Thursday, August 17, 2017

Science as a Candle in the Dark

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I grew up in rural Kerala reading each morning ‘Mathrubhumi’-a Malayalam newspaper. Over those years, I remember seeing small box advertisements on top-corners of the front page; every day I would see different incarnations of similar ads. The ads would read like “scientifically prepared magic amulets to ward off evil spirits” and so on. Even after two full decades, similar ads can still be found in Mathrubhumi and other newspapers of Kerala (and presumably other states as well). The question here is straight forward, what is science?

Simply put, science is an evidence-based pursuit of knowledge discovery. Let us consider the example of the previous advertisement, the amulet. The question is how effective the amulet is to ward off evil spirits. Before answering this issue, one has to ascertain the validity of a thing called ‘evil spirit’. Of course, this question evades a fundamental principle in science known as ‘falsifiability’, put forth first by the British philosopher of science Karl Popper.  To deem something to be inside the field of science, statements have to be testable, claims ‘independently verifiable’ and falsifiable. According to Popper, science progress by the process of falsification; earlier hypothesis sequentially is falsified, and this process leads to the advancement of science. For example, the hypothesis that earth was flat was falsified by Pythagoras who hypothesized earth was spherical, and the heavenly bodies revolve around the earth. The concept of geocentric world was falsified by Copernicus who hypothesized the sun is the centre of the solar system.

Suppose our earlier advertisement read the following: “scientifically prepared magic amulets to make you rich.” Now, this statement is at least testable; are the amulets effective in making someone rich? One can test this by doing a simple experiment; wearing it for a month and not wearing for a month to see whether the person gets significantly richer. Now the question is what does ‘significantly’ here means; if your overall monthly wealth increases by 1%, is it significant or not? To decide in such situations, smart statisticians have come up with various statistical hypothesis tests, which are beyond the scope of this article.  At the end of the experiment and further statistical analysis, you might infer that the amulet does significantly increase the overall wealth, and you conclude that the amulets are effective. This is the scientific method in a nutshell.

However, what if you got rich due to some other reasons while you were wearing the amulets? For example, for the simple reason that you know you are wearing the amulet subconsciously altered your work habits to work harder and earn higher (this is technically called 'Hawthorn effect"). It could also be because the Indian economy was progressing at a higher rate. An unknown, outside variable causing the effect in our experiment like Indian Economy in this example is known as ‘confounding’ in statistics. A 1995 study concluded higher prevalence of breast cancer in wealthy countries comparing with elsewhere in the world. Many quickly blamed it on the sedentary lifestyle of rich; fast-food culture, obesity, substance abuse and so on. The actual reason that became apparent later was that the mandatory breast cancer screening (mammography) in those countries because the government can afford it there. When you hear stories like "there are four times more motorcycle accidents than the car accidents in India, and therefore motorcycles are inherently dangerous," you should critically evaluate the claim. When you realize that the number of motorcycles on Indian roads are more than six times that of the cars, you will conclude that motorcycles are in fact less dangerous than cars. A pithy aphorism in statistics is ‘correlation does not imply causation’. To prove our earlier hypothesis of amulets, we can do the same experiment repeatedly, either on the same person at various periods (longitudinal experiment) or on different persons at the same time (cross-sectional experiment). Various ingenious scientists with the help from statisticians have tested and retested the efficacy of such amulets, and now the conclusion from all those experiments is that amulets do not work. If it does not work, how can someone claim that these were prepared ‘scientifically’ to confuse the laymen and students? Claiming something to be scientific and factual in the absence of evidence is known as pseudoscience. This pseudoscience is exactly what scientists and science popularizers like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Prof. Yash Pal, PM Bhargawa, and so on were against, the ignorance that comes in a 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.

