Defending philosophy of science

From Carl Bergstrom’s Twitter thread about a new book called How Irrationality Created Modern Science, by Michael Strevens:

The Iron Rule from the book is, in Bergstrom’s retelling, “no use of philosophical reasoning in the mode of Aristotle; no leveraging theological or scriptural understanding in the mode of Descartes. Formal scientific arguments must be sterilised, to use Strevens’s word, of subjectivity and non-empirical content.” I was particularly taken by the use of the term ‘individual’ in the tweet I’ve quoted above. The point about philosophical argumentation being an “individual” technique is important, often understated.

There are some personal techniques we use to discern some truths but which we don’t publicise. But the more we read and converse with others doing the same things, the more we may find that everyone has many of the same stand-ins – tools or methods that we haven’t empirically verified to be true and/or legitimate but which we have discerned, based on our experiences, to be suitably good guiding lights.

I discovered this issue first when I read Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method many years ago, and then in practice when I found during reporting some stories that scientists in different situations often developed similar proxies for processes that couldn’t be performed in their fullest due to resource constraints. But they seldom spoke to each other (especially across institutes), thus allowing an ideal view of how to do something to crenellate even as almost every one did that something in a similarly different way.

A very common example of this is scientists evaluating papers based on the ‘prestigiousness’ and/or impact factors of the journals the papers are published in, instead of based on their contents – often simply for lack of time and proper incentives. As a result, ideas like “science is self-correcting” and “science is objective” persist as ideals because they’re products of applying the Iron Rule to the process of disseminating the products of one’s research.

But “by turning a lens on the practice of science itself,” to borrow Bergstrom’s words, philosophies of science allow us to spot deviations from the prescribed normal – originating from “Iron Rule Ecclesiastics” like Richard Dawkins – and, to me particularly, revealing how we really, actually do it and how we can become better at it. Or as Bergstrom put it: “By understanding how norms and institutions create incentives to which scientists respond …, we can find ways to nudge the current system toward greater efficiency.”

(It is also gratifying a bit to see the book as well as Bergstrom pick on Lawrence Krauss. The book goes straight into my reading list.)


A Q&A about my job and science journalism

A couple weeks ago, some students from a university in South India got in touch to ask a few questions about my job and about science communication. The correspondence was entirely over email, and I’m pasting it in full below (with permission). I’ve edited a few parts in one of two ways – to make myself clearer or to hide sensitive information – and removed one question because its purpose was clarificatory.

1) What does your role as a science editor look like day to day?

My day as science editor begins at around 7 am. I start off by catching up on the day’s headlines and other news, especially all the major newspapers and social media channels. I also handle a part of The Wire Science‘s social media presence, so I schedule some posts in the first hour.

Then, from 8 am onwards, I begin going through the publishing schedule – which is a document I prepare on the previous evening, listing all the articles that writers are expected to file on that day, as well as what I need to edit/publish and in which position on the homepage. At 9.30 am, my colleagues and I get on a conference call to discuss the day’s top stories and to hear from our reporters on which stories they will be pursuing that day (and any stories we might be chasing ourselves). The call lasts for about an hour.

From 10.30-11 am onwards, I edit articles, reply to emails, commission new articles, discuss potential story ideas with some reporters, scientists and my colleagues, check on the news cycle every now and then, make sure the site is running smoothly, discuss changes or tweaks to be made to the front-end with our tech team, and keep an eye on my finances (how much I’ve commissioned for, who I need to pay, payment deadlines, pending allocations, etc.).

All of this ends at about 4.30 pm. I close my laptop at that point but I continue to have work until 6 pm or so, mostly in the form of emails and maybe some calls. The last thing I do is prepare the publishing schedule for the next day. Then I shut shop.

2) With leading global newspapers restructuring the copy desk, what are the changes the Indian newspapers have made in the copy desk after the internet boom?

I’m not entirely familiar with the most recent changes because I stopped working with a print establishment six years ago. When I was part of the editorial team at The Hindu, the most significant change related to the advent of the internet had less to do with the copy desk per se and more to do with the business model. At least the latter seemed more pressing to me.

But this said, in my view there is a noticeable difference between how one might write for a newspaper and for the web. So a more efficient copy-editing team has to be able to handle both styles, as well as be able to edit copy to optimise for audience engagement and readability both online and offline.

3) Indian publications are infamous for mistakes in the copy. Is this a result of competition for breaking news or a lack of knack for editing?

