Thursday, August 10, 2017

What construes pseudoscience?

Image result for pseudoscience quotes
This comment is in response to “The march from yesterdays” by Sundar Sarukkai, published on 10th August 2017. I am surprised to read a comment from a philosopher colleague that suffer from the logical fallacy of ad ignorantiam in its entirety, that too in the same newspaper issue with an excellent politics article full of profound scientific insights from a non-scientist colleague (When the Paradigm Shifts, Happymon Jacob). The ignorance stems in part from the author’s poor understanding of what construes the science and how it is different from non-science, erroneous science and pseudoscience- three totally unrelated concepts. Non-scientific disciplines like history, sociology, art, literature and so on are of course not pseudoscientific or erroneous science, and the author’s such a claim suffers from a logical fallacy known universally as ‘false dichotomy’. I am a scientist, and I also work on linguistics and evolutionary socio-politics, I have authored an English fiction book, and I enjoy reading good literature and poetry. Non-science disciplines are, like science, imaginative, disciplined, and open for criticism, unlike pseudoscience. The March for Science has nothing to do with these non-science subjects. The March is also not against erroneous science or scientific misconduct- both are indeed genuine issues. Erroneous science simply results from poorly designed scientific methodology and are mostly unintentional. Scientific misconduct is deliberate practices of skewing scientific methodology or inferences for one’s benefit. The March, instead, is targeted towards pseudoscience and diminishing funds for the actual science-two of the key issues plaguing the science in our country.
To understand the pseudoscience, one should understand what is science, and the scientific methodology. Only through inductive experimentation backed by rigorous statistical hypothesis testing that one can differentiate between what are objective scientific practices and what are anecdote-based pseudoscience. The rigorous scientific methodology developed from the critical writings of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Francis Bacon and beyond, is filled with technical jargon entirely incomprehensible to the non-technically trained public, and perhaps that is the root cause for the prevalence of pseudoscience in countries with low socio-economic status. This is the exact reason why practitioners of pseudoscience can easily deceive simple plebeians with their miracle cures. Scientists are like ‘Doubting Thomas’, sceptic to the core and incredulous to any claims without evidence. Many scientific insights often overlooked today as common everyday knowledge, like ‘smoking causes cancer’ or ‘trans-fat and lack of exercise causes coronary artery diseases’ are inferences of decades-long longitudinal epidemiological studies backed with rigorous statistics; for instance the famous “Framingham Heart Study”, which began in 1948 and is still ongoing. A common misconception about science in India is that the science is considered as Western, or Nehruvian (or “congressi”) which is false. The country has produced a number of renowned scientists from time immemorial well before the origins of modern scientific methodology; from Charaka, Baudhayana, Pingala, Susruta, Brahmagupta, Aryabhatta, Madhava, Nilakanta, PC Ray, CV Raman, S. Ramanujan, HJ Bhabha, JC Bose, Birbal Sahni, all the way to CNR Rao, Goverdhan Mehta, and K VijayRaghavan- the current secretary of Department of Biotechnology- are all first-rate internationally acclaimed scientists. Science is of course, international; not merely belong to any particular country or ideology.

I am surprised to read the author’s assumption that the scientists are propagating ignorance and more surprised to find a place for such a comment in the national newspaper like the Hindu. Does Sundar Sarukkai realise that the technology he had been using and taken for granted like a computer, or electricity, or a car, or a mobile phone, or a vaccine, is the product of decades-long rigorous scientific research? Of course, over the years the science has tremendously improved the human life. He should carefully read Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” before alleging scientists as ‘propagating ignorance.’ While asking for an increase in the funding for science, scientists did not make a ‘scientific claim’; it is a demand or proposition. Calling the demand as a ‘scientific claim’ proves author’s ignorance in two domains; communicative English and scientific methodology.

