“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
— David Hume, Scottish philosopher
Belief v/s science is an age-old debate. However it is important to understand that the concept of belief is inherently different from science. You can only believe in something when you aren’t sure of its truth. Science doesn’t need belief to stand true. It stands true independent of human perceptions. It is the primary property of fact to stand independent of our ingrained biases. Science is a method, a process, that applies critical thinking. It is naturally inquisitive and questioning. Pseudoscience on the other hand, literally meaning false science, is a set of beliefs that purport unsubstantiated, unscientific and baseless claims of the natural world. It is essentially any claim that fits within our preconceived notion and feels true. It comes under the guise of being adherent to the scientific principles of rationality. But oftentimes, just one question asked with critical thought is enough to break down the whole argument.
An important distinction exists between science and pseudoscience. Science allows its disproval. This was articulately described by Karl Popper through the concept of “falsifiability”. The philosopher stressed the falsifiability criterion to separate science from nonscience. Science has an inherent and accepted possibility of being proved false. What science holds true today retreats when better science comes forward to replace it.
Pseudoscience however never accepts disagreements. In the face of any opposition, pseudoscience hits back and shouts that it’s being attacked. It clings onto other social structures such as nationalism and patriarchy for support and brands itself the victim of a witch-hunt by pretentious people who dare question it. It appeals to the emotional irrationality of a person, asking them to keep aside their critical thinking and accept it purely on the grounds of national, regional, communal and religious identities.
India in particular has a dear obsession with pseudoscience. Belief in these claims means to believe in the idea of India and our glorious and revered past. The difficulty of the Indian psyche to let go of this past manifests itself in the form of strong beliefs in rituals, astrology and most dangerously, alternative medicine. Ayurveda and homoeopathy have been repeatedly discredited as quackery, yet we have a whole ministry funding for the same. Particularly, the use of alternative medicine for life-threatening and chronic conditions is the most dangerous. The godly status of pseudoscientific beliefs shields it from any critical scrutiny. This positioning by itself is problematic and must be rejected.
The present dispensation is particularly interested in all this. The Ministry of AYUSH, started in 2015, stands for Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, it is a ministry created to fund pseudoscientific research and propagation of alternative medicines. It has been heavily criticised and discredited by the scientific community. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has funded a clinical trial at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Rishikesh, to test the effectiveness of chanting the Gayatri Mantra against COVID. The Indian government also promoted the use of traditional medicine during the pandemic. Wrongful funding such as these are detrimental to the economy and the progress of the country. So many scientific departments in our country are severely underfunded and the priorities of the government clearly lie elsewhere. This is because, as said above, pseudoscientific beliefs have deep emotive and political stakes.
The discourse around pseudoscience is important as baseless claims made can often be dangerous, particularly when it comes into the field of medicine. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness on this issue. The freedom of expression of professing any values must be kept in check when it threatens to step over and assume the role of science in society only to do harm.