Scientists need to protest against the spread of pseudoscience in the society.
On August 7, 2017, lunar eclipse was visible in several parts of South-East Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia. In India, it was visible from 10:55 pm to 11:51 pm. I started receiving calls from my relatives who advised, “Do not cook or eat food during the eclipse. If food is uncovered during eclipse, throw it out.”
Hundreds of thousands of people in India do not partake of food or water during eclipse and take bath with cold water later. Even during my pregnancy, I was warned not to step outside or touch anything during eclipse as it could lead to deformations in the fetus. These beliefs can be detrimental as some pregnant woman do not eat food or even choose not to deliver during lunar or solar eclipse. Renowned spiritual leader Sathguru Vasudev explains the “logic” of these practices in his blog:
“The cycles of the moon have an impact on the human system, physically, psychologically and energy wise. Certain things happen in the planet where anything that has moved away from its natural condition will deteriorate very fast. That is why there is a change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse. What was nourishing food turns into poison, it is better to keep the stomach empty at this time”.
When the tales of Evil Eclipse were spread by not just by religious leaders but also national dailies, scientists from the Astronomical Society of India were outraged and wrote to the Financial Express to retract the anti-science article and publish “the science behind eclipses, how they are beautiful natural events that everyone can enjoy, and bust certain myths concerning eclipses” to which the national daily acceded.
Traditional Knowledge versus science
A lot of Hindu Mythology and traditional knowledge is pushed as science these days. According to Hindu mythology, Rahu – a demigod seeking immortality drank Amrit, or divine nectar. However, the Sun and Moon Gods warned Lord Vishnu who then decapitated him for his transgression. Disembodied Rahu, immortalised after drinking nectar, seeks revenge on Sun and Moon by swallowing them once in a while. But as he is disembodied, they fall back out again. That’s how you get an eclipse! And rays from the Sun during eclipse are considered bad omen as they are reflections of Rahu. Also, there are supposedly increased levels of bacteria and germs in the food and environment during eclipse as the Sun’s rays are blocked.
Although all traditional knowledge shouldn’t be dismissed as pseudoscience, it should be backed by scientific evidence to be construed as a fact. For e.g. Tu Youyou, one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015 for the discovery of artemesin (anti-malarial drug), was inspired by ancient Chinese medicine. However, stating that Indians had mastery over transplantation and plastic surgery thousands of years ago because of elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesh in our mythology, would probably be taking it too far!.
Spread of pseudoscience
Beliefs in pseudoscience usually arise due to insufficient communication between masses and scientists. Most explanations or counters for the myths are present in journals which are difficult to access or in a language which is difficult to understand and interpret by the non-specialists who end up believing popular spiritual leaders or political agents.
Kudos to the scientists of Astronomical Society of India who spoke up to dispel such stories. It is time scientists speak up before these become ‘scientific facts’ in textbooks and newspapers. As one scientist put it, ‘If scientists do not speak up for science, who else will?’
Surat Saravanan has a PhD from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai and is currently, a freelance science editor and writer.