Of course, science in India is indeed in a dire situation (which is not a mere rhetoric), with a government that is constantly increasing funding for pseudoscience practices like cow urine therapy and pachagavya, while asking the scientific laboratories to find funds for themselves. The public should avoid this incognito propaganda by understanding a basic psychological trap liars create to cheat the gullible; it’s called ‘illusion of truth.’ Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once famously shared his tactics post-holocaust: “repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth’. Uneducated laity often falls for small lies interspersed between truths here and there, that turns itself into a monster lie, propaganda. And if government and media backs these damn lies and suppress the truth? These lies become self-propagating forms like viruses, perpetuate and turn into hard self-convictions engraved deep into our mindset. For tens of generations, humanity tried to eradicate one of the biggest challenges it had ever faced in history, smallpox, through prayers. During those ages, religion ruled the world, and religious people suppressed the science and freethought- those "dark ages." Prayers of all sorts of all religions of the world… but failed miserably. Then came scrupulous scientific studies by  Edward Jenner, and in next one generation smallpox is eradicated from the world through vaccines-a “miracle” by all means, but in science, it is just another method. For the last 4000 years, religion has promised us a second life; all these years pseudoscience continued to swindle the gullible, while in just the last 100 years alone, science has doubled our life. Religion makes promises, pseudoscience beguiles, while science delivers!

Universities, CSIR labs and other scientific institutes in the country are at present severely affected with lack of funding. The basic scientific research-which is not directed towards its usefulness to the humanity- is the hardest-hit area. Ironically, the basic scientific research had been the forte of ancient Indian scientific pursuit; for example astronomy, mathematics, logics and so on. Scientific disciplines including palaeontology, astronomy, behavioural sciences, quantum physics and so on might not be of immediate usefulness to humanity, but the research in these disciplines will cause Kuhn’s “paradigm-shift” in the long run (see Abraham Flexner’s renowned essay entitled “usefulness of useless knowledge’). Of course, science is not about anthropocentrism or speciesism; human beings are merely an animal in nature and considering the whole universe is made just for the utilisation of human beings suffers from a cognitive bias called ‘confirmation bias’. The government-backed gold rush for utilitarianism lead marketing of bogus pseudoscientific products like BGR-34 by reputed CSIR labs, which came as the biggest surprise in post-independent scientific pursuit in India. What scientists and science popularizers like Prof. Yash Pal were against is pseudoscience, the ignorance that wears the white-lab coat of an experimental scientist and masquerades the public as ambassadors of real science while evading Popper’s falsifiability and appealing the public through emotion and anecdotes. A countless number of pseudoscience practices are prevalent in India, and India ranks, perhaps, world number one in pseudoscience. Pseudoscience include atrology, palmistry, tarot card reading, numerology, yeti, UFOs, Bigfoot, homeopathy, Ayurveda-including panchgavya and gau mutra therapy, siddha, yunani, reiki, acupuncture, acupressure, magnetotherapy, reflexology, aromatherapy, vastu, naturopathy, detox, ‘organic’ foods (numerous studies have concluded that organic food has identical or lower nutrient levels than genetically modified foods; ‘organics’ is nothing but an advertisement tagline), polygraph, miracles, ESP, clairvoyance, faith-healing, transcendental meditation, prayer (no, praying to god doesn’t work)…The list is exhaustive and is swiftly expanding (for example, anti-vaccine campaign budding out at many places in the world is a form of textbook pseudoscience, or climate change denialism). Consider, for example, homoeopathy. Inductive logic has clearly falsified homoeopathy, and the consensus is that it is a pseudoscience. When the Nobel laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan referred Homeopathy as ‘bogus, harmful and pseudoscience’, the furore against it was mostly from India, not from Germany- homoeopathy's birthplace. The reason is simple, homeopathy-due to the very fact that it is a pseudoscience- is essentially non-existent in Germany, except in isolated patches around cities like Frankfurt where significant Indian migrants can be found. I lived for several years in Japan-a country where you can’t find any alternative medicines, yet their standard of living and human development index is among the top in the world. Scandinavia tops in all development indices, as well as health indices and they have no homoeopathy or Ayurveda. What are they missing out? UK’s NHS too has recently decided to stop funding for Homoeopathy for the ‘gross misuse of resources’. Ask do homoeopathy or ayurveda practitioners ever get their children vaccinated, or give them antibiotics when sick; why do they do this if their own alternative medicine is effective? Precisely because alternative medicines do not work. In India, we have government-run homoeopathic and ayurveda clinics in every district. What will happen if the government decide to close and divert the budget (in my modest estimates, the budget for mere maintenance of AYUSH in the country is more than 30,000 crore rupees per annum) to improve public health, education and sanitation instead? I argue that this policy decision would instantly make our country developed.