This is a question I have been asking myself since I started working. I think a part of the answer you’re looking for lies in the first statement of your question. Indian copy-editors are “infamous for mistakes” – but mistakes according to whom?

The English language came to India in different ways, it is not homegrown. British colonists brought English to India, so English took root in India as the language of administration. English is the de facto language worldwide for the conduct of science, so scientists have to learn it. Similarly, there are other ways in which the use of English has been rendered useful and important and necessary. English wasn’t all these things in and of itself, not without its colonial underpinnings.

So today, in India, English is – among other things – the language you learn to be employable, especially with MNCs or such. And because of its historical relationships, English is taught only in certain schools, schools that typically have mostly students from upper-caste/upper-class families. English is also spoken only by certain groups of people who may wish to secret it as a class symbol, etc. I’m speaking very broadly here. My point is that English is reserved typically for people who can afford it, both financially and socio-culturally. Not everyone speaks ‘good’ English (as defined by one particular lexicon or whatever) nor can they be expected to.

So what you may see as mistakes in the copy may just be a product of people not being fluent in English, and composing sentences in ways other than you might as a result. India has a contested relationship with English and that should only be expected at the level of newsrooms as well.

However, if your question had to do with carelessness among copy-editors – I don’t know if that is a very general problem (nor do I know what the issues might be in a newsroom publishing in an Indian language). Yes, in many establishments, the management doesn’t pay as much attention to the quality of writing as it should, perhaps in an effort to cut costs. And in such cases, there is a significant quality cost.

But again, we should ask ourselves as to whom that affects. If a poorly edited article is impossible to read or uses words and ideas carelessly, or twists facts, that is just bad. But if a poorly composed article is able to get its points across without misrepresenting anyone, whom does that affect? No one, in my opinion, so that is okay. (It could also be the case that the person whose work you’re editing sees the way they write as a political act of sorts, and if you think such an issue might be in play, it becomes important to discuss it with them.)

Of course, the matter of getting one’s point across is very subjective, and as a news organisation we must ensure the article is edited to the extent that there can be no confusion whatsoever – and edited that much more carefully if it’s about sensitive issues, like the results of a scientific study. And at the same time we must also stick to a word limit and think about audience engagement.

My job as the editor is to ensure that people are understood, but in order to help them be understood better and better, I must be aware of my own privileges and keep subtracting them from the editorial equation (in my personal case: my proficiency with the English language, which includes many Americanisms and Britishisms). I can’t impose my voice on my writers in the name of helping them. So there is a fine line here that editors need to tread carefully.

4) What are the key points that a science editor should keep in mind while dealing with copy?

Aside from the points I raised in my previous answer, there are some issues that are specific to being a good science editor. I don’t claim to be good (that is for others to say) – but based on what I have seen in the pages of other publications, I would only say that not every editor can be a science editor without some specific training first. This is because there are some things that are specific to science as an enterprise, as a social affair, that are not immediately apparent to people who don’t have a background in science.

For example, the most common issue I see is in the way scientific papers are reported – as if they are the last word on that topic. Many people, including many journalists, seem to think that if a scientific study has found coffee cures cancer, then it must be that coffee cures cancer, period. But every scientific paper is limited by the context in which the experiment was conducted, by the limits of what we already know, etc.

I have heard some people define science as a pursuit of the truth but in reality it’s a sort of opposite – science is a way to subtract uncertainty. Imagine shining a torch within a room as you’re looking for something, except the torch can only find things that you don’t want, so you can throw them away. Then you turn on the lights. Papers are frequently wrong and/or are updated to yield new results. This seldom makes the previous paper directly fraudulent or wrong; it’s just the way science works. And this perspective on science can help you think through what a science editor’s job is as well.

Another thing that’s important to know is that science progresses in incremental fashion and that the more sensational results are either extremely unlikely or simply misunderstood.

If you are keen on plumbing deeper depths, you could also consider questions about where authority comes from and how it is constructed in a narrative, the importance of indeterminate knowledge-states, the pros and cons of scientism, what constitutes scientific knowledge, how scientific publishing works, etc.

A science editor has to know all these things and ensure that in the process of running a newsroom or editing a publication, they don’t misuse, misconstrue or misrepresent scientific work and scientists. And in this process, I think it’s important for a science editor to not be considered to be subservient to the interests of science or scientists. Editors have their own goals, and more broadly speaking science communication in all forms needs to be seen and addressed in its own right – as an entity that doesn’t owe anything to science or scientists, per se.

