There used to be rituals performed in some isolated tribes, mainly in Pacific islands, which consisted of building runways of beaten earth and “observation towers” of wood or bamboo; the tribesmen believed that these constructions would actually attract the aeroplanes flying overhead, full of consumer goods or ‘cargo’. The phenomenon was called ‘cargo cult’. Though now anthropologists discourage the use of this word with its discriminatory connotations, and there are doubts about western interpretation of this, the practice was real enough and very interesting.
Wikipedia explains: “Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a “vision” (or “myth-dream”) of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy (“mana“) thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.”
Though historically this is specific to Melanesia and Polynesia, any discerning Indian will recognize the cult of our current leader as being quite akin to such ‘cargo-cults’. Our charismatic leadership figure has declared war on knowledge and expertise, his “Harvard v/s hard-work” controversy being a case to point. Falsehood and gibberish is given a scientific veneer and presented as ‘science’. Some of this bears as much resemblance to real scientific work as an empty tower made of bamboo does to a real and functioning air-traffic control tower. So much fake news is erupting around us that it is becoming harder to tell truth from falsehood, real from fake. Science, which at its purest form is a mission to understand the truisms at the heart of universe and life, is the first casualty. However, in undermining science we risk something more because a secondary mission of science is to support technology and medicine that use scientific knowledge to tame and use nature to human benefit. If science becomes permeated by nonsensical falsehood, it cannot support precision technology or advanced medicine either. But promoting fake science is very much a part of the new Indic cargo cult.
A striking example is the article doing rounds on Twitter, purporting to prove that sounds of “thali and ghanti” can destroy Corona viruses.
Take that biochemists! pic.twitter.com/kP3ORww1XZ— Sanobar (@SanobarFatma) June 13, 2020
The article has now been retracted though this has not prevented people from continuing to share it to showcase the perspicacity of the Indian Prime Minister. Interestingly, a closer read reveals that in fact it is hedging its bet with the title: “Corona Virus killed by sound vibrations produced by thali or ghanti: a potential hypothesis”. A mere hypothesis, that too potential, is usually not enough to be published in a scientific journal. Before looking at how a typical scientific journal functions, let us look further at the abstract. Again, it is a vapid mix of previously known information and an expressed “hope”, mentioning the cult leader and written in dodgy English, full of grammatical mistakes. This in itself is enough to set the alarm-bells ringing. While insistence on correct language is now often equated to snobbery, correct and precise language is in fact a necessity when the aim is to develop a common framework to describe and understand reality.
So now that we are warned, we wonder how such an article, empty of substrate and carelessly written could make it past the usually stringent filters of a scientific journal. In fact, it turns out that the journal itself, called “Journal of molecular pharmaceuticals and regulatory affairs” is dodgy. For example, in its editorial board it lists one “Dr. Alireza Heidari, Professor Faculty of Chemistry, California South University (CSU), United States” but California South University is itself a fake. One common way for a non-expert to establish the authenticity of a journal is to look at its place in an indexing service. Some of the common index are MedLine, PubMed, EMBASE, SCOPUS, EBSCO, and SCIRUS. None of them appear in the webpage of the journal – the only name familiar to scholars will be ‘google scholar’ extensively used due to its user-friendliness, but also notorious for its indiscriminate inclusion of predatory journals.
The perpetrators of pseudo-sciences seem to think that by building a parallel narrative, reality can be changed. But reality is not changed by changing its description. The truth is unique, even though there may be multiple interpretations. By cacophonous repetition, lies cannot become facts. And technology based on pseudo-science cannot work.
So how can a layperson or non-expert tell the difference between fake and real science?
The following rules of thumb can help:
1. A piece of scientific work does not stand-alone – it fits into an existing framework. If a work is contradicting what is already known to be true, one needs to be extra careful. Paradigm shifts do happen in science when a new piece of work reveals that the old way of looking at things was not adequate – but this is relatively rare. In exact sciences, where existing theory is rigorously checked against precise experiments, it is virtually unknown that old knowledge is discarded out of hand on basis of a single paper. So check against what you know.
2. If however, you have forgotten your science lessons, you can still play Sherlock Holmes by looking at where the primary research was published. The gold-standard of professional scientists is a publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer-review means just that – an article is reviewed by colleagues in the field. Most journals take care to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between author and reviewer. The name of the reviewer is not revealed (in most journals), to ensure fearless assessment, and recently, some journals have introduced double-blind refereeing where the author’s name is not revealed to the reviewer. A scientific article is supposed to explore the unknown and is necessarily highly specialized. Peer-review ensures that it is also judged by highly specialized people who understand all aspects of the work and are able to spot errors. This is not fool-proof as revealed in the recent hydroxychloroquine controversy, but errors are usually quickly spotted and corrected as was done in this case.
One important point of publishing in a recognized journal is that source of funding for the research as well as any conflict of interest needs to be revealed. This increases confidence in veracity of the report for obvious reasons.
3. If you are lazy to look into the primary publication or if it is so far removed from your area of work and education that it is impossible to do so, the last and least good method is to depend on a reliable intermediate. This would often be a scientist who is also a popularizer, or a journalist. In this case, the point about conflict of interest is even more important. Reputation also becomes important here. It is imperative to seek out reliable and impartial sources. Clearly a journalist who holds a share in X pharmaceutical company cannot be believed if (s)he promotes an article praising a product of the company X or if they vilify a rival company Y. Authenticity and trustworthiness are qualities that are established over time – you need to judge for yourself based on evidence.
One may wonder why all this is important. Why it is not ok to build a parallel science where conventional medicine is replaced by Patanjali cures and pupils learn astrology instead of astronomy or creationism instead of evolution. The pseudo-science brigade seems to think that the difference between science and pseudo-science lies in credibility. That is why on one hand it tries hard to undermine real science and on the other hand, it mimics the edifices of scientific endeavor to try and legitimize itself. In reality of course, it is not a question of one practice versus another, one belief system versus another or one ideology versus another. It is a question of reality and veracity versus illusion and blind-faith. If the alternative pseudo-science could also explore the deep material truths of nature in a way that could be used to predict or build, one could talk of confrontation between two equals. As is, fake science is just that – fake. It can predict nothing and is no good as a basis for building anything. And that is the deep difference between science and pseudo-science.
Pseudo-science, however much it disguises itself, is a ‘cargo-cult’. Dressing itself in the costume of ‘science’ and pretending to do science while in reality pushing an agenda of glorification of either the supreme leader or an imagined past cannot replace real research and erudition. Like the original cargo-cult structures that would never manage to make an aeroplane deliver cargo, pseudo-science cannot deliver anything either. So, even disregarding the natural preference of humans for Truth, it is important to support science and fight pseudo-science from the very simple selfish desire to continue to enjoy the fruits of modern technology and medicine – from internet-connectivity to effective vaccination against new diseases. Otherwise, in the long run, we risk going back to a past where horses are the fastest means of transport and a simple wound becomes gangrenous due to lack of effective antibiotics. Then, no amount of quack Patanjali products or Satguru-led meditation would bring back the comfortable present or a hopeful future