Author’s purported neutral stance is indeed a ludicrous proposition. It is now proved beyond doubt that Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct, and for the sake of NPOV (Neutral Point of View, made famous by Wikipedia), how senseless it would be to teach the ignorance called ‘intelligent design’ to the schoolchildren! It is like arguing for teaching Ptolemaic geocentric universe, or ‘flat earth’ hypothesis, or spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter, for the sake of providing alternative choices. Author’s claim that “everything they claim can easily be disproved by referring to the extensive work in the fields of history, philosophy and sociology of science” plainly suffer from the logical fallacy of “Ad verecundiam,” appeal to authority. What the author missed out is that in science there are no authorities and an uneducated youth, for example, can directly and validly question the veracity of a scientific conclusion, which is not possible in case of religion and other belief systems. Science has a built-in correcting mechanism through which the science advances every single day, while pseudoscience is forever caught up in the medieval periods with no such correction systems. The author referred ‘beliefs about science’ throughout the article, but he fails to understand the basic premise that in science there are no beliefs. We should teach our posterity how to think, not what to think, as the age we are living is for knowing, not for believing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The frog in a well: Why it is unwise to be a party affiliate?

Image result for party logos india
Of course, I am not apolitical; I do not have, however, a lifelong allegiance to a particular political party. I also refuse to be someone like the one author Elbert Hubbard satirically idolises: “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” I have been vocal about various policy-related decisions of successive governments at different levels in India, mostly through social media. Among the things that I appreciated include good governance by Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, effective managerial skills of PM Modi and his decision to replace flowers for books as souvenirs, austere way of life of Tripura CM Manik Sarkar, Yogi Adityanath’s decision to distribute backpacks with Akhilesh Yadav’s images, social welfare decisions of Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, and so on. While I love the personal freedom, free economy and other libertarian policies of advanced capitalism, I also love pro-multicultural, pro-science and egalitarian policies of socialism.  In a way, the apolitical appreciation of good governance and criticism of bad governance is like descriptivism in linguistics; descriptivists merely describe the integral features of languages without being judgmental, while prescriptivists prescribe and promote one language over the others.

Over the years, I noticed an emerging pattern that I must confess did not come as a big surprise after all. The majority of my contacts identify themselves with a particular political party. They ‘like’ the posts appreciative of their party politicians, while they do not ‘like’ if the posts are critical of them. Only a few of my contacts act as if they have no political allegiance. Why, what is wrong if you swear your allegiance with a party, you may ask?