5) In a country where press freedom is often sacrificed, how does one deal with political pieces, especially when there is proof against a matter concerning the government?

I’m not sure what you mean by “proof against a matter concerning the government.” But in my view, the likelihood of different outcomes depends on the business model. If, for example, you the publisher make a lot of money from a hotshot industrialist and his company, then obviously you are going to tread carefully when handling stories about that person or the company. How you make your money dictates who you are ultimately answerable to. If you make your money by selling newspapers to your readers, or collecting donations from them like The Wire does, you are answerable to your readers.

In this case, if we are handling a story in which the government is implicated in a bad way, we will do our due diligence and publish the story. This ‘due diligence’ is important: you need to be sure you have the requisite proof, that all parts of the story are reliable and verifiable, that you have documentary evidence of your claims, and that you have given the implicated party a chance to defend themselves (e.g. by being quoted in the story).

This said, absolute press freedom is not so simple to achieve. It doesn’t just need brave editors and reporters. It also needs institutions that will protect journalists’ rights and freedoms, and also shield them reliably from harm or malice. If the courts are not likely to uphold a journalist’s rights or if the police refuse proper protection when the threat of physical violence is apparent, blaming journalists for “sacrificing” press freedom is ignorant. There is a risk-benefit analysis worth having here, if only to remember that while the benefit of a free press is immense, the risks shouldn’t be taken lightly.

6) Research papers are lengthy and editors have deadlines. How do you make sure to communicate information with the right context for a wider audience?

Often the quickest way to achieve this is to pick your paper and take it to an independent scientist working in the same field. These independent comments are important for the story. But specific to your question, these scientists – if they have the time and are so inclined – can often also help you understand the paper’s contents properly, and point out potential issues, flaws, caveats, etc. These inputs can help you compose your story faster.

I would also say that if you are an editor looking for an article on a newly published research paper, you would be better off commissioning a reporter who is familiar, to whatever extent, with that topic. Obviously if you assign a business reporter to cover a paper about nanofluidic biosensors, the end result is going to be somewhere between iffy and disastrous. So to make sure the story has got its context right, I would begin by assigning the right reporter and making sure they’ve got comments from independent scientists in their copy.

7) What are some of the major challenges faced by science communicators and reporters in India?

This is a very important question, and I can’t hope to answer it concisely or even completely. In January this year, the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India organised a meeting with a couple dozen science journalists and communicators from around India. I was one of the attendees. Many of the issues we discussed, which would also be answers to your question, are described here.

If, for the purpose of your assignment, you would like me to pick one – I would go with the fact that science journalism, and science communication more broadly, is not widely acknowledged as an enterprise in its own right. As a result, many people don’t see the value in what science journalists do. A second and closely related issue is that scientists often don’t respond on time, even if they respond at all. I’m not sure of the extent to which this is an etiquette issue. But by calling it an etiquette issue, I also don’t want to overlook the possibility that some scientists don’t respond because they don’t think science journalism is important.

I was invited to attend the Young Investigators’ Meeting in Guwahati in March 2019. There, I met a big bunch of young scientists who really didn’t know why science journalism exists or what its purpose is. One of them seemed to think that since scientific papers pass through peer review and are published in journals, science journalists are wasting their time by attempting to discuss the contents of those papers with a general audience. This is an unnecessary barrier to my work – but it persists, so I must constantly work around or over it.

8) What are the consequences if a research paper has been misreported?

The consequence depends on the type and scope of misreporting. If you have consulted an independent scientist in the course of your reporting, you give yourself a good chance of avoiding reporting mistakes.

But of course mistakes do slip through. And with an online publication such as The Wire – if a published article is found to have a mistake, we usually correct the mistake once it has been pointed out to us, along with a clarification at the bottom of the article acknowledging the issue and recording the time at which the change was made. If you write an article that is printed and is later found to have a mistake, the newspaper will typically issue an erratum (a small note correcting a mistake) the next day.

If an article is found to have a really glaring mistake after it is published – and I mean an absolute howler – the article could be taken down or retracted from the newspaper’s record along with an explanation. But this rarely happens.

9) In many ways, copy editing disconnects you from your voice. Does it hamper your creativity as a writer?

