To paraphrase Daniel Moynihan: People are entitled to their opinions. What they’re not entitled to, are their own facts. What might seem intuitive, has been a historical and ongoing debate dominated by the powerful and irrational, or the numerous and irrational.
Pedantic and privileged living-room discussions aside, unbridled and institutionalized irrationality, or a complacency in addressing it, has very real repercussions, particularly in a religiously diverse country like India, in which demographic complexities intersect to have consequences on all ages, gender, class and castes and sexual orientations, to interact and manifest uniquely.
Despite its legitimization by organized religions, unscientific thinking certainly isn’t limited to them. Pseudoscience runs rampant, borrowing from the intellectual credibility of science without the rigorous checks and criteria of the scientific method.
In the interest of objectivity in critiquing pseudo-scientific literature, it becomes imperative to discern between false science and erroneous science. Science as a discipline is inherently self-correcting; invalidating and falsifying unsubstantiated hypotheses till we can allude to the truth. Even so, it never claims to know the truth, only that assertions are probable and demonstrable. Evidence, prediction, falsifiability and replicability are key to making scientific claims. Hence errors, too, are key to empirical success. Objectively reporting and reviewing findings are processes of laying bare your work for the scrutiny of others, to further advance or disprove, in the interest of knowledge. Pseudoscience, however, is simply an exercise in intellectual dishonestly. In pseudoscience, “hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.” (Sagan 1997)
Consistent with Sagan’s assertions of conspiracy-criers, Naturopaths, Homeopaths and other charlatans have routinely conflated pseudoscience and politics, accusing dissenters of having vested interests and incriminating everything from “big pharma”, western culture, foreign businesses etc. of being anti-religionist, anti-India or being driven by political motives. Their appropriation and exploitation of feelings of national pride and moral righteousness aid the politicization of the pseudoscientific agenda, misdirecting from actual social issues and discrediting good science in the process.
Polarization of ideologies and political sanctioning of proponents of uncritical thinking in India (and Bangladesh) has lately aggravated to religious vigilantism where dissenting and rational voices are being silenced. There is much to be said about the juxtaposition of (organized) religion and morality, when outright murder is seen simply as a means to an end, but god continues to be peddled as benevolent and all-forgiving, often to the highest bidder, while conveniently ostracizing others. Needless to say, religion has outlived its didactic utility.
The pervasiveness of dogmatic thinking is apparent in most social institutions in India, whether they are legal, educational, scientific, medical, governmental or defence. For instance, political and religious backing has led to homeopathy colleges affiliated to medical institutions, where referrals for the treatment of cancer are given, purported as being effective and ‘popular’; likely due to it being marketed as having no side-effects (or any effect, for that matter) as compared to chemotherapy.
Similarly, there have been calls for funding research to attest the validity of the ‘scientific claims’ in scriptures and mythological epics, but these are less motivated by skeptical inquiry than by seeking validation for claims made in religious mythological texts.
This is not to say that there have never been scientific advancements recorded in ancient Indian texts. But our fallacious claims to scientific glory betray more than simply a lack of understanding of how science works. It hints at an insecurity that requires constant validation at the expense of good science, and an aggressive patronage to defend a legacy that doesn’t exist. Conversely, there is humility in figuring things out, and realizing that we weren’t the first to have the same ideas. The advancement of good science, apart from having tangible benefits in medicine, longevity, agricultural production etc., is also a unifier of ideas and people. We need not look to divinity and superstition to find wonder in the world.