The practicality of scientific temper as a way of life

Jawaharlal Nehru made an important argument while describing the scientific temper. 
[What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet  critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the  refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to  change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on  observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of  the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of  science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems." (emphasis added)
Nehru argues that the scientific approach is not just a method of science but a way of life itself. By taking the scientific method out of the narrow walls of science academia and placing it in a larger context of life, Nehru argued for a new way of living life, a life led by truth, and not by myths and falsehoods.

But, some would argue that we need some form of a larger myth to get through the mundanities of our daily life. The common argument is that people facing enormous odds in their life need something to comfort them mentally, that there is someone caring for them, and that they are not alone amidst the roaring winds in the ocean, rocking the boat called life.

Religion is one common such larger myth used for mental comfort. As I often say, religion is the oldest fake news. Spirituality, the cousin of religion, is another such larger abstract myth/lie that people use to cope with life. While religion is based on a larger figure determining the events in our universe, spirituality talks of larger magic pervading all through the universe, making us part of a single whole.

While I would argue that one can live a life led by truth devoid of the myths like religion and the fad of spirituality in the sense that's marketed these days, it is useful to look at the broad stroke of history to understand the feasibility of scientific temper as a way of life.

In the course of human history, religion played three important roles

Difference between Anti-Science, Pseudoscience, and Science denial

Anti-Science: Anti-science is about being anti-scientific method, the process that requires evidence etc. These people do not consider the scientific method as a way of verifying claims or approaching the truth. They think that some questions are beyond the scientific method.
The best example is a section of those who believe in God. When asked about the evidence for God, they respond - Does everything need to require evidence? Some are about faith, they are beyond science. 
This is anti-science because it disregards the scientific method altogether.
Pseudoscience: Using science terminology but not the scientific method to justify certain things, mostly woo-woo.
For instance, if someone claims that eclipses cause disturbances in mental health because the change in gravity affects the fluids in the brain, it's pseudoscience. It's using science terms without scientific method - it neither gives a mathematical calculation of the amount of fluid disturbance that's big enough to cause a disturbance (also a mechanism that translates fluid disturbance to alteration of mental status) nor does it provide experimental proof.
Most modern age godmen propagate pseudoscience. They give the legitimacy of science to their claims by using science terms without the following scientific method. It is aimed to convince people who do not want to be seen as being anti-science.
Science denial: Denying science completely but on flimsy reasons. Anti vaxers and Anti-climate change people come under this category.
Despite enormous documented evidence on vaccines and climate change, science deniers hold on to flimsy reasons to deny it. Some anti vaxers, for instance, say: Why did I not get disease despite not being vaccinated? This is a corporate scam.
Some of it can also be due to a misunderstanding of the scientific method. A great example is that of Phoebe in the famous sitcom FRIENDS, denying revolution because there's a tiny probability that evolution could be wrong, then why should I believe it.
The difference between science deniers and anti-science is that anti-science people deny the approach of scientific method altogether. Science deniers, on the other hand, claim to follow scientific method but either misinterpret it or find flimsiest objections to scientifically proven claims.

Physics rules out the presence of "Soul", "Ghosts", and "Afterlife"

Brian Cox and Sean Carroll have dissected the concepts of soul, ghosts and afterlife.

Short story: Physics rules out the presence of "soul", "ghosts", and "afterlife".

Reason in brief: If the soul has to be present and driving our body functions, it has to be interacting strongly with matter, which our bodies are made of. We know very well, to a high degree of precision, how the particles of matter behave, which our bodies are made of, at the energies of room temperature. This knowledge rules out the presence of any other 5th force that interacts with matter at these energies.  A similar argument can be extended to ghosts and by extension afterlife is ruled out.