Stereotyping is the major issue with this approach. I had been twice to London’s British Museum as well as Victoria and Albert’s Museum-the treasure house of all the looted things from the third world! These museums are indeed very well curated with clearly demarcated sections based on the genre. Look for the central section, art. You will see French, Gothic, Renaissance…where are the sculptures and paintings from India? Those are not stereotypic art as per the British, but anthropological artefacts! In this imperious mentality, third world art and literary works are indeed of inferior quality than the western. This exactly is what is called stereotyping, or judgmentalism. Like those British curators who considers every artistic form of the third world as inherently inferior to that from the West, if you identify yourself with a particular party (or worse, you become an official member of a party), you subconsciously consider all the other members of that party as your friends, and invariably you will have an emotional attachment to them. Just like other life instances, your emotion, rather than the reason, dictate things to you. You will fight for the ideology that you are part of, and even kill the opponents as well. The co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, once famously said, “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea because then he'll fight and die for it.” Of course, you will end up justifying all the wrongdoings your party has committed, you refuse to acknowledge the problems of your party, and refuse to read or listen what the opponent writes or says. ‘Frog in a well’ is a famous Chinese idiom in use since time immemorial; it represents someone unbeknownst of the outside world, and perfectly captures the essence of issues of identifying oneself with a particular party politics. There is a name for this in cognitive psychology, confirmation bias. Suppose you identify as a rightist BJP party person. You will look for articles and media that affirms your affiliation, your allegiance. You will read only ‘Organizer’-the official RSS print media- or other rightists, or right-leaning sources (such as Republic TV channel), as each news item in those, endorses your preconceived mental constructs and expectations. In a way those stories and eulogies bolster your fantasy, which you fail to reason as the figment of the imagination. You are happy, of course like a frog in a well. Reading or watching apolitical media such as The Hindu, The Indian Express or NDTV makes you consider these centrists are not at all apolitical, but agents of the opposite political spectrum, the leftists. How about reading the real left-wing paper like “The People’s Democracy” that diametrically contradict your worldview? You are infuriated and call them anti-national and criminals! Now, if you were a self-proclaimed leftist, those exact ‘centrist’ media might seem to you right leaning. Like the famous ‘Checker's shadow’ or other countless numbers of optical illusions, the pivotal issue here is that there are several cognitive biases subconsciously tweaking each decision that we make in our daily life, and the way we perceive our world. James Randi, the famous American magician, once famously said “No amount of belief makes something a fact.’ This is known in philosophy as ‘objectivism’ (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a well-known work of objectivistic philosophy) the central premise of which is the consideration that the reality exists independent of our consciousness. The reality, or the objective knowledge, can only be obtained through inductive logic, i.e., scientific method.

Recently Bihar CM Nitish Kumar took an overnight decision to quit the grand alliance, and take the support of his opponent BJP to form the new ruling alliance in Bihar. This has sent shockwaves across India, indeed, and his opponents have called him someone who lacks integrity, and a political chameleon. What people do not realise is that human beings are dynamic individuals. A vast majority of the cells of our body gets replaced with new cells, and within a decade we all have an entirely new body. Look at your old photographs taken ten years or more ago. Those are not ‘you’ in a sense. Our beliefs too, as new pieces of evidence accumulate, a rational person keeps on modifying what he/she believes in, conceptually homologous with statistical method of Bayesian Inference. In a way, party ideologies and religious dogma are similar; both are not open for criticism and feedback-refinement. While scholarly scientific books keep on refining with new editions publishing once in every few years, ever wondered why there are no refinements for religious scriptures (such as Bhagavatgeeta, for Hindus) or foundational texts of political parties (such as Das Capital, for Marxists)? If we do not modify our prior beliefs with new evidence or information, we are not dynamic living organisms then, but a mere dogmatic sycophant slave who cannot even think freely with his own mind, or a frog in a well. These frogs love the comfort of their fantasy world; they invent clever news stories-the fake news- to support their propaganda. In the case of linguistics, puritanical linguists resist any changes in the language; but as we know, all languages evolve and opposing changes like the use of the word ‘literally’ in the figurative sense is futile. Then there is yet another type of persons who, no matter the politics, support whichever party is in power. They are the ultimate hypocritical sycophants who just want to get things done by whatever means.

As an apolitical person, am I against party politics and voting? Of course not. I do vote in the elections. Do I vote for individuals rather than parties? Seemingly an excellent strategy, however, might not be the wisest in participatory democracies like in India. The key NOTA (None Of The Above) makes no sense to me; in situations like two leading candidates with both of them being corrupt/criminals, I will vote for the third. If all are corrupt/criminals-which is highly unlikely, making NOTA win also makes no sense, as in such situations the person who got second highest votes will be declared a winner. Nevertheless, can I consciously vote for a person whom I consider as a corrupt person, for the sake for his or her party to win the election? I will not, but these choices come under the purview of ethics, which indeed is highly subjective, relativistic and even a myth. Shakespeare wisely stated in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Even though you vote for a ‘virtuous’ person, ultimately, a party or an alliance win and they will take all the policy-related decisions. With a dynamic party-alliance that often transforms its ideology from one spectrum to another without consulting the voters, there is no way of ‘rationally’ choosing the right candidate in the elections. However, I do vote for the right ideology as deemed appropriate at each time of my life, but I refuse to be a steadfast party-politics supporter. My political philosophy is clear: be appreciative of the good work, and be critical of the bad works. Softly leaning on a party might be okay too, but being critical of wrongdoings in that party is important.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Lenovo HW01 Full Review