How about claims such as magic, astrology, palmistry and so on? Fortunately, we have a full list of pseudoscience systems that are proved beyond any doubt to be ineffective so that we don’t have to test the efficacy of each item individually. A subset of these pseudoscience systems popular in India include the following: astrology, palmistry, scientology (though seemingly a religion for scientists, scientology is indeed a pseudoscience) tarot card reading, Yeti, Bigfoot, UFOs, 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 (lie detecting machines, these are ineffective and pseudoscientific, but Judiciary have faith in them), miracles, Extra Sensory Perception, Astral Projection, clairvoyance, numerology, 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). As explained, most of these pseudosciences masquerade as the real science and usually have the word ‘science’ or ‘medicine’ with them. For example, the degree: Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine, Ayurvedic Science, “scientifically prepared amulets” and so on. Most of the modern scientific disciplines have an alternate, counterfeit pseudoscience version as well, like ying-yang or god vs. devil. For example, Astronomy (science) Vs. Astrology (pseudoscience). Chemistry vs. Alchemy, Psychiatry Vs. Parapsychology, Physics Vs. Perpetual Motion Machines, Modern Medicine Vs. all other alternative medicines, etc. Also, the public must know that even today there are millions of people who refuse to accept many scientifically validated concepts as facts; for example Darwin’s theory of evolution (instead of pseudoscientific Intelligent Design), spherical earth (instead of erroneous Flat Earth) and so on.

Pseudoscience approaches you through emotion (such as mysteries and miracles) and anecdotes, not through reason and evidence. Most of the pseudoscience practices, especially alternative medicine, makes use of placebo effect that results from the belief that one has been treated rather than having experienced actual changes due to physical, physiological, and chemical activities of treatment. Anecdotes are unreliable accounts and hearsays. For example, someone tells you that the person knows a very ‘effective’ alternate medicine practitioner in a particular city who has cured cancer through a miracle cure. The veracity of the claim set aside, a patient might have got cured there, but we should also understand that a number of diseases go away on its own without doing any treatments. Of course, cancer too goes away, but chances are very less, one in fifty lakhs. Only one in fifty lakh persons win a particular lottery that means chances of winning is so very low (therefore you should not purchase), but one in fifty lakhs indeed wins it ("someone's gotta win" is a famous lottery slogan). Alternative medicine works like prayers; since ancient times people from various cultures around the world have prayed for rain during drought periods. Some days it rains, some other days it doesn’t. Does pray cause rain to come? Not at all; rain comes on its own. When someone tells you about such anecdotes, ask them what the evidence are. Out of one hundred cancer patients, how many got cured? Otherwise, trust the science, stay away from obvious pseudoscience systems (and motivate others to do the same). Unfortunately, India ranks top among the countries regarding the prevalence of pseudoscience; in India, even the government sponsor the pseudoscience. Consider, for example, homoeopathy. Inductive logic has falsified homoeopathy, and the consensus is that it is a pseudoscience. Central concept of Homoeopathy is that you can treat a disease using a substance that cause similar symptoms so long as you reverse the substance’s effects by diluting it. Through dilutions, its ‘mystical healing vibrations’ gets amplified miraculously. Consider coffee, the stimulant that wakes you up. Mix one part of coffee in a million part of water, to make the homeopathic remedy called “Coffea Cruda” that can be used as ‘sleep aid’. Onions cause runny eyes and runny noses. Use the infinitesimally diluted onion extract to treat the eye diseases, runny nose and common cold! Of course, this theory- that came before we knew that microorganisms cause infectious diseases or substances are made up of molecules- is utterly flawed. At such an extreme level of dilution, chances of finding one molecule of the active substance is far lesser than winning a major lottery, and these medicines are virtually plain water (or other ‘vehicles’, like sugar or 40-proof alcohol). To evade falsification, homeopaths do not talk about molecules, but ‘mystical healing vibrations’ that, of course, cannot be testable. 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 (including Ayurveda and homoeopathy), yet their standard of living, life expectancy and human development index is among the top in the world. Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) 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 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 (or even measure their blood pressures) 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 the 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.