Sean Carroll


"Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?
Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.
Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.
Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.
Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.
But let’s say you do that. How is the spirit energy supposed to interact with us? Here is the equation that tells us how electrons behave in the everyday world:
i\gamma^\mu \partial_\mu \psi_e - m \psi_e = ie\gamma^\mu A_\mu  \psi_e - \gamma^\mu\omega_\mu \psi_e .
Dont’ worry about the details; it’s the fact that the equation exists that matters, not its particular form. It’s the Dirac equation — the two terms on the left are roughly the velocity of the electron and its inertia — coupled to electromagnetism and gravity, the two terms on the right.
As far as every experiment ever done is concerned, this equation is the correct description of how electrons behave at everyday energies. It’s not a complete description; we haven’t included the weak nuclear force, or couplings to hypothetical particles like the Higgs boson. But that’s okay, since those are only important at high energies and/or short distances, very far from the regime of relevance to the human brain.
If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. (If that term doesn’t exist, electrons will just go on their way as if there weren’t any soul at all, and then what’s the point?) So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking — what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information?
Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death. It’s not a difficult decision, as scientific theory-choice goes.
We don’t choose theories in a vacuum. We are allowed — indeed, required — to ask how claims about how the world works fit in with other things we know about how the world works. I’ve been talking here like a particle physicist, but there’s an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology. Presumably amino acids and proteins don’t have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?
There’s no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science. Once we get over any reluctance to face reality on this issue, we can get down to the much more interesting questions of how human beings and consciousness really work."

Brian Cox


[Following is the transcript of the video. I recommend watching the video for better comprehension]

"So, here is my arm. It is made of electrons and protons and neutrons. If I have a soul in there, something we don't understand - different kind of energy or whatever it is. We don't have physics at the moment. It interacts with the matter because I am moving my hand around. So, whatever it is, it is something that interacts very strongly with matter. But, if you look at the history of particle physics in particular, which is the study of matter, we spent decades making high precision measurements of how masses behaves and interacts. And we look for example, for the fifth force of nature. We know four forces - gravity, two nuclear forces called weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism. And that's what we know exists. we looked for another one with ultra-high precision and we don't see any evidence of it. So, I would claim that we know how matter interacts at these energies at room temperature. We know how matter interacts very precisely.

If we want to suggest that something else that interacts with matter strongly, then I would say that it's ruled out, I would go as far as saying that it is ruled out by experiment. It is extremely subtle and you would have to jump a lot of hoops to come up with a theory of some stuff that we wouldn't have seen when we observed how it interacts it with matter that is present in our bodies. Presumably, we believe in the soul that we wanted to exist outside, when you die, you might believe in ghosts and things like that.

If ghosts are something that carries the imprint of you presumably, it looks like you. So, that means that it interacts strongly with the matter that is you. Because it carries a pattern. If it carries a pattern, it carries information. If it carries information, there has to be an energy source to allow for that information and pattern to persist. Again, you end up with a theory that is postulating something that interacts with light. If you think a ghost is a soul, then it is something that people see sometimes. That means it interacts with light. But we know how light interacts."




Challenges to promote scientific temper in India

Promoting scientific temper in itself is a challenging task. Given that it aims to promote reason, the usual tools to manipulate emotions, that are used by several other movements aiming to promote new ideas, are not at its disposal.

Apart from some of these usual constraints, there are some emerging constraints to promote scientific temper, some of which are specific to India.

1. Using the vocabulary of science to justify superstitions: Earlier, the superstitions were rooted in tradition. Tradition gave legitimacy to superstitions. It is easy to address such superstitions. Now, it has been made complex by using the vocabulary of science to justify the superstitions. In this innovative approach, science (vocabulary) is used against science (scientific thinking)!

For instance, in olden days, people would just say that some things happen on the eclipse day. People are advised to follow some precautions like not eating food, taking care of mentally ill patients etc. This practice was rooted in tradition. Now, people use science vocabulary of gravitation, light etc. to justify these - the gravitation of the moon affects the liquid in the brain increasing the mental illness.

People who want to be seen on the right side, the side of science, but also cannot resist the appeal of the messengers of such pseudoscience are the victims. Such people are educated enough to know that this is the vocabulary of science, but not educated enough to see through the nonsensical claims. Once educated people start believing, even though for wrong reasons, it creates a broader social legitimacy for such superstitions.

It takes much longer than usual to debunk such theories as it involves explaining the nuances and details of the scientific theories. The problem is that people usually do not have such high attention span. It thus creates challenges in promoting scientific temper.

2. Associating superstition with religion: People associate superstition with religion. Once you associate something with religion, it creates several complications - it enters into a space of personal opinion which others ought not to criticize; criticism of superstition becomes an attack on the religion. The effects of the narrative of "attack on our identity" is fulled by an environment of a growing identity crisis in the world.

Astrology, the superstitions around eclipse and Vaastu are classic examples of this phenomenon. The killing of anti-superstition activists like Dabholkar is an example of people conflating the criticism of superstition with an attack on religion.


