Something worse than a flat-Earth society

Read two interesting articles this morning:

1. An editorial in the Indian Express about how India is the “land of the gullible”, where even the “mere trappings of science suffice to tantalise” people into believing BS and coughing up fortunes for snake oil.

2. An article in The Conversation about where flat-Earthers draw their sense of purpose from: the separation of science from scientific institutions. It’s a fascinating analysis of the ‘knowledge is power’ social paradigm, how 21st century ICT is destabilising it and unto what consequences.

The typical Indian experience (of public scientific temperament) relates to both texts. In a country where two people can borrow Rs 1.43 crore to build a machine that purportedly generates electricity from thunderbolts in space (and which for some reason is called a “rice puller”), it’s a sign that laypeople’s idea of what constitutes science has already been separated from that practised at scientific institutions.

The non-admission of traditional knowledge into the modern scientific method has meant that many Indians have – by way of traditional practices and rituals – already constructed a parallel scientific tradition that accrued power in time, just the way the Baconian tradition has. These ‘alternatives’ are both credible – like environmentalism*, yoga, philosophy*, etc. – and incredible – such as astrology*, ayurveda, unani, etc.

However, because many of us have become “used” to the idea that science needn’t be the exclusive preserve of scientists, we’re also not surprised when we encounter it outside of scientific institutions. To most people who believe in the curative power of these alternatives, for example, science rests with scientists as much as with those who are well-versed in the body of knowledge that birthed the alternatives. And it’s important to single out the Indian experience because, in a manner of speaking, we’ve currently got it worse than flat-Earth societies.

Now, some people will pipe up and say “not all of us are irrational” but that would miss the point entirely – just the way ‘not all men’ is no credible defence against feminists’ generalisation of male behaviour. It’s not individual complicity that matters but society’s inculcation of opportunities for many of us to get away with whatever we’ve done that does.

The modern scientific method delegitimised a lot of traditional knowledge, especially sidelining astrology and homeopathy and exiling those who were authorities in those fields to the fringe – just the way flat-Earthers of yore had been disenfranchised by 20th century institutions powered by political distrust, war and espionage. Now, with rising internet penetration and access to the social media, flat-Earthers are interrogating what scientists have claimed is the truth.

But in India, especially among Hindutva ‘scholars’, we’ve been witnessing the opposite: ex-masters not interrogating the methods of knowledge production that threaten their authority but simply trying to undermine them. (E.g. “the Vedas already knew this 3,000 years ago so you’re dumb”.) This to me is eminently worse than what flat-Earthers are trying to do; their industry at least suggests an attempt at disceptation, as opposed to an impulse to completely shut out the opposite side. As Harry Dyer, the author of the article, writes,

… four flat earthers debated three physics PhD students [at the convention Dyer was attending]. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves”.

… Flat earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning” over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that “hope changes everything”, and warned against blindly trusting what they were told.

On the other hand, ‘blindly trusting what we’re told’ rings a bell on our side of the world, or at least that yet more charlatans lie in the wait to dupe us. As the Indian Express editorial finishes,

Remember [Ramar Pillai,] who cooked up hydrocarbons from herbal messes by the simple expedient of secreting some fuel in the stirrer? He had a bull run with the press, and even some scientists were prepared to look seriously at a man who was claiming to violate all the laws of thermodynamics. Fortunately, the “rice puller” has been stopped in its tracks before it could become a craze. But we won’t have to wait too long before the spirit of Ramar Pillai rises again.

I’m sure there’s more to be said on this subject, will continue in future posts…

*Indian traditions of it, specifically.

Featured image credit: Andrew Stutesman/Unsplash.