Pseudoscience proponents are indeed liars. The public should avoid their propaganda by understanding a basic psychological trap liars create to cheat the gullible; it is called ‘illusion of truth.’ Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once famously shared his tactics post-holocaust: “repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth’. In philosophy, this is called logical fallacy of argumentum ad nauseam- the appeal to repetition. 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. Another of their strategy makes use of a trap known as ‘philosophical burden of proof’ (also known as ‘Russel’s Teapot’). Bertrand Russel once famously wrote about one such a claim that he invented; there is a lone teapot that orbits the sun between earth and mars. Can anyone disprove this assertion? Proponents of pseudoscience make such unverifiable, unfalsifiable claims, and ask the sceptics to prove otherwise (which is impossible to disprove). Another of their strategy is known as argumentum ad populum-the appeal to widespread beliefs. For example, ‘ghosts are real because millions believe in them’. We should be aware that belief being so widespread (for example, “food becomes poison during eclipse,” “peahen gets pregnant by drinking the tears of peacock”, “the only animal that inhale and exhale oxygen is cow”, “drenching in the rain causes fever” or 'cold weather causes common cold') does not make it true. A logical fallacy called dicto simpliciter (generalization) is also related to this. For example, ‘logging (cutting down the trees) is anti-environmental’ is a popular generalization that has no scientific basis. Logging is indeed necessary for the healthy management of planted forests. Another related logical fallacy is argumentum ad antiquitatem-the appeal to tradition. For example, Ayurveda and Astrology are true because these has been practised for thousands of years and these are our tradition. Similarly, many practitioners use the word ‘naturally’ to appeal the public, but the public should know that simply being natural does not mean it to be effective or safe. More than 70 percent of all medicines used in science is obtained from plants, but that does not mean crude plant extracts are either effective or safe. Another often-used propaganda of pseudoscience is the connotation that the word ‘chemical’ means toxin, which is false. By the way is there anything that can be called ‘chemical free’? Even the purest Antarctic water is made up of chemicals. Martian rocks too. The public should be wary of these advertisement gimmicks.

There is a widespread myth in India, surprisingly believed to be true even among the highly educated, that ayurveda works “slow and steady” while modern medicine is “fast and furious”; ayurveda has, unlike medicine, no “side effects”; “only homeopathy can cure allergies,” “homeopathy is effective for children ailments” and so on, all damn lies. A number of scientific studies have confirmed that ayurvedic formulations contain harmful levels of heavy metals including lead, mercury, and arsenic. These rudimentary formulations were invented many centuries ago much before the age of antibiotics; at that time prevailing treatment scenario around the world had been drugs with heavy metals. In philosophy, there is a logical fallacy by the name Ignoratio elenchi- missing the point. Perpetrators of alternative medicine formulations often claim that their remedies are ‘government certified’. On close inspection, you will understand that these government certifications are what is known as GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). If any commercial item manufactured in hygienic surroundings with proper quality controls, government issues these GMP certifications. What is being missed here is, however, this certificate has nothing to do with the efficacy of the remedy. The certification is not an attestation that the drug ‘works’ (i.e., ‘evidence-based’). Even if the government market such products, no one can take for granted that these remedies are efficient; if it is efficient, it is then scientific of course. Another logical fallacy often employed by the pseudoscience quacks is argumentum ad verecundiam– the appeal to authority. “Do you know world famous American scientist Dr. Deepak Chopra? He has confirmed the efficacy of ayurveda, yoga and meditation through quantum physics” etcetera. Just because the twenty-three times Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps tried Chinese pseudoscience practice called ‘cupping’ does not validate it as a science. Another form of the same trick is pointing the reference to a book. Just because something has been printed on a good-looking book (for example, the ‘bible’ of homeopaths Materia Medica often comes as gold-bound, with golden backbone, and Victorian-looking fonts) does not mean what is claimed is a fact. In science, there is no authority. Science is open to criticism and improvement; anyone can falsify anyone else through evidence-based rigorous methodology (unlike religion and alternative medicine where criticisms are not tolerated, and there is no scope for falsification. Seen cartoons in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten? Or, M.F. Hussain’s painting Saraswati?). Thomas Henry Huxley once said: The deepest sin against the human mind if to believe things without evidence.” By the way, who is this Deepak Chopra? Richard Dawkins referred him as “an arrogantly obstinate quack who uses quantum jargon as plausible-sounding hocus-pocus.” Yes, that is a well-known stratagem to fool the gullible, ignorant masses; use a lot of technical jargons to sound yourself as an authority, and defraud them plainly. People with ‘simple thinking,’ those simpletons amongst us who are too indolent to read what is happening in the world, are the most gullible, and the prime target of charlatans like Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Baba Ramdev and so on, unfortunately.