3. Falling prey to the pseudoscience of godmen preaching life lessons: Human life is difficult. People go through a lot of emotional turmoil. In such states of vulnerability, people turn to godmen for direction. Given that the godmen are good orators, they do provide some soothing. In order to experience this, one has to completely trust everything the godmen say. People enter into an all or none relationship with godmen.

As a consequence, this means that people also have to believe in the pseudoscience spread by these godmen. Linking it to the argument above, godmen have specialized in using science vocabulary to promote pseudoscience and superstition. This deadly combination affects the reasoning ability of people.

Making people separate the life lessons from the pseudoscience is a challenge to promote the scientific temper.

4. Using nationalism to get support for pseudoscience by portraying pseudoscience and superstition as Indian ancient wisdom deliberately discredited by the West: There is a new trend of framing the pseudoscience in the west vs east binary by the pseudo-science propagators. To begin with, they claim that their claim is scientific, then they say that it was already known to ancient Indians which was only recently discovered by the West. Finally, they argue that the West says the same thing as ancient Indian wisdom does but terms ancient Indian wisdom as superstition while calling the western discovery as the science.

This line of argument plays with the general sentiment of Indians of a feeling of being neglected and suppressed by the west. Psychologically, believing such pseudo-scientific claims immediately becomes an act of rebellion, reclaiming India from the clutches of the West. Thus, it also taps into the basal nationalist feelings, which is on rising in recent years. Even the well-educated fall into this trap when pseudoscience is given a nationalist tinge.

Of course, the problems with this are obvious. Their claim is not scientific, to begin with. It's just a clever arrangement of scientific vocabulary. Besides, it suffers a common logical error of - two things sound the same hence they should be the same. For instance, quantum physics sounds weird and consciousness sounds weird and hence consciousness and quantum physics must be one and the same. Similarly, the metaphysical claim and scientific claim sound similar and hence they must be the same.

5. Laws that do not promote free speech especially criticism against religion: Promoting scientific temper clashes with religion (at least what is perceived to be part of religion) at some point. Given the trend of associating every superstition with religion, any criticism of superstition is a criticism of religion. It thus falls under the purview of "hurting religious sentiments" giving scope for zealous administrators and governments to harass the messengers of scientific temper.

6. Reducing scientific fact to an opinion: In the famous TV series F.R.I.E.N.D.S, a character named Phoebe argues regarding evolution: Evolution is your opinion, why can't I have my opinion, that's different from evolution, an opinion of creation.

The sinister thing about such arguments is that it reduces a scientific fact, which has evidence and there's no question of disagreement, to an opinion where it is reasonable to have an "opinion" contradictory to the evidence.

Once you reduce something to an opinion, the debate then becomes your opinion vs. my opinion. It then follows that we must agree to disagree while respecting other's opinion. Thus, the argument ends in a deadlock/stalemate. Phrasing pseudoscience in such manner makes it resistant to any further probing.

This tactic was earlier used limitedly in the case of the question of the existence of God, but it has grown enormously during recent times. Even the flat-earthers and sun sign horoscope believers are using this tactic. Apparently, one must respect the "opinion" of flat-earthers and sun sign horoscope believers.

For one, it is not a subjective thing where one can have an opinion. It is a scientific fact that the earth is flat and sun sign horoscope is absolute nonsense. And, one need not respect these opinions. One should just recognize the freedom to hold such opinions but others are under no obligation to respect these "opinions". They deserve all the ridicule they get.


7. Government support to pseudoscience: The phrasing of pseudoscience and superstitions as matters of religion, a cultural identity that is a matter of national pride makes it ripe ground for politicians to gain support by rallying people along these lines. The free speech-restricting laws become readily available tools for the government to suppress those who criticize the pseudoscience and superstitions. It makes the job of reformists extra difficult.

8. Parents do not perceive science education as a human development process: There is an interesting paradox in case of Indian parents obsessed with engineering and medical education on which they spend an enormous amount of money: Parents want their children to learn science but not use it to question the superstitions and religion. They perceive science only as an instrument of social mobility, not as a human development process. They are happy to hear their children solve the problems on gravitation but not when the child uses the knowledge of gravitation to debunk the pseudoscience of the moon affecting fluid levels in the brain.

If a teacher in school inculcates the questioning skills in children, parents are immediately worried about the attack on their beliefs and superstition. Often, it turns into complaints on the science teacher or at least requests to the teacher to not promote such thinking in the children. Some even go to the extent of changing the school or tuition teacher.

School is the place meant for the inculcation of scientific temper. Lack of parental cooperation at this stage is a significant challenge.

