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An Indian science conference featured pseudoscience. Why does this keep happening?

prasad1

Well-known member
A couple of weeks ago, the Indian Science Congress, a century-old gathering of scientists, made news for all the wrong reasons. In keeping with a long-standing tradition of featuring headline-generating statements, one speaker at the conference claimed that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were wrong about physics. Another researcher argued that ancient Indians had discovered stem-cell research centuries ago, because a character in a well-known myth supposedly gave birth to 100 sons.

These stories earned ridicule and censure, but they weren’t unusual for the event. The government officials who open the conference have a long and illustrious history of making ridiculous or jingoistic claims on stage. Last year, a union minister said Stephen Hawking had claimed ancient Vedic texts contained a theory superior to Einstein’s theory of relativity, a statement I traced to an Indian-run Hawking fan page on Facebook. Speakers have even claimed that the ancient texts contain evidence of advanced interplanetary aircraft and that cows carry bacteria that turn everything they consume to gold. The two speakers at this year’s event were part of a larger trend.
This controversy is a classic example of the complex and contradictory nature of science in India. Though there is little outright denial of science, science often exists hand-in-hand with confirmation bias. This is especially propagated by the far right, where anything inherently Indian is stamped with approval to instill pride in ancient India. This happens in regular political discourse and even permeates scientific conversations — as it did at the conference.

This nonsense needs to be called out. The deeper reach of the Internet in India and the availability of tools such as WhatsApp have enabled the rampant spread of misinformation. These statements also diminish the growing reputation of Indian research and tarnish efforts to decolonize science and extract actual historic knowledge from ancient texts.

 

prasad1

Well-known member
The entire saga gives rise to a question first brought up by the former director of the Indian Institute of Science, P. Balaram, who criticized the event in a 2012 Current Science editorial: “Does the Congress contribute in any way to the ‘shaping of science in India’?”

The general consensus among Indian scientists seems to lean toward no. Well-known scientists and Indian patrons barely participated in the Congress despite the inclusion of three Nobel laureates this year: Duncan Haldane, Thomas Südhof and Avram Hershko. Several scientists have actively distanced themselves from it; Nobel Prize-winning biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan once called it a “circus.”

The organizers of the conference must confront two questions: First, why are the talks not screened and the selection process for speakers not transparent? The public doesn’t know how or why scientists are invited or selected. The speaker who criticized Einstein claims on LinkedIn that he has discovered 35 new physics concepts, including black holes, electricity and an “anti-god particle.” Anyone with a basic understanding of science would need only to look at his profile for two seconds before deciding he probably shouldn’t speak at a scientific event.

Second, and more importantly, why does the Indian Science Congress still exist? The event has had a tainted history of at least one unfiltered pseudoscientific claim each year. The quality of the conference never seems to improve, and there seems to be no real audience that cares for the content. The association doesn’t seem to have learned from the past or doesn’t care, both of which are counterproductive for scientific progress.

The Indian Science Congress is obsolete. It needs to change or go.

Word has it that the 2020 Congress might be different. Some are hopeful, while others scoff. But thus far, the conference has stood in stark contrast with big strides India is making to become a global powerhouse in medicine and science. Now, as in every year, it is imperative to ask ourselves why we give power to this insignificant event to define the legacy of Indian science, especially on a global stage.

 

prasad1

Well-known member
Even though it is difficult to exactly define pseudoscience, any claim which is not fully supported by strong scientific evidence will qualify as pseudoscience. While the demarcating line between science and pseudoscience may appear blurred sometimes, it still exists. By this, I am in no way justifying the unscientific claims made by few Indian academicians in the recent past, which have stirred controversy. At the same time, what was considered a myth and impossible a few decades back is now rapidly becoming reality due to the power of science and technology.

