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The Daily Rhino
Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Rise Of Pseudoscience: If It Looks Like A Quack...
I'VE written quite a bit about quackery whilst wearing my medical journalism hat. A recent controversy surrounding India's best-known and most popular yoga master and the allegation he uses human remains in his Ayurvedic concoctions has brought quacks back into the mainstream news. But, as always in India, politics rears its ugly head. Religious political parties in India have leapt to his defence, attacking Western science and medicine. In a trend occurring all over the world, science has become the bad guy.

Religious right-wingers attacking science...Intelligent Design anyone?

The War on Science™

Like any other medical student, I've heard - and ignored - the phrase ‘evidence-based medicine’, but these three words are central to doctors everywhere. Proof is the cornerstone of science. Without proof, we would prescribe drugs to patients at random and we would perform surgery on people who don’t need it. With time, we have abandoned unfounded beliefs of the past, such as phrenology or using leeches to cure heartburn. Bizarrely, this trend is not universal. In fact what is really happening is that the peddlers of bogus science have merely become more adept at pulling the wool over our collective eyes.

NASA invested over a million dollars in a Russian anti-gravity machine and major power companies have wasted tens of millions on a scheme to produce energy by placing hydrogen atoms below ground state, which has been described as trying to go south of the South Pole. No matter how insane the claim, there will be scientists who will vouch for it and there will be gullible believers.

Irresponsible Medicine

Pseudoscience can come in different guises. Bad science at best can be sloppy, lazy experimentation or, at worst, a cynical attempt to deceive based on ulterior (read: Financial) motives. A high profile and potentially very damaging example of bad science is the nonsensical furore that erupted after the MMR jab was linked to autism in a deeply flawed paper. Quackery is a medicine-specific term. It may seem curious that medicine has its own word for pseudoscience, but one only has to visit Quackwatch to realise just how much detritus there is polluting the medical waters of the world. Why do we have a current state of affairs in which leeches and arsenic are quackery, but Chinese herbal medicine and homeopathy are treated as science?

The Lancet courted controversy last summer by rubbishing homeopathy, the practice of giving water to patients (a fact acknowledged by homeopathy associations). The Lancet’s article was based on a Swiss-British review of over 100 studies on the topic, which showed that homeopathy had the same efficacy as a placebo. So what? Nobody gets hurt by a little water. Not so. Homeopathy is available on the NHS, a government body that is hardly in a position to splash around cash. If we, as medical practitioners, give our patients the impression that homeopathy is a legitimate, effective therapy, we are guilty of failing to act in their best interests. They may neglect allopathic avenues in favour of something that will most likely be less therapeutic.

Pseudoscience has some telltale traits, but it is getting harder and harder to differentiate fact from bollocks. Pseudoscience predominantly works on anecdotal evidence, it fails to provide experimental possibility of reproducible results, it asserts claims that fail falsifiability and almost always fails to submit results for peer review. Acupuncture is yet another example of an officially unproven modality of treatment, which is available on the NHS, paid for by your tax money. It is the exact equivalent of European Space Agency funding astrologers.

Pseudoscience likes OLD. Traditional Chinese and Indian medicine enjoy a mythical status, O the wisdom of the ancients! Pseudoscience likes COINCIDENCE. I have a headache, I stick a needle in my chakra point and my headache goes away. The needle must have cured me.

But what pseudoscience really likes is RELIGION. Which is why the Republicans rubbish evolution and the Hindu funadamentalists in India poo-poo allopathy. Sanjay Nirupam of the hardline Shiv Sena party has also gone on record to say "One always hears about AIDS and how it's this big problem. But I have personally never come across anyone with AIDS or seen anyone dying of the disease, I think it's just hype." The BJP, the main opposition party, ploughed hundreds of crores into a cow urine-based TB treatment. This bizarre trait is not just restricted to America and India. In Africa, Thabo Mbeki famously denied the link between AIDS and HIV. Villagers reject vaccines and visit the witchdoctor.

This revitalisation in bogus science has not occurred overnight. Whereas in the West, when someone has a sniffle they sip tiger bone tea from the Chinese pharmacy; get even more ill and then go to their GP, both options are not always available in the developing world. It has been a growing trend over the last few decades to regard science, most of which is studied in the West, as some sort of post-colonial imperialist weapon to enslave the poor. When Thabo Mbeki claimed HIV and AIDS were not related, he attacked the “hegemony of Western science” and asserted AIDS is a disease of gays.