While the seven challenges above were about the nature of the content of superstitions, pseudoscience, and their justifications, the next two challenges are regarding the community of people who are supposed to promote scientific temper.

9. Science communication is pursued more like the spread of knowledge of science and not as developing critical thinking: The science columns of all the major newspapers and websites, and even the digital media initiatives, including the ones by various research institutes are about spread of knowledge of science. You rarely find content that criticizes superstitions, pseudoscience OR for that matter tries to educate people about the scientific method and develop critical thinking.

10. Lack of initiative from scientists and science communicators to take the pseudoscience propagators head-on: One of the reasons for treating science communication as the spread of knowledge but not the spread of scientific method is due to the lack of initiative from the scientists and science communicators to take the pseudoscience and superstition propagators head-on.
It could be due to many reasons. As late Prof. Majul Bhargava said, many scientists in India are themselves are believers of such pseudoscience and superstitions. Part of the reason is because of the phrasing of pseudoscience and superstitions as matters of religion and cultural identity. It's easy for those who grew up in this ecosystem to subscribe to these beliefs.

Some people of this community believe that holding such pseudoscience beliefs like astrology does not cause much harm. The other reason could be that either they are busy or they are not well versed with the new age media. The fact that the government supports such pseudoscience coupled with free restriction laws in India, and the violence against the reformers could also be one of the reasons.

In any case, scientists and science communicators should take these issues and pseudoscience propagating people head-on. If not, it will come to bite them back one day. It is difficult to get support for scientific endeavours from a society that does not value science. It is in their best interests to take initiative and take part in the social reform process too.

Conclusion

It is not to say that these challenges are insurmountable. Messengers of scientific temper are ready to face them on their own without help from the government except for one thing - the laws, and law and order. If the laws are amended to promote free speech, and law & order is improved to give protection to free speech, it boosts the activity of promoting scientific temper.

Are societies in ideological states easily susceptible to pseudoscience?

Srinivas Ramani has an article in The Hindu on the links between the pseudoscientific claims and the political narratives. He argues that "unscientific belief systems and grand political narratives have a symbiotic relationship". He cites Nazis usage of eugenics to support their fascist ideas and Lysenko's rejection of genetics to support Stalin's totalitarian state.

This brings us to the question - Are societies in ideological states easily susceptible to pseudoscience? There's a good reason to think so. Ideological (totalitarian) states, the fascist state of Germany for example, gain their legitimacy by convincing people strongly about a certain idea. An idea that makes people put the idea above the individual, and an idea that privileges emotion over reason. Only then can one induce people into unquestioned submissiveness and only then one can justify the atrocities of the ideological states.

It's now easy to see the susceptibility of societies in ideological states to pseudoscience. The victory of emotion over reason leads to a society devoid of critical question, a society that believes anything that suits its confirmation bias, often the one that serves the ideological state. Pseudoscience in Germany and USSR are examples of this phenomenon.

It must be noted that the pseudoscience in these societies was not due to the lack of availability of scientific facts. The scientific knowledge was very much there. People just did not care to think critically enough to consider the facts and objectively evaluate them, without privileging emotion over reason.

This has important lessons for fighting pseudoscience. 

One, the wide prevalence of pseudoscience is not about lack of facts. It's a lack of thinking. Focusing only on bombarding facts will have limited returns.

Two, the prevalence of pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere. The prevalence of pseudoscience is both an effect and cause for a society devoid of scientific temper. The more one bombard society with pseudoscience, the more people get accustomed to privileging emotion over reason, and the more they become susceptible to other pseudoscience elements. 

The rippling effects of pseudoscience on the psyche of society are proportional to the extent of emotion invoked in that particular pseudoscience. On this metric, pseudoscience that invokes culture, tradition, and history for justification rank the highest. Hence, if we are to curb the spread of pseudoscience in a society or imbibe the spirit of scientific temper in society, the most emotionally rooted pseudoscience is to be attacked first. Only when people confront their deep emotions in such cases head-on, they can be prepared for other cases. These are the low hanging fruits. In the Indian case, astrology, eclipse, Vaastu, and the recent prevalence of advanced scientific claims of the past are the examples of such emotionally rooted pseudoscience.

This links back to my earlier post regarding Prof. K VijayRaghavan's (Prof KVR from now on) views on Indian Science Congress issue. He argued that we disproportionately focus on random statements claiming advance scientific advances of the past, while the real harm is done by the pseudoscience on climate change, genetics etc. 

