There’s a scientistic eclipse

lunar eclipse Photo by Sebastian Voortman on

There is a solar eclipse today and news websites are as usual participating in amplifying nonsense. It’s prima facie not nonsense in and of itself but because it’s not qualified as astrological material. That is, it’s an example of news sites not exercising good judgment.

Science doesn’t have a monopoly on sense-making, so calling it “nonsense” isn’t fair. Science also isn’t implicitly entitled to be the prime belief system. So while these assertions are non-scientific, they shouldn’t be qualified with respect to meaning but to the scientific truth-value.

But assuming science has a monopoly implicitly elevates science’s ability and efficacy to make sense, especially in a non-exclusionary way. People who wouldn’t eat during an eclipse aren’t necessarily wanting for scientific facts. Sometimes, it’s because of how scientific literacy is currently limited. Pseudoscience enslaves but so does science. So we should be mindful of the words we use to describe pseudoscience, and keep open the possibility that the social consequences of these two knowledge systems can, in quality, overlap. As I wrote in an older post:

There is a hegemony of science as well. Beyond the mythos of its own cosmology (to borrow Paul Feyerabend’s quirky turn of phrase in Against Method), there is also the matter of who controls knowledge production and utilisation. In Caliban and the Witch (1998), Sylvia Federici traces the role of the bourgeoisie in expelling beliefs in magic and witchcraft in preindustrial Europe only to prepare the worker’s body to accommodate the new rigours of labour under capitalism. She writes, “Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalisation of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry,’ lamented Francis Bacon…”.

For example, hardcore, or by that same measure naïve, rationalists have been known to erect a pandal on the road and eat food during an eclipse, apparently in defiance of the beliefs of others. But that’s only defiance per se. Their actions say that they have underestimated the agility of the belief system and apparently ignored its punitive mechanics. Ultimately, it comes off as ignorant and is thus easily dismissed.

Why is science “the best”? It isn’t, and such scientism is harmful. What is “the best” is whatever empowers. The knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples predates science. Are they automatically disempowered? No. Other eclipse beliefs exist because of where social power and legitimacy lie. People believe it because others believe it. As Renny Thomas’s new book suggests, they may also believe it because we have erected a false binary between science and religion.

Zee News’s wording also presumes all “Indians” are “orthodox Hindus” and that their beliefs are indistinguishable from (unverified) Ayurvedic prescriptions – a form of the religion/culture superposition to which the regime has often taken recourse. (There is also a Hindiness to its language: “grahan” v. “grahanam”, for example.)

If astrology is pseudoscience, is science pseudo-astrology? The Indian right-wing is fixated on impressing the West, otherwise it may have noticed this. 😜 This said, astrology is bad and must be curtailed because it has a greater potential for harm. But we won’t fix anything by reflexively replacing it with another hard-to-independently-verify knowledge system. If one enslaves, the other must liberate. Otherwise, to quote from an older post:

But using science communication as a tool to dismantle myths, instead of tackling superstitious rituals that (to be lazily simplistic) suppress the acquisition of potentially liberating knowledge, is to create an opposition that precludes the peaceful coexistence of multiple knowledge systems. In this setting, science communication perpetuates the misguided view that science is the only useful way to acquire and organise our knowledge — which is both ahistorical and injudicious.

This post is also available as a Twitter thread.