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How can a young scientist help to counter the wave of pseudoscience?

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If the majority of the population starts believing in pseudoscience just because we chose to remain silent, and hence the society starts moving backwards, isn’t that is where the motto of practising science loses its meaning?

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Yet another Indian Science Congress has taken place, and yet again pseudoscientific remarks from a few participants (two in the current year) have instigated the science-pseudoscience debate in this country. This is an ongoing trend since the 102nd Indian Science Congress (ISC) held in Mumbai, which witnessed claims like the presence of interplanetary planes during Vedic age, invention of Pythagoras theorem in India, the ability of cows to turn their food into 24 carat gold etc. Similar claims were made in the subsequent Indian Science Congresses, following which a few scientists and rationalists expressed their discontent and raised concerns about the wave of pseudoscience that has hit the country, one or two articles were published in mainstream media, and after that everyone forgot about it till the time of the next chapter of ISC. In all these, there was and still is a surprising lack of participation from science students and young scientists, who form a major part of the Indian science practitioner’s community. Was it the lack of time (which is a genuine reason at times) or apathy or just a carefully measured step to save one’s back from the wrath of prominent ‘powerful people’?

 

It is evident from the 106th meeting of the ISC that the concerns raised by a few scientists after the 105th meeting of ISC held in 2018 had no effect at all. So, what is going wrong? I think a major part of the problem lies with the youth in science. Most of us, the young Indian science practitioners choose to remain silent in such cases, although many of us are very much aware of the issues and realise at the core of our hearts that something needs to be done soon. We scroll through our social media pages, frown on such news, experience some facepalm moments, and get back to our work assuming (most of the time) that we cannot do anything about this. But is it true that we cannot do anything in this regard? No, I do not think so, especially in the era of internet. The easiest thing of all would be to share the news of pseudoscience propagation while simply pointing out that it is not real science. We all have hundreds (maybe thousands for some) of connections in social media, and if at least a few of them read and share the posts, and discuss the issue, even then we would be contributing towards the aim for spreading awareness on what is real science and what is pseudoscience. Most of us are part of various Whatsapp groups (willingly or unwillingly) and have faced a bombardment of pseudoscientific posts. However, most of us succumb to the fear of wasting our time in countering such news and hence choose to remain silent. What we do not understand is that by remaining silent, we are endorsing these news and views. If we start countering such news with logic and data (without getting angry or abusive), and if we could make at least a few of our family members, friends and acquaintances understand the harm of believing and sharing such pseudoscience posts, we will be contributing towards countering pseudoscience.

 

The next step could be to blog, write popular articles and/or participate in discussions in public forums for debunking pseudoscience. Of course, this might not be possible for everyone because of various constraints, but we should at least try to involve at least a bit of our time and try to help counter the rising wave of pseudoscience. And this is where science communication also comes into the picture. We are indeed in need for well-trained science communicators who have formal training in science, and who will collaborate with scientists to make scientific research accessible to all. In recent times, it is very encouraging to see that there are various training programmes and workshops on science communication, and I think that young science practitioners everywhere should be encouraged to participate in such programmes to receive basic training on communicating science in public forums. This will not only serve as a step towards learning how to take science outside the labs but will also provide encouragement for speaking up against the blatant propagation of pseudoscience.

 

Finally, I would like to raise one serious concern. If the reason for choosing to keep a distance from any kind of activity and/or discussion concerning countering pseudoscience is because it might be tagged as a ‘political’ one, then the time has come when we might want to start thinking about the pros and cons of remaining ‘apolitical’. Among the pros, the most important one is, of course, avoiding any sort of political wrath and silently practising science behind the closed laboratory doors. However, if the majority of the population starts believing in pseudoscience just because we chose to remain silent, and hence the society starts moving backwards, isn’t that is where the motto of practising science loses its meaning? Too long we have avoided this question and our silence has been regarded as our endorsement towards the false claims in the name of science. As science practitioners, we have a responsibility towards the society and it is time we take it with some more seriousness.

 

Anindita Brahma is a Research Associate at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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