In the light of the above discussion on the lessons for fighting pseudoscience, we can observe that Prof KVR's arguments ignore the two features of the pseudoscience. By asking to ignore the emotionally rooted pseudoscience and focus on the non-emotional ones, he is presuming that fighting pseudoscience is about disseminating accurate information on vaccination etc, ignoring the element of emotion. Further, such an approach does not recognize the role played by the emotionally rooted pseudoscience in the prevalence of the non-emotional ones like vaccination etc, through the mechanism of stunting people scientifically; corrupting people's software, in simple words.

In summary, if we are to fight pseudoscience, we have to fight every pseudoscientific myth that is rooted in emotion (including culture, tradition, religion), no matter how benign it looks. It's a way of preventing people's thinking from being corrupted. In India, let's start with astrology, eclipses, vaastu, and claims of advanced scientific achievements of the past.

Response to Prof K VijayRaghavan on the Indian Science Congress issue: Pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere

The annual Indian Science Congress was held from January 4-7, 2019. It became an issue in news due to the comments made by some scientists at the event claiming that ancient Indians had knowledge of stem cell, test tube babies etc. and that Newton and Einstein are wrong. 

Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, Prof. K VijayRaghavan (Prof KVR from now on) responded to the criticism in a blog post. In summary, he made three arguments.

1. The government has no (or little) role in the selection of speakers for the event. The government's position as reflected in the PM's speech speaks about the need for enhanced research in state universities and does not contain any such pseudoscientific statements.

2. The speaker who made the remarks can be reported to the Chancellor.

3. We disproportionately focus on the random statements of non-scientists and fill the pseudoscience bin with these. However, the dangerous "gorillas" are outside. These are the ones that cause the greatest harm and these are the ones that we ought to focus on. Prof KVR notes some instances: anti-climate change, anti-vaccination, misinterpretation of genetics etc. In Prof. KVR's words

"Such views, if not repudiated have a great danger in seeing the revival of eugenics On a more mundane level, many scientists look at where research work is published, to judge its merit rather than what it says, creating an assessment pyramid which has little science in its construct.  These are the topics that must be at the centre of the debate on pseudoscience. 
....if we  (our scientists, in India)  hesitate to call our #pseudoscience in these debates we risk endangering our citizens and the planet. By preventing the right thing from being done and by also by doing the wrong thing ‘big’ pseudoscience poses a great danger."

Prof KVR's third argument on the different categories of pseudoscience, if we may call it so, is an important one. I would like to elaborate on it disagreeing with the view that we should focus more on one category than the other.

For the sake of this discussion, we can say that broadly, there are two kinds of pseudoscience. The first is where, in Prof KVR’s words, “lay people, including politicians, make random untenable statements linking religion, culture, the past etc. to science in an erroneous manner”. Let’s call this Type-I pseudoscience. These are the so-called benign ones as they do not cause any concrete harm in the present.

The second category of pseudoscience constitutes pseudoscientific opinions, especially of policymakers and sometimes even scientists, on aspects like climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence, genetics etc. Let’s call this as Type-II pseudoscience. This category of pseudoscience has concrete disastrous effects on society and the economy. For instance, the anti-vaccination narrative makes people prone to diseases causing death.

Prof. KVR’s argument is that Type-I pseudoscience is benign and can be addressed with "collegial communication" whereas Type-II pseudoscience can cause serious harm and hence ought to be the primary focus.

I respectfully disagree with this argument that delinks the Type-I and Type-II pseudoscience.

The essential tool to counter pseudoscience of any type is an informed citizenry with the scientific temper. While the Type-I pseudoscience may not cause concrete harm immediately, its harmful effect arises from the fact that it nurtures a mindset in people, a mindset that it is ok to believe something without evidence, a mindset that privileges emotion over reason. In short, the so-called benign pseudoscience makes citizenry scientifically stunted. The harmful Type-II pseudoscience cannot be fought with such scientifically stunted citizenry. Hence, it is as important to counter the Type-I pseudoscience, as it is to counter the Type-II pseudoscience.

Unfortunately, the necessity to counter the Type-I pseudoscience, the so-called benign ones and its link to countering Type-II pseudoscience are not well understood. The argument to look over the so-called benign pseudoscience is not uncommon. Recently, in a workshop on science communication held at IMSc Chennai, one of the panellists, head of a famous research institute remarked something to the effect of “If people want to believe in astrology, let them be. Though the claims are not true, it’s not causing any harm to others” (paraphrased). This statement again reflects the view that it’s okay to hold some types of pseudoscientific beliefs as they are harmless in a larger sense, at least relatively, as compared to the harmful ones like vaccination. Hence, we should let them be!

