting and debating options for moving toward the low-carbon future that we need, and that will power our economy forward in the future.
Adding social perceptivity to the art of illusion
Spectators watched with bated breath when magician Rajeev Memunda dipped his hand in boiling oil with an enigmatic smile.
The applause was thunderous when he showed his unhurt hand. Rajeev was performing at the programme ‘Divyatbudha Anavaranam’ held at Vadakara recently.
Exploring the art and science of magic, magician Rajeev Memunda has been unfolding the secrets of prevailing superstitions in society for the past 23 years.
“Manual dexterity and attention to details are required to be a successful magician,” says Rajeev.
“I explain the secret of magic to viewers with an aim to save them from godmen,” he says.
On the secret of the boiling oil magic, he says, “Before boiling oil, I pour lime juice in the pot, which helps to create a notion among the public that the oil is boiling even at 40 degree Celsius, but oil starts boiling only at 140 degree Celsius,” he chuckles.
Rajeev uses tricks that underscore the need to be a rational man in the present society. “Contrary to the popular belief, literate persons are superstitious,” he says. “I have had several experiences substantiating my views.”
I know a Hindu priest here. He was one of our earlier tenants. He is a total illiterate. Can't even read ABCDs. But learned a few mantras ( in Sanskrit) by heart and keep repeating them where ever he goes. Now he is a priest in a famous temple here and earning more than some postgraduates here do! But he spreads superstitions and false beliefs like hell. Several times I tried to put sense into his head. He agrees I am right and he is wrong. But says, he will lose his job without doing what he does! Unable to cope with my lecturing, and with the fear that he would change because of it, he left our house and took another one! He disappeared from the scene!
I just read a quote by a religious guru here: "All beliefs will crash somewhere. Only reality will sustain itself!" So don't lose faith.
Pseudoscientific practices and unfounded scare stories pull back South Asian nations from progress, says Nalaka Gunawardene.
Keeping Modern Myths And Conspiracy Theories At Bay
Modern myths are undermining the quest to achieve a better quality of life for 1.6 billion people in South Asian countries. They add a new layer of complexity in a region already under pressure from poverty, conflicts and disparities.
Fewer South Asians today believe in ghosts, spirits and other traditional ‘demons’ that frightened their ancestors. However, some new fears have emerged to fill that void.
These ‘twenty-first century demons’ come in various shapes and forms. They include half truths, misconceptions, complete fallacies and assorted conspiracy theories.
Increasingly such ‘demons’ come in the garb of pseudoscience: fanciful claims are presented as seemingly ‘technical’ or as part of ‘scientific dissent’. They exploit the benefit of the doubt. But careful probing shows most have no evidence base, and lack the rigor and self-correction processes inherent in real science.
Yet, they spread fast, playing on insular and insecure minds and often thriving on low levels of public trust in authority. Uncritical and sensationalist media coverage often adds momentum.
Some fallacies are relatively harmless. But others can spread fear, reverse public health gains, and lead to policy paralysis. Health related ones are among the most persistent — and probably the most damaging to individuals and society.
Consider the many scare stories on chemical, nuclear and genetic topics circulating in South Asia’s mainstream media and social media. It is easy to invoke fears of cancer, and even the remotest (perceived) threat to human fertility causes panic.
Take, for example, global efforts to eradicate polio. In early 2014, India completed three years without having a single case of wild poliovirus infection. It is one of the biggest public health success stories in recent years.
India’s anti-polio campaign is rightfully hailed as a model. Yet, the ‘the last mile’ in states like Uttar Pradesh proved particularly difficult on the basis of religious beliefs, social class or the caste system. Persistence by the country’s public health officials finally paid off. But it reminds us that in infectious disease control, any system is as strong as its weakest link.
India’s lessons are invaluable for Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, the only three countries that remained polio-endemic by 2013. One key learning: eradication success depends on a clear understanding of each country’s context.
