The rise of pseudo-science

| | in Oped

Humanity has made some remarkable achievements in the past century, from gas turbine engines that brought the world closer, to the internet. Yet, it appears that of late we are seeing the rise of, what can best be described, as stupidity

There is a measles outbreak in the western United States; the outbreak started among children who were visiting the Disneyland theme park near Los Angeles, California. That in itself, would not be a major concern to most parents in India, as this disease is a run-of-the-mill childhood disease like chicken pox or mumps. But there is one matter that is of concern here: The US had effectively eliminated measles in the 1990’s thanks, to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Thanks to the power of internet, in the last five to six years, a massive ‘conspiracy’ theory that has gained ground. Without any evidence, it links childhood vaccinations to conditions such as autism, a developmental disorder that effects one to two in a thousand children worldwide. The ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, spearheaded by many celebrity Hollywood mothers, linked the rise in autism rates in the Western world (around one in a 100 children) to state-sponsored vaccination programmes.

While there is no logical explanation for the rise in autism diagnoses worldwide, it is more likely to be related to better diagnostic methods and improved support for learning and developmental issues such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome. There is no doubt that vaccinations, occasionally, can and do go wrong. We frequently read of infant mortalities post vaccination in India, but that is more likely to be due to the poor storage of vaccines rather than a deliberate attempt to ‘kill children’ as some have made it to be.

Let us get one thing clear: It is due to vaccinations and oral medication administered by the Government health officials across the world that humanity has managed to eradicate the scourge of killer diseases like smallpox. It is also due to the tremendous efforts of millions of health workers and officials that India, a country where polio was once a byword, has been effectively eliminated.

The ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement may not be as sophisticated in Pakistan, but in that country, doubts illogically thrown up by illiterate preachers have seen health workers who administer polio drops brutally murdered. The ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement is only one of several schools of pseudo-science that do the rounds today. Much of this science has been made possible, in no small part, due to modern technology that allow ideas to spread rapidly. Ironically, the term for it is ‘going viral’.

Nothing illustrates the stupidity in such theories better than the spread of the theory of creationism in the US, remarkable in the only country that has managed to send a man to the moon. In a country where local authorities have remarkable control over what is taught in secondary schools, several US States have insisted that the Biblical theory of creationism — where the Bible’s god (Yah’weh) created the earth and everything that lived upon it in seven days — be taught in schools.

Few States illustrated this anti-scientific fervor more virulently than the State, whose Governor, a Rhodes Scholar who studied in England’s Oxford University mind you, is Indian-origin Bobby Jindal, an outwardly extremely intelligent man. The fact is that two and a half thousand years ago, man was not really that smart, we could not understand natural phenomena, let alone try to control some aspects of the world. The ramblings, coherent as they might have been, as well as full of life lessons, did not equal to science.

We know now that dinosaurs and man did not live side-by-side, we know that a comet or meteorite from space slammed into Earth, possibly near the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico 65 million years and wiped out the dinosaurs. And we know now that you and I have simian ancestors in the recent past and piscean ancestors several hundred million years ago. Evolution can be seen in action inside Lake Tanganyika in Africa where from one species, cichlid fish have evolved into hundreds of species in a few lifetimes.

Humanity can sequence the human genome, we understand the structure of life itself and while plant-grafting, a fairly rudimentary form of genetic modification where those who did have little idea of what they were doing, has been around for centuries, today we can alter the fundamental aspects of virtually any living form on planet earth.

Yet, we have let pseudo-science in the door, it is not just creationism in the US, Governments across the world have supported pseudo-science and theories from ancient religious texts that far from being taught to impressionable young minds as the gospel truth should be questioned. Recent examples in India should be deeply disconcerting as well, particularly the insistence of airplanes in Vedic times. Make no mistakes, in Vedic times, Indian philosophers and logicians independently came out with extremely thoughtful passages that highlighted Indian thinking, the Samkhya school of thought being uppermost.

It was not just Plato, Aristotle and the Greek thinkers who thought of ideas and logic and these should indeed be taught in schools across the country, this is a heritage that we should all be proud of. But to claim the development of aeroplanes and automobiles in ancient times is ridiculous. India’s future development is not just dependent on massive infrastructure build-outs. If we are to develop as a knowledge society, we have to revel in our ancient knowledge as well, including Yoga and Ayurveda. But the promotion of dubious science is not the way to go forward.

Science and technology are the means to drive India out of poverty into development, we cannot become an ambivalent nation that regresses into imagined past glories but actually one that glorifies the relevant aspects of the past. We know now that the world is not flat and we know now that the sun does not revolve around the earth, ancient Indian scientists knew these facts as well. However, regressive thinking whether it is about vaccines in the West, creationism or even imagined past achievements will take India, or for that matter humanity as a whole nowhere.

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