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.