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Ancient achievements or state-supported pseudo-science?

January 12, 2015 13:06 IST

The 102nd Indian Science Congress, which concluded last week, saw claims on ancient aviation and surgery, and created quite a stir

The 102nd Indian Science Congress will not be remembered for ‘the development of scientific temper’, something the Constitution lists as a fundamental duty. Instead, it will be recalled for the bizarre pseudo-scientific claims made on behalf of the science of ancient India.

It seems pre-historic aviators flew 40-engined, interplanetary saucers. Their uniforms were made from vegetation grown underwater. Guidance was via high-resolution radar. One cited reference work was the Vaimanika Shastra, a Sanskrit text, supposedly dating back 7,000 years.

This was examined in the 1970s at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The IISc called it a fake and ‘a poor concoction’ written in the early 20th century by someone ignorant of aeronautics.

In another session, it was claimed that pre-historic surgeons used hundreds of instruments. Various miraculous claims were also made for cow excreta and urine. And Union Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan made exaggerated claims about India's contributions to mathematics.

These are all part of an ideological drive emanating from the highest levels of the government. There are multiple problems with political regimes being wedded to pseudo-scientific agendas. Nothing good ever comes of it.

First, why make absurd claims when the truth is impressive? Many Sanskrit texts enumerate genuine medical discoveries and experiments. The minister of science and technology also does not seem to understand the big difference between a Maths result, a conjecture and a proof.

Indians (and Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians and Chinese) knew the result that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the squares on the other two sides in some cases. Indians may not have proved that this must always be true. The first known rigorous proofs are in Euclid's textbooks, attributed to Pythagoras.

India's Maths tradition was not proof-oriented but it produced many splendid results. Indians conceptualised infinity and zero, and produced results related to the binomial theorem, trigonometric ratios, pi, infinite series, etc.

Bizarre claims also retard research. This has been noted in the United States, where some states bar evolution being taught since it contradicts the creation claims in the Bible. Those states have fewer institutes of higher bioscience research, and lose out on inventions and discoveries. Arguably, the world paid an opportunity cost when former President George W Bush cut funding for stem-cell research because he subscribed to religious bigotry.

Endorsing pseudo-science can have even worse effects. Stalin asked his drinking buddy, Trofim Lysenko, to oversee Soviet agricultural and genetic research. Lysenko believed in Lamarckism. He thought acquired characteristics can be inherited. For example, if a plant is exposed to cold, the plant's descendants will have higher resistance to cold.

He was wrong. But it was a crime to question Lysenkoism, which caused many famines and crop failures, and crippled Soviet agriculture for decades. Millions starved due to the Soviet regime's endorsement of Lysenko's pseudo-science.

However, notwithstanding the Soviet Union, the gold standard for damage caused by adherence to pseudo-science was set by the Nazis. Many Nazi ideologues wrote papers ‘explaining’ why ‘Aryan Science’ and ‘Aryan scientists’ were better than Jews and other non-Aryans. Scientists of Jewish origin were driven out (along with non-Jews like Erwin Schrödinger).

‘Non-Aryan research’ was expunged. The emigres meanwhile contributed to research that helped win World War II.

The Nazi extermination programme was also based on a pseudo-science, eugenics: only healthy ‘Aryan’ were supposed to live and breed. Apart from Jews and gypsies, physical cripples, ‘mental defectives’ and people with neurological diseases were killed. Stephen Hawking would have been gassed.

The Indian government lacks the social levers to implement idiocy on such a monumental scale. But it is misallocating resources as best as it can. Over a million Indians die before they are five years old, mostly due to treatable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea.

But the conventional healthcare Budget is being cut, even as a new ‘Department of Ayush’ is raised, and allocations are made for ‘Ayurgenomics’ research and manufacturing cow urine. Child-safe antibiotics and rehydration salts versus bovine diuretics and cowpats: an interesting variation on the trade-off between guns and butter.

Devangshu Datta
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