Lenovo HW01 Smart Band
With a good brand value of Lenovo (I am a satisfied customer of their smartphone and tablet) and budget price tag (approx Rs. 1799 through phonepe-Flipkart offer) with one-year warranty I decided to give it a try (it looks way beautiful than Mi bands too, yet another reason). It came with heart rate sensor too, nifty! This is what happened:
  • This band (and most of the other smartbands) support no biking; so if you are planning to do some biking as part of your overall fitness schedule, this band is of no use.
  • HW01 lasts for a day with its heart rate continuous sensor (continuous doesn't mean full time, but one reading every 15 minutes). PLUS, it works on bluetooth, so it drains out phone's battery quite fast. That would mean you are caught up with a dying phone and a dying smartband most of the days. If you disable HR function of the band, it lasts for 2 days. (Compare this with Mi Band 2, which last for a week or so, but again, read the whole story; smartbands are inherently a bad buy, because it do not follow 'Occam's Razor' philosophy!)
  • HW01 boasts IP65 water resistant rating, which is actually a lie. Well, IP65 itself is only 'splash' resistance, you can't immerse or take a shower with it (but hey, I have been using my Casio G-shock for last 12 years, wearing during showers, swimming, and even at Antarctica. Nothing happened. So in 12 years, the technology went backwards? Unbelievable!) . What if you cant even use it? That exactly what has happened in my case. I used it for running and naturally, the band got some of my sweat droplets, but this band not simply stayed there, but it IMBIBED all my sweat! After each subsequent run, the problem aggravated till its touch controls got failed and randomly it started cycling through its options without even touching. It will not connect to my phone, forcing me to contact the company.
  • I called a Ghaziabad number that the box contained to register the complaint and to inquire about the details of the service centres. A lady picked up and said her father looks after the matter and gave me another number. This second number, a mobile number, when dialled, a person claiming to be a Chartered Accountant answered and said he know neither HW01 nor smart-band and has nothing to do with the whole issue. CHEATED!
  • I contacted the Flipkart and insisted for a refund immediately, which flipkart denied citing their policy of 10-days window, which had already been elapsed in my situation.
  • I contacted Lenovo India and the reply I received is:. 

  • Felix Bast

    Urgent: about lenovo smartband

    Lencare Fri, Jul 28, 2017 at 7:08 PM
    To: Felix Bast

    Dear Customer,

    We don’t have support for smart band. Lenovo has no such product called HW01 smart band the the product is an obvious counterfeit item. I suggest you to report the matter to the police. We also have no authorized service centre at "FF 13, Mark Mall Sector 4B, Vasundhara, Ghaziabad UP" Kindly contact your seller.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Lenovo India

  • Flipkart somehow arranged a conference call with the seller, and myself. Finally, the flipkart agreed to refund the product after the return, which is now completed and I got the full refund.
  • Beware of this HW01. The product is a duplicate, of course not of genuine Lenovo; a fraudulent sub standard stuff that drinks your sweat. Beware of Lenovo Service Centre, FF 13, Mark Mall Sector 4B, Vasundhara, Ghaziabad UP 201012 Mobile 09990851230 which is not a Lenovo service centre at all!

Bottomline: I will never trust Flipkart henceforth, and never try yet another smartband. Smartbands, or activity sensors or smart all works with blue tooth and invariably drains your phone cell DRASTICALLY. It doesn't track your biking (cycling), so if you bike as part of the overall fitness programme, these bands are not for you. I have been using free app on my android Google Fit to track everything (it silently detect body movement and decide am I walking, running or biking!), and I will stick with Google Fit as of now :-) I am following Occam's, Razor principle. Why go for complicated solutions for the problem, if a simple solution exists?