Saturday, March 12, 2011

Science and Pseudoscience! Sense and Nonsense!!

About two thousand seven hundred years back, the Greeks started the scientific revolution. We know the names of the leaders - Thales, Pythagorus, Euclid, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Archimedes.. It is a magnificent list and their achievements still evoke amazement. In spite of phenomenal progress, the civilization died out. I wonder why?. The Roman civilization that followed admired the Greeks but never understood science. They created a great war machine and conquered most of the known world. In a few hundred years, this one also died out. The reasons for this decline are more well understood. Europe entered the ‘Dark ages’ and then the ‘Middle ages’. The only positive spark for human progress for the next thousand years was the Islamic civilization. They built on the Greek foundation, translating the latin books into arabic and making some progress in mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The European Renaissance then took over and changed everything. We are not sure what triggered it - but that laid the foundation for the Western Civilization as we know it today. The corner stone of this civilization is Science & Technology. The progress we have made as a species in the last few hundred years is demonstrated by the fact that there are 7 billion of us living in this small planet and threatening the very viability of our fragile ecosystem.

We now know where we came from and our position in the Universe. We know how we evolved from the bacteria and we are even able to read our source code by sequencing our DNA. We have the power to destroy the earth dramatically in a few minutes or lethargically over a few decades. The progress of science in the last hundred years have been so dramatic and that only a small minority of the population understand the science underlying the technologies that we use in our daily lives. At the same time despite the progress that we seem to have made, to the individual the uncertainties of life do not seem to have diminished. One still can die or suffer a serious injury at any moment due to a disease, accident or calamity; the rich seem to be getting richer and the gap between the rich and poor is increasing. There is a feeling that our economic and social security, and the ‘right to happiness’ is threatened daily.

So maybe it is not that surprising to see many people go back to ‘faith’ and ‘blind belief’ which seems to be a better solution than trying to make sense of all this ‘progress’ that science seems to have brought us. In my home country India this can be seen by the rapid growth of the God men (and god women) and their cults as well increased interest in traditional religious rituals. In my temporary home of the U.S, we can see the revival of Christian fundamentalism, renewed belief in creationism (or Intelligent Design) and similar beliefs. However many argue that even if these beliefs are wrong, there is no major harm being done - if a belief gives one some relief, Why not?

But the growth of pseudoscience is a stark testimony to the fact that blind beliefs can create more harm than is immediately obvious. Let me refer a couple of excellent books that highlight the problems and the damages that it causes to society. ‘Nonsense on Stilts’ by Massimo Pigliucci explains how you can to differentiate ‘Science from Bunk’. He looks closely at science is conducted, disseminated, interpreted and what it means to our society. The book is not an easy read and you will need to put some effort to follow the author’s line of thought. An easier book to read on the same subject is ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. It is a funny and biting book and targets homeopathy as well as modern nutritionists with miracle vitamin pills. Both books highlight the damage the media and ‘so called experts’ do in spreading false information for short term gains or fame. In the U.S and UK, people refusing to vaccinate children, creationists dismissing Darwin’s theory of evolution, while in India hundreds of thousand of women lining up to conduct Pooja in a temple, the educated software engineer waiting for the ‘auspicious date and time’ (I wonder IST or PST or EST) to join his new job, the politician alleging that his opponent is practicing ‘voodo’ on him and approaching the latest god man for advise - these are symptoms of a major problem and the results of blind belief.

In the next few decades as we combat global warming as well as energy shortage and try to meet the increased expectations of the (soon to be) 9 billion humans, our very survival will depend on the public’s ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience and act accordingly. Let us hope that we succeed.

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