In his 1974 commencement address to Caltech students on “science, pseudoscience and learning how not to fool yourself”, the redoubtable Richard Feynman recounted a post-war story about people on a remote island in the Pacific. During the war, airplanes brought food and supplies to the island that operated as an airbase. Relentless in their quest to keep the supplies coming after the war, the islanders mimicked soldiers’ actions by lighting fires along the runway, shaping a hut like a control tower, and placing a controller inside wearing pieces of wood like headphones. And then, they waited for the planes to land. The inference, based on the studious observation that soldiers’ actions on the ground were the reason that planes came with cargo from the skies, is what the celebrated physicist named Cargo Cult Science — one that “followed all precepts and forms of scientific investigation”, but could not make planes land. Feynman’s advice was that while trying to make elaborate theories fit in with what they believe to be true, scientists must “bend over backwards to show” why they may be completely wrong.
A month after the world celebrated Feynman at 100, his jeremiad against the threat of pseudoscience reads like a generalised note of caution to everyone interested in protecting the spirit of scientific inquiry. In the most basic sense, this is why: We are being repeatedly told by people in responsible positions that religion foretold scientific discoveries — that Mahabharata’s Sanjay had access to the internet and there were test-tube babies and aeroplanes during Ramayana.
But what harm could come from a few trying to use the language of science to either obsessively seek out the truth that fits their worldview or add a little pseudoscientific spin to ideas they hold dear? After all, these are matters best dissed with memes.
The lurking danger, if any, is the creation of belief systems that could cloud out the room for “thinking about our own thinking”. This knack, which developmental psychologist John Flavell identified as metacognition, is the significant spoke in our learning process. It is considered to be at the core of our critical ability to reflect on our belief acquisition.
On our canvas of action, learning science has largely been about crash-landing that job past the sleepy drone of lectures. But what it’s really about is acquiring the ability to apply the scientific method to things that we encounter daily. It’s the resistance against the soft succulence of irrationality. Picture a family WhatsApp group where you are a downer-realist trying to disprove that the Pushpak Viman wasn’t a flying saucer. You’re brave if you tried, the group is uninfected if you won.
In his book Believing Bullshit, philosopher Stephen Law described such “self-sealing” belief systems immune to scientific inquiry and rational criticism as Intellectual Black Holes. He argued, “Once our minds have been captured by such a belief system, we become vulnerable to the wiles of those who control it.” The threat is that dressed up as systematic common sense, junk science can come at a low intellectual introductory price. Awareness barriers can be breached one WhatsApp forward at a time.
What is known is that researchers studying roadblocks in developing mature scientific thinking recognise that like reading and mathematics, scientific thinking is not just educationally but also culturally mediated. It is groomed by training, and “the thinking skills involved (in developing a scientific mind) require practice and are developed slowly and deliberately with the aid of cultural tools.”(‘The Psychology of (Pseudo)Science: Cognitive, Social and Cultural Factors’ by Emilio J C Lobato and Corinne Zimmerman; published in Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science). Winding down their argument, the authors of the study observe, that our best defence against pseudoscientific thinking is fighting back “with collective and shared efforts of the culture of science”.
Whether knowingly or intuitively, when worthies holding constitutional posts, in this case, the Governor of Punjab, choose events like the National Technology Day to hold up the creation of Ram Setu and carting of Sanjeevani as tech advances, all they politely prescribe are easy-to-swallow gel caps of unreason. It’s not a hard tablet that will work anyone into a lather at the sight of it.
This formulaic repetition, however, is an assault that could corrode the ability to call out snake oil salesmen. It might even serve as a launchpad for our descent into bootless searches to validate superstitions while still making us believe we are perfectly rational.