On Indian Science Congress issue: Pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere

The annual Indian Science Congress was held from January 4–7, 2019. It became an issue in news due to the comments made by some scientists at the event claiming that ancient Indians had knowledge of stem cell, test tube babies etc. and that Newton and Einstein are wrong.

Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, Prof. K VijayRaghavan (Prof KVR from now on) responded to the criticism in a blog post. In summary, he made three arguments.

1. The government has no (or little) role in the selection of speakers for the event. The government’s position as reflected in the PM’s speech speaks about the need for enhanced research in state universities and does not contain any such pseudoscientific statements.

2. The speaker who made the remarks can be reported to the Chancellor.

3. We disproportionately focus on the random statements of non-scientists and fill the pseudoscience bin with these. However, the dangerous “gorillas” are outside. These are the ones that cause the greatest harm and these are the ones that we ought to focus on. Prof KVR notes some instances: anti-climate change, anti-vaccination, misinterpretation of genetics etc. In Prof. KVR’s words

“Such views, if not repudiated have a great danger in seeing the revival of eugenics On a more mundane level, many scientists look at where research work is published, to judge its merit rather than what it says, creating an assessment pyramid which has little science in its construct. These are the topics that must be at the centre of the debate on pseudoscience.
….if we (our scientists, in India) hesitate to call our #pseudoscience in these debates we risk endangering our citizens and the planet. By preventing the right thing from being done and by also by doing the wrong thing ‘big’ pseudoscience poses a great danger.”

Prof KVR’s third argument on the different categories of pseudoscience, if we may call it so, is an important one. I would like to elaborate on it disagreeing with the view that we should focus more on one category than the other.

For the sake of this discussion, we can say that broadly, there are two kinds of pseudoscience. The first is where, in Prof KVR’s words, “lay people, including politicians, make random untenable statements linking religion, culture, the past etc. to science in an erroneous manner”. Let’s call this Type-I pseudoscience. These are the so-called benign ones as they do not cause any concrete harm in the present.

The second category of pseudoscience constitutes pseudoscientific opinions, especially of policymakers and sometimes even scientists, on aspects like climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence, genetics etc. Let’s call this as Type-II pseudoscience. This category of pseudoscience has concrete disastrous effects on society and the economy. For instance, the anti-vaccination narrative makes people prone to diseases causing death.

Prof. KVR’s argument is that Type-I pseudoscience is benign and can be addressed with “collegial communication” whereas Type-II pseudoscience can cause serious harm and hence ought to be the primary focus.

I respectfully disagree with this argument that delinks the Type-I and Type-II pseudoscience.

The essential tool to counter pseudoscience of any type is an informed citizenry with the scientific temper. While the Type-I pseudoscience may not cause concrete harm immediately, its harmful effect arises from the fact that it nurtures a mindset in people, a mindset that it is ok to believe something without evidence, a mindset that privileges emotion over reason. In short, the so-called benign pseudoscience makes citizenry scientifically stunted. The harmful Type-II pseudoscience cannot be fought with such scientifically stunted citizenry. Hence, it is as important to counter the Type-I pseudoscience, as it is to counter the Type-II pseudoscience.

Unfortunately, the necessity to counter the Type-I pseudoscience, the so-called benign ones and its link to countering Type-II pseudoscience are not well understood. The argument to look over the so-called benign pseudoscience is not uncommon. Recently, in a workshop on science communication held at IMSc Chennai, one of the panellists, head of a famous research institute remarked something to the effect of “If people want to believe in astrology, let them be. Though the claims are not true, it’s not causing any harm to others” (paraphrased). This statement again reflects the view that it’s okay to hold some types of pseudoscientific beliefs as they are harmless in a larger sense, at least relatively, as compared to the harmful ones like vaccination. Hence, we should let them be!

This is a grave mistake. We must note that pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere. A citizenry that believes in astrology, without having any evidence to support it, is equally susceptible to any other pseudoscientific claim made without evidence. We can’t expect scientific temper to suddenly spring up in such people and not fall prey to Type-II pseudoscience, the harmful ones. When the evidence-based reasoning, more broadly the scientific temper, itself is absent among citizenry, we can’t expect to counter the Type-II pseudoscience either.

Thus, to fight Type-II pseudoscience, it is equally important to Type-I pseudoscience, the kind that prepares the ground for Type-II pseudoscience. We can’t afford to privilege the fight against one type of pseudoscience over the other because they are deeply interlinked.

In summary, In summary, pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere. The harmful effect of benign pseudoscience may not be manifested in concrete harm to society and economy but it causes harm in the sense that it nurtures a mindset in people that makes them susceptible to harmful pseudoscience. Once people have a mindset that it is okay to believe something without evidence, it is hard to educate them and build a movement against harmful pseudoscience like anti-vaccination, anti-climate change etc. Thus, the fight against harmful pseudoscience should include the fight against the seemingly benign pseudoscience too.