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#Sundayreading – Stop scientific distortion- why we must fight pseudo-science

Pseudo-science must not figure in Indian Science Congress
The first powered flight by the Wright Brothers took off on December 17, 1903, in North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet
NASA scientist Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, who started an online petition against an ISC lecture on ancient aviation, on why we must fight pseudo-science.Scientific and technological development can only bring in sustained long-term development. No society can progress if it decides to ignore or distort science.

The 102nd Indian Science Congress was inaugurated yesterday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mumbai University’s Kalina campus and the first plenary talk was given by Dr K Radhakrishnan, ISRO Chairman on India’s prestigious Mars mission. Today, Union Minister Mr Prakash Javadekar will be the chief guest for a session titled Ancient Sciences through Sanskirt. I started an online campaign to prevent a lecture titled Ancient Indian Aviation Technology at this session, for three main reasons. I list them below:

Firstly, I should start off by saying that there cannot be policing in science. Any topic can, and should be, taken up for research. No individual, organisation or government should intervene in a scientific approach to any topic. In the scientific world, experts can, and will always, have differing opinions. We can find research articles that completely disagree with each other based on their own evidence and interpretations. That is the beauty of science.

Professors from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have carried out a detailed study of two books – Brihad Vimana Sastra by Shri Bramhamuni Parivrajaka published in 1959 in Hindi, and-Vymanika Shastra by Shri G R Josyer published in 1973 in English – and published a scientific report based on facts and analysis. According to the article titled A critical study of the work Vymanika Shastra, published in Scientific Opinion by H S Mukunda, S M Deshpande, H R Nagendra, A Prabhu, and S P Govindaraju from IISc, both books contained texts that are part of Yantra Sarvaswa authored by sage Bharadwaja. The article concludes that “the planes described in those books are at best poor concoctions, the geometries are unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying and the principles of propulsion make them resist, rather than assist, flying”. They also report that Parivrajaka and Josyer may be attributing meaning to slokas based on what we know today.

Capt Anand J Bodas, the presenter of the talk titled Ancient Indian Aviation Technology, in his December 26 interview to Mirror claimed that ancient aeroplanes could fly forward, as well as reverse, from continent to continent, and from planet to planet. It’s been 40 years since the IISc professors published their work, concluding that the above mentioned books do not provide any convincing scientific data. The right thing for Capt Bodas to do is to challenge the scientific study of IISc faculty and publish his scientific work in IISc’s Current Science journal or any other international science journal as a peer reviewed article. Peer review is the scientifically acceptable way for publishing scientific claims. Publishing a nonreviewed book does not count.

My second and third argument against the talk is set in the larger context of politicising science.

India’s leading national newspapers report that school children in Gujarat have compulsory supplementary readings that say stem cell research was carried out in ancient India and that motor cars and televisions also existed in the Vedic period. We Indians value education highly. Whether they are rich, poor or middle class, all Indian parents want to give the best possible education to their children. A majority set aside a significant portion of their income to provide this education. Many families are struggling financially, and yet doing their bit to give their children the best possible education. If the newspaper reports are true, then it is time for the parents to discard those text books in the best interest of their children.

My third reason is that in the recent past, propaganda for pseudo-science has been on the rise. It is not only wrong, but also dangerous.

Elected parliamentarians, who are supposed to lead the nation, are distorting the science behind developments such as stem cell research, in-vitro fertilisation and head transplantation (you read it correctly) to suit their pre-conceived beliefs. Following Prime Minister Modi’s comment on ancient genetic science, another parliamentarian Haridwar R P Nishank claimed that ancient India conducted nuclear tests and that astrology, which can predict the future, is far ahead of science. He added that science is a “pygmy compared to astrology”. In fact, it is astrology that prevented ancient Indian astronomy and mathematics from flourishing. While ancient astronomers comprehended the motions of visible celestial bodies, the astrologers later exploited that knowledge to instill fear. This unfortunate tradition of fearing the celestial motions continues even today. Those who appreciate the ancient sciences would acknowledge the damage that the astrology has done. The comment on ancient nuclear tests is absurd. While the individuals are entitled to their opinions and beliefs, they should not distort scientific facts in Parliament. What we see today is the mixing up of science with ideology and politics. Scientific claims are evidence-based and undergo rigorous scrutiny. Such political rhetoric will not withstand scientific investigation. On the topics of science, politicians should listen to what scientists say, and not the other way around.

Contribution of ancient civilisations, be it Indian or Mesopotamian, are highly valued by international experts in the field. The contributions made by ancient Indians in astronomy, mathematics, art and architecture cannot be refuted.

Claims made by Capt Bodas that ancient aeroplanes could move from planet to planet are inline with the parliamentarians’ preposterous comments on eulogising the past and I see a commonality between the two. I will only be happy to be proved wrong.

As astrophysicist Carl Sagan rightly said, “pseudo-science and superstition come in the way of common people appreciating the beauty and benefits of science”. This is not an Indian phenomena alone.

In America, the religious right posed a great challenge to Evolution being taught as a subject in schools as also to stem cell research. But, thanks to the sustained fight of the scientific community, the trend was reversed. Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others, have played a key role in taking science to the general public. Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate in his New Scientist article, titled Stamp out anti-science in US politics, says: Scientific leaders have a responsibility to expose the bunkum. We scientists have not always been proactive in our responsibility. We need to be vigilant about what is being said in the public arena. We need to be vigilant about what politicians are publicising about science and take them on when necessary. During elections, scientists should ensure that science is on the agenda and nonsense is exposed. If that nonsense is extreme enough then the response should be very public. Is it good enough to produce citizens able to cope with public discussions about science? We have to ensure that science and not pseudo-science is being taught in schools.

Indian parents and students will trust scientists more than anybody else in matters of education and research. It is time for scientists to step in, stop scientific distortions made for politics/ideology, clear the school curricula of pseudo-science and be the face of science.

(Ram Prasad Gandhiraman is a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre and Universities Space Research Association in California. He has launched an online petition demanding that Capt Bodas’s lecture scheduled for January 4 be cancelled as it brings into question the “integrity of the scientific process”.)

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Comments (2)

  1. mamtora

    i hope your campaigning for these issues gets more publicity.I would not give lot value to argument these issues will correct themselves in India,religious dogmas have far more power than we presume.

  2. Scientist Ram Prasad Ghandhi Raman is right hundred percent and it is unfortunate that Indian Politiians are trying to mix science with Politics and de grade Scientific temper.Really these people are taking for a ride the Indian masses and it requires to be checked for the good of India

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