          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 faiths of the world… but failed miserably. Then came careful 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!

Only through inductive experimentation backed by rigorous statistical hypothesis testing, that one could differentiate between what are objective scientific practices and what are anecdote-based pseudoscience. The rigorous scientific methodology developed from the critical writings of Francis Bacon, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and beyond, is filled with technical jargon entirely incomprehensible to the non-technically trained public, and perhaps that is the cause for the prevalence of pseudoscience in countries with low socioeconomic 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. We should realise that the technology we 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.

Another hallmark of science is that there are no authorities in science 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 pseudoscientific ‘belief’ systems. In science there is no belief system; nobody believes in science, but they only acknowledge the efficacy. 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. Pseudoscience practitioners like religious stalwarts, read just one book ‘holy scripture’ again and again and consider it the ultimate truth. However, scientists read thousands of books in their lifetime but still consider themselves to be a mere ‘pebble in the vast ocean’ (Newton’s statement). Scientific books keep on coming with new versions once in every few years, while pseudoscience is forever closed and locked-up in the world of ignorance and mysticism. Does that mean science can answer all our questions? Of course not. Science does not know everything, but at the same time, pseudoscience knows nothing at all. Einstein famously stated, “all of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike- and yet it is the most precious thing that we have.”

Non-science, erroneous science and scientific misconduct are three unrelated concepts, and these are not related to pseudoscience as well. Non-scientific disciplines like history, sociology, art, literature and so on are of course not pseudoscientific or erroneous science. 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. Erroneous science results from the poorly designed scientific methodology and is mostly unintentional. For example, using molten iron balls Lord Kelvin of England calculated in 1890s that earth is 20 million years old; now we know that the conclusion was erroneous because he assumed that earth’s core is simply a molten iron that is gradually cooling (we now know that earth’s core is undergoing radioactive decay, which is far slower). On the other hand, scientific misconduct is deliberate practices of skewing scientific methodology or inferences for one’s benefit. For example, a student asks his friend to write an article on his behalf (known as ‘ghost writing’), or she copy the contents of another paper from the internet and paste it in her article (known as plagiarism). Even if you acknowledge from where the matter is copied from and cite the source, still this is considered textual plagiarism, unless the matter is enclosed within quotes.  

A common misconception about science in India is that the science is 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.

Another misconception about science is that good science need to be beneficial to the humanity. The central fallacy of this argument stems from a cognitive bias called ‘confirmation bias’. Why did pre-Copernican era people think earth was the centre of the universe? Because we live on planet earth-our only home and we need to bolster-confirm-its importance. Likewise, we are humans, and we want to confirm our superiority over other animals, plants and non-living matter by embracing anthropocentrism- argument that the whole universe is made just for the utilisation of human beings. Of course, science is not about utility for humankind, for nothing special about human beings. We are merely an animal species amongst around 10 million animal species, occupying our position in vast, interlinked, and complex ecological niche. Scientific disciplines including palaeontology, astronomy, behavioural sciences, quantum physics and so on might not be of immediate usefulness to humanity, but reveal several interesting facts about how nature works. Scientific research is indeed curiosity-driven, not utility-driven (see Abraham Flexner’s famous essay entitled “usefulness of useless knowledge’).

Finally, I would like to recommend the following books for the young readers to arm themselves with the power of scientific knowledge and to discern pseudoscience for staying away from it: Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”, Richard Dawkin’s “The God delusion”, Michael Shermer’s “Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist” (audiobook). My suggestion to parents and teachers is to teach the pupil how to think, not what to think, as the age we are living is for knowing, not for believing.