Let me give an example from our own Indian mythology. In the popular story of Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura, a demon by name Rakthabeeja (Raktha – blood; Beeja – seed) plays a prominent role. The unique feature of this demon is that every drop of blood which falls from his body gives rise to a new demon. So, when I gave a popular science talk for undergraduate students in a college, I used this analogy to explain cloning, which was appreciated by the audience who were familiar with the story. Again, I used it only as an analogy. An analogy is an example to explain a complex concept in familiar terms – it is never meant to be taken literally. An analogy can be an excellent tool to explain a scientific fact to a lay person, but it can never be treated as a scientific fact per se.

Using analogies to explain science is not new and has always been an integral part of pedagogy. I still feel that the story of Rakthabeeja was a novel concept which somebody from India came up with many centuries back. Even though the technicality of cloning is way different from the process of a new demon springing out from a blood drop, the concept which I wanted to highlight was identical genetic constitution, which the students understood with the help of the analogy. I feel it is well within the premises of science to use such an analogy while teaching. But had I said that “Indians were the first to experiment with human cloning,” then it would be absolutely unscientific and would qualify as pseudoscience.

The utility of analogies in explaining scientific concepts depends upon the audience and forum. In popular science talks which are conducted to reach out to the wider society, analogies can be very useful for describing unfamiliar scientific phenomenon to the common man. In a classroom scenario where a teacher has to explain complex scientific concepts, analogies become powerful pedagogy tools. But these analogies are of less utility in scientific conferences, workshops, symposiums and seminars where both the speaker and the audience are from the scientific fraternity.


 

prasad1

Well-known member
Another popular analogy which created a stir in the recent past is the pushpakaviman. Certain stories from Indian mythology mention a spaceship (pushpakaviman) which celestial nymphs use for their air travel. It is yet another fascinating concept, which also finds mentions in other mythologies (outside India), though of course with variations. So here, even the concept cannot be claimed to be of purely Indian origin. That being said, claiming that Indians were the first to invent aeroplanes is plain pseudoscience.

There is a difference between an idea and a claim. An idea is a concept which can lead to a hypothesis. But the hypothesis must be tested rigorously to become a theory or a claim. Anybody can come up with an idea or a concept, but rigorous scientific testing is required to prove the validity of the said idea and that is where the ‘lakshmanrekha’ of science lies. Falsifiability of an idea (i.e. we should be able to come up with an experiment which can potentially prove that the idea is false) is one of these tests and most pseudoscientific claims lack this criterion of falsifiability.

Coming back to this idea of analogies and claims, using analogies has its own advantages and disadvantages. First, it is the easiest way to reach out to a wide audience. Since we are in an era where the importance of dissemination of scientific knowledge to the common man is beginning to be appreciated, analogies serve as powerful tools for scientific dissemination. It is an easy method to induce enthusiasm in school children, which is the need of the hour.

However, when analogies become claims, then they simply nurture our false ego and pseudo-patriotism. This also puts us in a poor light in the international scientific arena. There is a sizeable number of Indian scientists working abroad, and incidents like these where pseudoscientific claims enter the national conversation, percolate to these academic circles as well. In a recent interview, Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan calls this a manifestation of colonial inferiority complex, which we need to come out from. For Indian scientists working in India, the situation can be worse. It can demotivate a good scientist and can even motivate a bad scientist to do pseudo-research, which lacks scientific validity.

Allowing scientific platforms to promote and propagate pseudoscience can have debilitating consequences for Indian science in the long run. Scientists and educators who fall prey to this kind of pseudoscience can even propagate it by training their students who become the torch-bearers of pseudoscience in generations to come. Further, these pseudoscientific claims also belittle and camouflage the true contributions of both ancient and modern Indian scientists, the latter of which include the likes of C.V.Raman, S.Chandrasekhar, J.C.Bose, S.N.Bose, G.N.Ramachandran, Hargobind Khorana, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan etc.