This is a grave mistake. We must note that pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere. A citizenry that believes in astrology, without having any evidence to support it, is equally susceptible to any other pseudoscientific claim made without evidence. We can’t expect scientific temper to suddenly spring up in such people and not fall prey to Type-II pseudoscience, the harmful ones. When the evidence-based reasoning, more broadly the scientific temper, itself is absent among citizenry, we can’t expect to counter the Type-II pseudoscience either.

Thus, to fight Type-II pseudoscience, it is equally important to Type-I pseudoscience, the kind that prepares the ground for Type-II pseudoscience. We can't afford to privilege the fight against one type of pseudoscience over the other because they are deeply interlinked. Fight against one should include the fight against the other.

In summary, pseudoscience anywhere is a threat to science everywhere. The harmful effect of benign pseudoscience may not be manifested in concrete harm to society and economy but it causes harm in the sense that it nurtures a mindset in people that makes them susceptible to harmful pseudoscience. Once people have a mindset that it is okay to believe something without evidence, it is hard to educate them and build a movement against harmful pseudoscience like anti-vaccination, anti-climate change etc. Thus, the fight against harmful pseudoscience should include the fight against the seemingly benign pseudoscience too.

When pseudoscience turns into policy

Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India, Prof K Vijay Raghavan in his post on Indian Science Congress fiasco outlines some instances of harm caused by the pseudoscience influenced policy decisions.
  1. Trofim Lysenko’s (under Stalin and Kruschev) rejection of Mendelian genetics, ruined the study of genetics and plant breeding in’ the Soviet Union, ruined Soviet Agriculture and caused famines through the acceptance of what was, then too, clearly pseudoscience. Millions of lives were lost because of the introduction of a process where Lysenko was complicit.
  2. In South Africa, tens of thousands lost their lives when the President and Health Minister asserted that HIV does not cause AIDS. This has long been recanted, fortunately.

How to think about the claims of advanced technology usage in ancient India?

There's a new form of pseudo-science in India. It involves citing events in mythology to claim that ancient Indians had knowledge of advanced technology of this age like stem cell research, aircraft, plastic surgery etc.

On the face of it, these claims are absurd. Having said that, we have to exercise reason to prove that these claims are absurd. The reasoning can be as follows:

1. Fiction OR Real stories? The first question to ask is - if these mythologies are true stories or just a work of fiction.

Someone can still claim that these stories are real stories. Let's for the sake of argument, assume that these are the real stories. We should then ask the next question.

2. Is there corroborative evidence? In research on history, we do turn to written manuscripts and folk tales to get a sense of the society and people of those ages. It's a legitimate way to find out about our past. But, the events and claims in the stories should have corroborative evidence. Bigger the claim, more the need for corroborative evidence.

For instance, if stories say that people of some age used brass vessels, we should be able to find those vessels in archaeological excavations.

Merely citing a story of the past is not proof enough for the existence of such technologies. It will be similar to a future generation reading our Harry Potter stories and arguing that we have people flying on broomsticks in our age.

We have no corroborative evidence to suggest that these specific technologies existed in the past.

3. Do pre-requisites to such advanced technology exist in the past?: Sometimes we may not be able to find direct evidence of a historical fact, but we can find secondary evidence. For instance, if there is mention of the use of iron tools in India but we do not find iron tools in excavations, we should at least prove that people of those ages knew about iron and how to turn it into tools.

Similarly, if someone's claiming of the presence of advanced technologies in the past, we should ask if the pre-requisites to such technologies existed in the past. For instance, guided missiles, aircraft and test tube babies require metallurgy, electricity (some form of power source big enough to power these), genetics etc. We have no evidence that these pre-requisites existed in the past.

(h/t Aniket Sule)

4. What is the mechanism behind these technologies?: If there is an advanced technology, then there should also be a record of the principles behind it. 

In the case of aircraft, some have quoted ancient texts detailing the technology behind the ancient aircraft. In such cases, we must examine if those follow the laws of physics and if it's feasible to make an aircraft from these principles.

Scientists from IISC Bangalore have examined such texts and proved that it is impossible to make an aircraft from these principles. It is against the laws of physics. 

