If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 20 February 2014

A lot of nonscience

A lot of nonscience floats like smog in the cyberspace. This morning, I came across a post containing seven sets of statements, two of which I’m quoting below: 
  1. THEY SAID the sun will give you cancer. THE TRUTH IS exposure to sun will generate Vitamin D which will protect you from cancer.
  2. THEY SAID vaccines will protect you. THE TRUTH IS most vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury), and that will kill you.
I am inclined to believe this originated in the US of A, because in no other country would you come across such glorious heights scientific and intellectual creativity coexisting with such deep pits of ignorance and stupidity.

Let’s take the first statement above. I don’t think there is any scientific evidence that a twenty-minute exposure to the sun causes cancer. On the contrary, physicians routinely prescribe this for people who suffer from osteoporosis as sunlight helps our body synthesize Vitamin D, which in turn helps absorption of calcium. And I think it is also common knowledge that there is some correlation between skin cancer and prolonged exposure to the sun. So the poster I am referring to contains a half-truth, which we all know, is more dangerous than complete lies. It implies that any amount of exposure to the sun is good. And that’s a most pernicious message.

I respect the author’s right to believe what they believe, but if anyone spreads such questionable science without an iota of supporting evidence, we must politely tell them they are talking rubbish. You might think why I am reacting so strongly to an innocuous poster. But is irrationality really harmless?

Moving on to a different theatre, on the Kolkata Metro, I see on an average four out of ten people wearing on their fingers multiple gemstones that will supposedly help them overcome myriad problems of life, from failure in exams to failure in extra-marital affairs. On a serious note, if you, as an individual, believe in astrology, I have no problem. I would respect your beliefs. But collectively, if we calculate how many millions are being cheated by the humbug propagated by the astrology industry, the mind boggles. And it may not be difficult to guess why this business is so successful.

Superstition perhaps has a natural appeal to the human mind precisely because of its irrationality. It is not surprising that this post I just mentioned has been shared by a whopping 655 people. When we choose to believe something that is not supported by evidence, we are relieved of the mental stress of analysing issues. It’s a lot easier to believe than to collect evidence, analyse them, and to reach a reasoned conclusion. Unquestioning faith is also a part of the Hindu religion, of which willy nilly, we are a part. But the problem is that like in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People or Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya’s Devi, blind faith often leads us to untold misery. And it doesn’t stop there.

Many people in India today believe that a man, who built his political constituency by actively supervising the lynching of Muslims he was duty-bound to protect, will solve all the problems of India. I think this is as irrational as implying that the sun is generally harmful or vaccines are generally dangerous. In fact, the two beliefs might just be two sides of the same coin.

Kolkata / 19 Feb 2014