 
What we see nowadays is that many scientists think that their prime qualification is to be anti- religion. Many scientists forget that the basic meaning of science is constant impartial inquiry and questioning. Moreover no concepts are permanent. For eg. take the eg of atom. From being static to moving electrons around nucleus and thereafter when some one questioned about from where it gets energy to move, a neat theory of static state, exited state etc backed with mathematical calculations evolved. Even now the theories are changing and no explanation is perfect. Hence when we hear of Pushpaka Vimana in Ramayana, we must inquire with scientic bent of mind and even if its un-real the shear concept of flight that too in those medieval days is amazing. Also Kunti giving bith to hundred sons through ears must be inquired in depth instead of outright rejection. Not only concept of pregnancy but birthing by means other than womb must be explored.
 

sansubr

New member
On what basis does OP referring to Washington Post, which is foreign in nature, call our sciences as pseudo-science? 50 years ago, they didn't understand Yoga or meditation. Today, they are using their so called modern science to understand the benefits of Yoga and Meditation which has already been outlined by Patanjali and the Vedas. Both Yoga and Meditation was referred to Occult practices.

My humble request to the OP. As a Brahmin, you are not only a keeper of knowledge, but also responsible to propagate it. If you are using foreign sources to belittle ancient Bharat's achievements, you are still intellectually colonized.

Please realize that the Atomic theory was propounded by Maharishi Kanad - not Einstein.
Sanskrit already had 4 synonyms for Gravity before Newton supposedly "discovered" it.
Our ancestors already knew Earth was round before Europe could use their "modern science" to understand it.

Just because we don't see the world through the same lens that they do, doesn't make our science "pseudo-science."
 
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prasad1

Well-known member
While stories have a moral message to convey and are written by others who are not a scientist.
They may not be factual. So many fictions we read, but we do not waste time researching the truth behind it.

Esops fables, jataka Kathas are not science treatise, that we need to investigate.
 
I think there is a difference between fantasising of story writers and scientifically loaded science fiction writers like HG wells. But when the story is scientifically loaded we need to look with an open mind. And to do science, we do not need science degree but a scientific bent of mind. For eg, Sir C V Raman was a trained accounted before he plunged into his passion during free hours. So too other greats as Einstein, Ramanujam etc. Epic's like Ramayana and Mahabharatha apart from delivering a very strong and evergreen message on moral values, gives valuable insights into human behaviour, Ayurvedic medicine and other Scientific aspects. For eg. the description of pushpaka vimana, is too detailed and would baffle even aeronautic scientist that such things were atleast written in those years.
 

KRN

Active member
Let me give an example from our own Indian mythology. In the popular story of Durga slaying the demon Mahisasura, a demon by name Rakthabeeja (Raktha – blood; Beeja – seed) plays a prominent role. The unique feature of this demon is that every drop of blood which falls from his body gives rise to a new demon. So, when I gave a popular science talk for undergraduate students in a college, I used this analogy to explain cloning, which was appreciated by the audience who were familiar with the story. Again, I used it only as an analogy. An analogy is an example to explain a complex concept in familiar terms – it is never meant to be taken literally. An analogy can be an excellent tool to explain a scientific fact to a lay person, but it can never be treated as a scientific fact per se.
You are unable to explain scientific concepts to undergraduates in any better way, hence you want to make use of religious symbols out of context, without any respect to their deeper significance, mutilating them by calling them a popular story or folk tale, just so that it will serve your purpose as analogy, just so that you can garner the appreciation of 'your audience'. You are only interested in 'scientific facts', not really into the religious truths that underly the 'Indian mythology'. Fine enough.

Then why cannot you allow a politician, who is not bothered about the authenticity of 'scientific facts' , whose objective is only to garner the appreciation of 'his audience', use scientific concepts in whichever way his own understanding of science leads him, to explain an idea that jells with 'his audience'?

As I see it, both of you are alike, in that your objective is only to somehow impress your respective audiences, for which both of you freely resort to fields outside of your understanding, so as to somehow achieve your objective.

