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.