5Logical consistency: Finally, the claims of the existence of advanced technology in the past should have logical consistency. Some questions that are to be addressed are:

a) If there was technology powerful enough to power aircraft, why use horses and chariots? Why not use some form of cars?

b) If there was knowledge of test tube babies, what are the other instances that it happened?

c) If there is so much knowledge about advanced technologies in ancient texts, why is it that the links are always drawn backwards - using something known in our times to claim that it was known in the past? Why can't something new be made from those ancient texts?

Upon examining the claims using the above five questions, we find that all these claims are ridiculous and absurd! The idea of the post is not just to say that these are absurd claims but also lay out reasons for them being absurd. In future, if someone makes similar claims, they have to address the five pointers above.

What is the universe expanding into?

Hubble first discovered that universe is not static and is expanding. Ever since I knew this, a question bugged me - What is the universe expanding into? This is a natural question following the fact that the universe is expanding because in daily life we see that as objects expand, they take up more space. So, what is this additional space that the universe is expanding into?

I came across several versions of answers to this question but none to my satisfaction. I finally found the one that satisfied me. Before coming to the answer that I found satisfactory, let us summarize the variety of answers to this question.

1. The universe is defined this way: We define the universe as the one occupying our entire space. So, by definition, the expanded part becomes part of our universe. Hence, there is no meaning to the question, what it is expanding into! 

You can clearly see why this is unsatisfactory. This is just playing with the semantics.

2. Similar to addition to infinity: The infinity explanation says that expansion of the universe (adding something to the universe) is similar to adding something to infinity that again gives infinity. So, you get the "universe" after expansion, which is practically the same. Hence, the question of expansion is mathematically well explained.

This again, like the definitional approach is unsatisfactory!

3. Expanding balloon: This is the most popular explanation. It says that expanding universe can be thought of increasing distance between two points on an expanding balloon.

While this gives us some idea, it still doesn't address our core question - balloon, in this case, is still expanding into something, which is increasing the distance between the points on the balloon. What is it that the universe is expanding into, that is increasing the distance between the points in the universe?

4. Space is created as it expands: This explanation says that there is a difference between the "expansion" that we usually see in the daily world and the "expansion of the universe". In our daily life, the object that is expanding is embedded in space, and it occupies more space as it expands.

However, in the case of the universe, it is not embedded in a "space" that it can expand into. The universe itself is "space". The "space" itself is expanding. It creates more space as it expands. The newly created space then becomes part of our universe, as per our definition.

This explanation brings out the important distinction between expanding objects in space and expansion of the universe. Though it is satisfactory to a large extent, the expansion phenomenon still seems mysterious.

5. Geometrical explanation: I found the following answer of Adam Solomon satisfying

"It's not expanding "into" anything. Like all of the curved spacetimes we talk about in general relativity, the spacetime describing an expanding universe isn't embedded in some higher-dimensional space. Its curvature is an intrinsic property. 
To be specific, it's the property describing how we measure distances in spacetime. Think about the simplest example of a curved space: the surface of a sphere. If I give you the longitudes of two points and tell you they're at the same latitude (same distance from the equator) and I ask you to tell me how far apart they are, can you do it? Not without more information: those two points will be much further separated if they're near the equator than if they're near the North or South Pole. The curvature of this space means that distances are measured differently at different points in space, particularly, at different latitudes. 
An expanding universe is also a curved space(time), but in this case the curvature doesn't mean that distances are measured differently at different points in space, but at different points in time. The expansion of the Universe means quite simply that the distances we measure between two points which are otherwise stationary grows over time. In effect, the statement that "space" is expanding is really a statement that our cosmic rulers are growing."
Let us understand this. 

First, let us consider a grid of parallel lines in 2-D space. They look as below.

We note that the distance between any two points "A-B", "C-D", "X-Y" is the same. 

Now, let us "bend" the 2-D grid into a 3-D sphere. The vertical lines become longitudes and horizontal lines become latitudes. Notice the change in an important property of the distance between the points. The distance between "A-B" is not the same as the distance between "C-D", which is not the same as the distance between "W-X". If "AB" is the equator, the distance between the points on the same longitudes decreases as we move further away from the equator. EF < CD < AB.

In other words, the curvature of space along the 3rd dimension (creating a sphere) changed the distance between the points as we move along the curvature.

Expansion of the universe is similar to this. The universe is not in a 3-D space as a sphere. It is a 4-D space-time, with time being the extra dimension. What we call as the expansion of the universe is the change in "distance between points" with "time" in the 4-D space-time. 