As a group of public health specialists noted in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization in 2009: “There is no vaccine against resistance or refusals that are rooted in social-cultural, religious and political contexts… Medical approaches alone cannot address certain community concerns.”
Tribalism, extremism and modern myths combine to hamper Pakistan’s anti-polio efforts. The Taliban has killed more than 15 polio workers during the past two years. Courageous public health workers also have to counter rumors that vaccination is an attempt by government ‘to sterilize Muslims’. This belief is especially high in the country’s northwest and border regions — where wild poliovirus is still found.
Fears of an ‘infertility plot’ have also prompted nearly a third of Pakistani households to avoid using iodized salt. With half the population (equal to 100 million) suffering from iodine deficiencies, this increases the risk of goitre, mental retardation, birth defects and other developmental problems.
Pakistan’s experience illustrates how even the educated middle class can uncritically accept modern myths.
As Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistani physicist and public intellectual, has noted: “Quack science does not just cost money. It also confuses people, engages them in bizarre conspiracy theories, and decreases society’s collective ability to make sensible decisions.”
India and Pakistan are not alone in this affliction. Across South Asia, peddlers of miracle healing and magical cancer cures openly promote their quick fixes on public television and online. Celebrities and politicians patronize such services, exasperating medical and public health professionals.
Well-meaning activists — viewing problems through a narrow ideological lens — can add to the corpus of dangerous myths. Some years ago a Lankan advocacy group promoting indigenous knowledge questioned the practice of disposable injection needles to guard against HIV. They saw it simply as a ruse by pharmaceutical industry to sell more.
More recently, radical environmental groups in Sri Lanka have accused multinational companies of attempting to ‘poison the nation’ through chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Market manipulations and corrupt practices undoubtedly exist. Current development models are imperfect, and their pros and cons must be debated. But all-or-nothing positions do not help. In public health, careless rhetoric can lead to hasty policies that cost lives.
Those trained in empirical sciences should study the cultural and societal context in which myths and pseudoscience thrive. Public perceptions matter as they shape individual and group behavior, which in turn influences policy choices.
American astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan (1934—1996) used to argue that a healthy dose of skepticism could keep most ‘demons’ at bay while some deep-rooted ones require more systematic investigation.
Higher levels of literacy and education are not, by themselves, sufficient safeguards. In their 2012 book Ganesha on the Dashboard, V Raghunathan and M A Eswaran probed how, despite being educated, smart and tech-savvy, “Indians can be surprisingly unscientific in their daily lives”.
As they noted, “Our refusal to see our lack of scientific temper as a serious issue inhibiting our development as a society is perhaps a South Asian trait, and not just an Indian one.”
Managing demons — old and new — thus becomes part of our development challenge.
Mysteries Explored: Shocking science behind Hindu traditions
During World War II, residents on the islands in the southern Pacific Ocean saw heavy activity by US planes, bringing in goods and supplies for the soldiers. In many cases, this was the islanders' first exposure to 20th century goods and technology.
After the war, when the cargo shipments stopped, some of the islanders built imitation air-strips. These incorporated wooden control towers, bamboo radio antennae, and fire torches instead of landing-lights. They apparently believed that that this would attract more US planes and their precious cargo.
This behaviour, it turns out, is not a singular occurrence. Anthropologists have found examples of similar behaviour at different times in history, albeit in island populations. In a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, the physicist Richard Feynman used the concept to coin the phrase “cargo-cult science”.
The cargo cult’s air-strips had the appearance of the real thing, but they were not functional. Likewise, Feynman used the term “cargo-cult science” to mean something that has the appearance of science, but is actually missing key elements.
The phrase has since been used to refer to various pseudo-scientific fields such as phrenology, neuro-linguistic programming, and the various kinds of alternative therapies. Practitioners of these disciplines may use scientific terms, and may even perform research, but their thinking and conclusions are nonetheless fundamentally scientifically flawed.