I still feel that the story of Rakthabeeja was a novel concept which somebody from India came up with many centuries back. Even though the technicality of cloning is way different from the process of a new demon springing out from a blood drop, the concept which I wanted to highlight was identical genetic constitution, which the students understood with the help of the analogy.
But let's be honest here, you have not really understood the process of a new demon springing out from a blood drop, have you? Then on what basis are you pontificating that the technicality of cloning is way different? Earlier, you had stated, "Even though it is difficult to exactly define pseudoscience, any claim which is not fully supported by strong scientific evidence will qualify as pseudoscience." So, your above comparison, which is not fully supported by strong scientific evidence will qualify as pseudoscience.

Using analogies to explain science is not new and has always been an integral part of pedagogy.
And so why can't the politician say, using examples from science to instil jingoism in his followers is not new and has always been an integral part of politics. So what's new?
 
SO WE can TAKE THAT pseudoscience EXAMPLES (Kaurava as clones), Pushapak Vimanas, Durga slaying as JUST analogies To explain TRUE SCIENCE ?? Ha ha. THE Present age MINDS are JUST Lilliputian in comparison with those of JUST my Grand Parents, Grand Uncles as i experienced on my on on their statements on weather, MY FUTURE astrologically which were all 100 *% TRUE to the DOT in Date and TIME, what to then say of Grand Grand Elders. Kindly LET us STOP analyzing the Minds of Humans of YORE using our PRESENT puny tiny minds. pramodkaimatatgmail
 

KRN

Active member
While stories have a moral message to convey and are written by others who are not a scientist.
They may not be factual. So many fictions we read, but we do not waste time researching the truth behind it.

Esops fables, jataka Kathas are not science treatise, that we need to investigate.
The point is whether you are justified in parading your ignorance in Devi Mahatmyam by comparing it to Esops fables etc, and randomly use it as analogy in your dissertations to undergraduates, while simutaneously criticising government officials who, according to you, open the conference by making jingoistic claims on stage.
 
It is a science conference, not a mela.
I agree nowadays people mess up things with the influence of media and hence could not differentiate between conference and other such meeting of speech. While coming to science conference, of late people mess up and deliver like Sath sang. Already country is seeing crunch in scientific research and r and d centres of science are now like deserts without much scholars. Few exceptions like space research.
 

prasad1

Well-known member
The point is whether you are justified in parading your ignorance in Devi Mahatmyam by comparing it to Esops fables etc, and randomly use it as analogy in your dissertations to undergraduates, while simutaneously criticising government officials who, according to you, open the conference by making jingoistic claims on stage.
You directed this post to me.
You may be Albert Einstein (in your opinion), but all others are not. So there is no great intelligence in demeaning others.

You might have FAITH in "
Devi Mahatmyam" as if God himself wrote it, but others do not have to have the same faith.

Criticizing a public figure is the public's right.
Even I know that stories are not scientific truths.
You think a strotrum just because it is in Sanskrit is Bible, I do not.
By the way, in Hinduism, there is no bible.
Thank you for showing your super intelligence.

Have you ever heard of famous Auvaiyer:


What we have learned
Is like a handful of earth;
What we have yet to learn
Is like the whole world
- Auvaiyar, 4th C poet, India
http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/informal/features/F_Cosmic_Questions_prt.htm
 
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KRN

Active member
You directed this post to me.
You may be Albert Einstein (in your opinion), but all others are not. So there is no great intelligence in demeaning others.

You might have FAITH in "
Devi Mahatmyam" as if God himself wrote it, but others do not have to have the same faith.
:) In fact my responses were directed to the "I" who wrote that article. I understood that as far as you are concerned, you were as usual, copy pasting stuff from elsewhere.

Nevertheless I just noticed that the reference to Esop's fable came from your own self. So I take it that you seem to agree with the writer of the article.

So in his absence, why don't you answer my query - how are these two people different - the so-called scientific person who freely misuses religious ideas with scant regard/knowledge on the same, just to strike home the message he wants to convey his audience, and the politician who freely misuses scientific knowledge, to strike home his message the minds of his audience.

No comments on the personal remarks in your post :)
 

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