‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

Dehumanising language during an outbreak

It appears the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has begun local transmission in India, i.e. infecting more people within the country instead of each new patient having recently travelled to an already affected country. The advent of local transmission is an important event in the lexicon of epidemics and pandemics because, at least until 2009, that’s how the WHO differentiated between the two.

As of today, the virus has become locally transmissible in the world’s two most populous countries. At this juncture, pretty much everyone expects the number of cases within India to only increase, and as it does, the public healthcare system won’t be the only one under pressure. Reporters and editors will be too, and they’re likely to be more stressed on one front: their readers.

For example, over the course of March 4, the following sentences appeared in various news reports of the coronavirus:

The Italian man infected 16 Italians, his wife and an Indian driver.

The infected techie boarded a bus to Hyderabad from Bengaluru and jeopardised the safety of his co-passengers.

Two new suspected coronavirus cases have been reported in Hyderabad.

All 28 cases of infection are being monitored, the health ministry has said.

Quite a few people on Twitter, and likely in other fora, commented that these lines exemplify the sort of insensitivity towards patients that dehumanises them, elides their agency and casts them as perpetrators – of the transmission of a disease – and which, perhaps given enough time and reception, could engender apathy and even animosity towards the poorer sick.

The problem words seem to include ‘cases’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. But are they a problem, really? I ask because though I understand the complaints, I think they’re missing an important detail.

Referring to people as if they were objects only furthers their impotency in a medical care setup in which doctors can’t be questioned and the rationale for diagnoses is frequently secreted – both conditions ripe for exploitation. At the same time, the public part of this system has to deal with a case load it is barely equipped for and whose workers are underpaid relative to their counterparts in the private sector.

As a result, a doctor seeing 10- or 20-times as many patients as they’ve been trained and supported to will inevitably precipitate some amount of dehumanisation, and it could in fact help medical workers cope with circumstances in which they’re doing all they can to help but the patient suffers anyway. So dehumanisation is not always bad.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the word ‘dehumanise’ and the attitude ‘dehumanise’ can and often do differ. For example, Union home minister Amit Shah calling Bangladeshi immigrants “termites” is not the same as a high-ranking doctor referring to his patient in terms of their disease, and this doctor is not the same as an overworked nurse referring to the people in her care as ‘cases’. The last two examples are progressively more forgivable because their use of the English language is more opportunistic, and the nurse in the last example may not intentionally dehumanise their patients if they knew what their words meant.

(The doctor didn’t: his example is based on a true story.)

Problematic attitudes often manifest most prominently as problematic words and labels but the use of a word alone wouldn’t imply a specific attitude in a country that has always had an uneasy relationship with the English language. Reporters and editors who carefully avoid potentially debilitating language as well as those who carefully use such language are both in the minority in India. Instead, my experiences as a journalist over eight years suggest the majority is composed of people who don’t know the language is a problem, who don’t have the time, energy and/or freedom to think about casual dehumanisation, and who don’t deserve to be blamed for something they don’t know they’re doing.

But by fixating on just words, and not the world of problems that gives rise to them, we risk interrogating and blaming the wrong causes. It would be fairer to expect journalists of, say, the The Guardian or the Washington Post to contemplate the relationship between language and thought if only because Western society harbours a deeper understanding of the healthcare system it originated, and exported to other parts of the world with its idiosyncrasies, and because native English speakers are likelier to properly understand the relationship between a word, its roots and its use in conversation.

On the other hand, non-native users of English – particularly non-fluent users – have no option but to use the words ‘case’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. The might actually prefer other words if:

  • They knew that (and/or had to accommodate their readers’ pickiness for whether) the word they used meant more than what they thought it did, or
  • They knew alternative words existed and were equally valid, or
  • They could confidently differentiate between a technical term and its most historically, socially, culturally and/or technically appropriate synonym.

But as it happens, these conditions are seldom met. In India, English is mostly reserved for communication; it’s not the language of thought for most people, especially most journalists, and certainly doesn’t hold anything more than a shard of mirror-glass to our societies and their social attitudes as they pertain to jargon. So as such, pointing to a reporter and asking them to say ‘persons infected with coronavirus’ instead of ‘case’ will magically reveal neither the difference between ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the scientific terms and ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the pejoratives nor the negotiated relationship between the use of ‘case’ and dehumanisation. And without elucidating the full breadth of these relationships, there is no way either doctors or reporters are going to modify their language simply because they were asked to – nor will their doing so, on the off chance, strike at the real threats.

On the other hand, there is bound to be an equally valid problem in terms of those who know how ‘case’ and ‘infected’ can be misused and who regularly read news reports whose use of English may or may not intend to dehumanise. Considering the strong possibility that the author may not know they’re using dehumanising language and are unlikely to be persuaded to write differently, those in the know have a corresponding responsibility to accommodate what is typically a case of the unknown unknowns and not ignorance or incompetence, and almost surely not malice.

This is also why I said reporters and editors might be stressed by their readers, rather their perspectives, and not on count of their language.


A final point: Harsh Vardhan, the Union health minister and utterer of the words “The Italian man infected 16 Italians”, and Amit Shah belong to the same party – a party that has habitually dehumanised Muslims, Dalits and immigrants as part of its nationalistic, xenophobic and communal narratives. More recently, the same party from its place at the Centre suspected a prominent research lab of weaponising the Nipah virus with help from foreign funds, and used this far-fetched possibility as an excuse to terminate the lab’s FCRA license.

So when Vardhan says ‘infected’, I reflexively, and nervously, double-check his statement for signs of ambiguity. I’m also anxious that if more Italian nationals touring India are infected by SARS-CoV-2 and the public healthcare system slips up on control measures, a wave of anti-Italian sentiment could follow.

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

The Copernican
April 7, 2014

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

The Copernican
April 7, 2014

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”