Human Remains and India's Holy Man

The person to initially allege that Baba Ramdev was using animal and human remains in his medicines was Brinda Karat, the leader of India's Marxist Communist Party (CPI), so one could argue that politics was involved from the start. Baba Ramdev's daily television show attracts up to a million viewers across India. He is an immensely powerful television figure, as his followers, Hindu and Muslim alike, literally bend and twist to his every command. He claims his ayurvedic medicines cure everything, from baldness to brain damage.

Since then, India's religious right, namely the VHP and Shiv Sena, have rallied to Ramdev's support.

So why have politicians waded into defend someone against a very serious allegation? Allopathic medicine and ayurveda have co-existed in India for generations, both given full recognition by the government. Ayurveda, the longest-running system of medicine in the world - and one of the first ever recorded - has won worldwide respect with many of the traditional treatments standing up well in clinical trials. However this is not to say that it is uniformly trustworthy. Ayurveda can be as close to witchdoctoring as species-depleting traditional Chinese medicine, one of my pet hates.

In recent years, India has seen a marked shift in the political sphere, with the rise of a firebrand, pro-Hindu movement. They don't like allopathic medicine - it's phirangi Western nonsense. Ayurvedic practitioners, buoyed by support from Indian MPs, have launched tirades against allopathic medicine; apparently allopathic medicine is "reactive" in that it reacts once you've taken it, but ayurvedic medicine doesn't. Then how the fuck does it work?! [Link]

The similarities to the Republican War on Science are remarkable, both sad indicators of a worldwide trend of bad-mouthing science. Both the VHP and the Republicans have their army of 'scientists' to back up their claims and both pay no regard to evidence-based-science. If the leader of the free world has chosen to reject science, what hope for the developing world?

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I've got one of those at home. My entire family is into the cds and I've made numerous copies for everyone else in the family who has yet to get one. In fact, the only reason I'm going to India this year to meet my family and cousins is because I said yes to attending one of these courses.
Will report.
my thoughts on the same issue ..

"..Gudia, a Muslim girl and Shri Ramdev ji, a Hindu male...".

I've got nothing against yoga, in fact I'm a big fan. So I'm sure his CDs and stuff are fine. But do let us know about the course Anang - would be rather interesting.

Vinayak - thanks for the link. Err...our views are pretty far apart. But interesting to read another take.
remedies, potions and all kind of stuff have been between us for centuries, it was very common in the past, but now the modern medicine has advanced a lot and those remedies are in most of the cases dangerous for people. Nice post!
Great Stuff I ever found on internet.

Smith Alan
I mostly agree with your perspectives. I do, however, question the unnecessary jabs at Republicans and Intelligent Design. It's a weak attempt at a link that belies an insecurity in the protagonist.

Intelligent Design is in no way incompatible with evolution. The Catholic Church even accepts Evolution as one of the mechanisms by which we were created. Some fundamentalists believe differently, but that is not representative of the class. Someone that advocates for better science should observe better methodology themself.

The same criteria applies to Republicans. Because some denyers of evolution self-identify as Republican does not mean all (or even most) Republicans "rubbish" evolution. What most would like is broader acceptance of beliefs and education, and admissions from 'established' science of the limitations of the conclusions, and acknowledgement of the range of possibilities.

I think the problem comes up when 'scientists' summarily dismiss the concerns of lay-people. They, themselves, are then dismissed, including their information, however valuable. It's short-sighted, but human nature, and scientists ignorance of those vagaries does nothing for their arguments.

It doesn't help - in medicine, for example - when we hear that, for a drug to be considered efficacious, it only has to perform 5% better than placebo. We hear all the time of 'scientists' that ignore contradictory or non-complimentary data, and 5% doesn't seem like much. Taken with the common sense knowledge that medicines have real and deleterious side effects, especially in comparison to placebo, and people just don't trust 'science'.

And a lot of science takes the moral high ground on such thin margins. More patience and explanation, and admission of shortcomings, might go a long way toward swaying obstinate public views.
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