Sunday, May 8, 2011

Paddlers of faith and pseudoscience

A neurosurgeon who is personally known to me, a devout Hindu and presumably devotee of a human god recently sent me the soft copy of a detailed report of a lecture on the impact of Agnihotra (a Vedic ritual) on health and environment by one professor Abel Hernandez, with his comment 'a subject to think .' The professor delivered his lecture in a meeting was organized in Delhi by WAVES (Wider Association for Vedic Studies - an affiliate of World Association for Vedic Studies, U.S.A.) The report on the keynote address by the professor started with these words: "Prof. Abel Hernandez initiated his presentation with video clippings from countries of South America showing large masses of people performing Agnihotra in their individual Hawankunds - all of a specific size. Agnihotra is done sharply at sunrise and sunset with specific material consisting of ghee, dry cow dung pieces and unpolished rice and by reciting specific mantras. Prof. Hernandez described Homa therapy and Homa farming as part of Vedic Science. He said that even though its origin is in the Vedas, it is now being adopted widely by people of various nationalities, speaking different languages, following different faiths, irrespective of caste, gender, etc. In countries of South America it is most popular where it is being used for treatment of chronic diseases, cattle raising and also as an integral part of organic farming . The results obtained so far are remarkable. Patients suffering from various ailments got cured and even some cases of AIDS had a tremendous benefit."
            I am of opinion that this professor was advocating for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories. Distinguishing scientific facts and theories from pseudoscientific beliefs such as those found in astrology, medical quackery, and occult beliefs combined with scientific concepts, is part of science education and scientific literacy.
            The term pseudoscience is often considered inherently pejorative, because it suggests that something is being inaccurately or even deceptively portrayed as science. Accordingly, those labeled as practicing or advocating pseudoscience normally dispute the characterization.
            Pseudoscientific thinking has been explained in terms of cognitive psychology. The human proclivity for seeking confirmation rather than refutation (confirmation bias), the tendency to hold comforting beliefs, and the tendency to over generalise have been proposed as reasons for the common adherence to pseudoscientific thinking. According to psychologist Barry L. Beyerstein humans are prone to associations based on resemblances only, and often prone to misattribution in cause-effect thinking.

Furthermore, pseudoscientific explanations are generally not analyzed rationally, but instead experientially. Operating within a different set of rules compared to rational thinking, experiential thinking regards an explanation as valid if the explanation is "personally functional, satisfying and sufficient", offering a description of the world that may be more personal than can be provided by science and reducing the amount of potential work involved in understanding complex events and outcomes. (The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 1999 Vol. 3 No. 2)

            Distinguishing science from pseudoscience has practical implications in the case of health care, expert testimony, environmental policies, and science education. Treatments with halo of scientific authority which have not actually been subjected to actual scientific testing may be ineffective, expensive, and dangerous to patients, and confuse health providers, insurers, government decision makers, and the public as to what treatments are appropriate. 
            The book Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst (2008) records several occasions where patient's faith in medical pseudoscience has led to complications, further injury and death.
            There are Christian and Muslim versions of pseudoscience. One of my classmates in Medical College, Trivandrum who is a devout Muslim wrote a book in Malayalam on the 'impact' of  verses of Qur'an, a seventh century text, on modern medical science. The Christians whose faith in creation was challenged by science of evolution, invented 'intelligent design' in evolution.

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