Just like the curvature of space in 3rd dimension in the case of a sphere causes the change in distance between points as we move along the curvature, the curvature of the 4th dimension, the time, changes the distance between points as we measure along the time (curvature of time). i.e., the distance between points in 3D space increase with time.

As we notice, it is a geometrical property of 4D space-time. It doesn't need anything for the space to expand into.

Summary of Hawking's "Brief Answers to the Big Questions"

Stephen Hawking's new book "Brief Answers to the Big Questions" was recently released posthumously. In this book, Hawking answers 10 big questions of science, technology and humanity. This blog post provides a summary of Hawking's answers to the 10 big questions. Being the expert communicator that Hawking is, he himself provides the summary of his answers at the end of each chapter. So, the text of answers below is that of Hawking itself, taken directly from the book. No copyright violation is intended.


1. Is There a God? 

“How does God’s existence fit into your understanding of the beginning and the end of the universe? And if God was to exist and you had the chance to meet him, what would you ask him?”

“The question is, “Is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand or was it determined by a law of science?” I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you would meet and put questions to. Although, if there were such a God, I would like to ask however did he think of anything as complicated as M-theory in eleven dimensions.

2: How Did It All Begin? 

“What came before the Big Bang?” 

“According to the no-boundary proposal, asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless—like asking what is south of the South Pole—because there is no notion of time available to refer to. The concept of time only exists within our universe.”

3: Is There Other Intelligent Life in the Universe? 

Is there intelligent life on Earth? But seriously, if there is intelligent life elsewhere, it must be a very long way away otherwise it would have visited Earth by now. And I think we would’ve known if we had been visited; it would be like the film Independence Day.

4: Can We Predict the Future? 

“The short answer is no, and yes. In principle, the laws allow us to predict the future. But in practice, the calculations are often too difficult."

[Note that predicting the future here means the prediction of the trajectory of particles given their attributes like position and time, at a given moment. This is not the same as the predicting the future as used in astrology.]

5: What Is Inside a Black Hole? 

“Is falling into a black hole bad news for a space traveller?" 

Definitely bad news. If it were a stellar-mass black hole, you would be made into spaghetti before reaching the horizon. On the other hand, if it were a supermassive black hole, you would cross the horizon with ease, but be crushed out of existence at the singularity.” [Stellar mass black holes form from the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives. Supermassive black holes are found at the centers of galaxies]


6: Is Time Travel Possible? 

“rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding. They would cause great logical problems, so let’s hope there’s a Chronology Protection Law to prevent people going back and killing their parents. But science-fiction fans need not lose heart. There’s hope in M-theory.”

7: Will We Survive on Earth? 

“What is the biggest threat to the future of this planet? An asteroid collision would be—a threat against which we have no defence. But the last big such asteroid collision was about sixty-six million years ago and killed the dinosaurs. A more immediate danger is runaway climate change. A rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus with a temperature of 250 degrees centigrade (482 degrees Fahrenheit). ”

8: Should We Colonise Space? 

“The human race has existed as a separate species for about two million years. Civilisation began about 10,000 years ago, and the rate of development has been steadily increasing. If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before. I hope for the best. I have to. We have no other option.”

I look forward to space travel. I would be one of the first to buy a ticket. I expect that within the next hundred years we will be able to travel anywhere in the solar system, except maybe the outer planets. But travel to the stars will take a bit longer. I reckon in 500 years, we will have visited some of the nearby stars. It won’t be like Star Trek. We won’t be able to travel at warp speed. So a round trip will take at least ten years and probably much longer.”

9: Will Artificial Intelligence Outsmart Us? 

When we invented fire, we messed up repeatedly, then invented the fire extinguisher. With more powerful technologies such as nuclear weapons, synthetic biology and strong artificial intelligence, we should instead plan ahead and aim to get things right the first time, because it may be the only chance we will get. Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.”

10: How Do We Shape the Future?” 

we never really know where the next great scientific discovery will “come from, nor who will make it. Opening up the thrill and wonder of scientific discovery, creating innovative and accessible ways to reach out to the widest young audience possible, greatly increases the chances of finding and inspiring the new Einstein. Wherever she might be.

So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.

What world-changing idea, small or big, would you like to see implemented by humanity? 

This is easy. I would like to see the development of fusion power to give an unlimited supply of clean energy, and a switch to electric cars. Nuclear fusion would become a practical power source and would provide us with an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.