It’s hard to find room for one’s voice in a news publication. About nine-tenths of the time, each of us is working on a news copy, in which a voice is neither expected nor can add much value of its own. This said, when there is room to express oneself more, to write in one’s voice, so to speak, copy-editing doesn’t have to remove it entirely.

Working with voices is a tricky thing. When writers pitch or write articles in which their voices are likely to show up, I always ask them beforehand as to what they intend to express. This intention is important because it helps me edit the article accordingly (or decide whether to edit it at all). The writer’s voice is part of this negotiation. Like I said before, my job as the editor is to make sure my writers convey their points clearly and effectively. And if I find that their voice conflicts with the message or vice versa, I will discuss it with them. It’s a very contested process and I don’t know if there is a black-and-white answer to your question.

It’s always possible, of course, if you’re working with a bad editor and they just remodel your work to suit their needs without checking with you. But short of that, it’s a negotiation.

Culture Science

The chrysalis that isn’t there

I wrote the following post while listening to this track. Perhaps you will enjoy reading it to the same sounds. Otherwise, please consider it a whimsical recommendation. 🙂

I should really start keeping a log of different stories in the news all of which point to the little-acknowledged but only-evident fact that science – like so many things, including people – does not embody lofty ideals as much as the aspirations to those ideals. Nature News reported on January 31 that “a language analysis of titles and abstracts in more than 100,000 scientific articles,” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), had “found that papers with first and last authors who were both women were about 12% less likely than male-authored papers to include sensationalistic terms such as ‘unprecedented’, ‘novel’, ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’;” further, “The articles in each comparison were presumably of similar quality, but those with positive words in the title or abstract garnered 9% more citations overall.” The scientific literature, people!

Science is only as good as its exponents, and there is neither meaning nor advantage to assuming that there is such a thing as a science beyond, outside of and without these people. Doing so inflates science’s importance when it doesn’t deserve to be, and suppresses its shortcomings and prevents them from being addressed. For example, the BMJ study prima facie points to gender discrimination but it also describes a scientific literature that you will never find out is skewed, and therefore unrepresentative of reality, unless you acknowledge that it is constituted by papers authored by people of two genders, on a planet where one gender has maintained a social hegemony for millennia – much like you will never know Earth has an axis of rotation unless you are able to see its continents or make sense of its weather.

The scientific method describes a popular way to design experiments whose performance scientists can use to elucidate refined, and refinable, answers to increasingly complex questions. However, the method is an external object (of human construction) that only, and arguably asymptotically, mediates the relationship between the question and the answer. Everything that comes before the question and after the answer is mediated by a human consciousness undeniably shaped by social, cultural, economic and mental forces.

Even the industry that we associate with modern science – composed of people who trained to be scientists over at least 15 years of education, then went on to instruct and/or study in research institutes, universities and laboratories, being required to teach a fixed number of classes, publish a minimum number of papers and accrue citations, and/or produce X graduate students, while drafting proposals and applying for grants, participating in workshops and conferences, editing journals, possibly administering scientific work and consulting on policy – is steeped in human needs and aspirations, and is even designed to make room for them, but many of us non-scientists are frequently and successfully tempted to address the act of being a scientist as an act of transformation: characterised by an instant in time when a person changes into something else, a higher creature of sorts, like a larva enters a magical chrysalis and exits a butterfly.

But for a man to become a scientist has never meant the shedding of his identity or social stature; ultimately, to become a scientist is to terminate at some quasi-arbitrary moment the slow inculcation of well-founded knowledge crafted to serve a profitable industry. There is a science we know as simply the moment of discovery: it is the less problematic of the two kinds. The other, in the 21st century, is also funding, networking, negotiating, lobbying, travelling, fighting, communicating, introspecting and, inescapably, some suffering. Otherwise, scientific knowledge – one of the ultimate products of the modern scientific enterprise – wouldn’t be as well-organised, accessible and uplifting as it is today.

But it would be silly to think that in the process of constructing this world-machine of sorts, we baked in the best of us, locked out the worst of us, and threw the key away. Instead, like all human endeavour, science evolves with us. While it may from time to time present opportunities to realise one or two ideals, it remains for the most part a deep and truthful reflection of ourselves. This assertion isn’t morally polarised, however; as they say, it is what it is – and this is precisely why we must acknowledge failures in the practice of science instead of sweeping them under the rug.

One male scientist choosing more uninhibitedly to call his observation “unprecedented” than a female scientist might have been encouraged, among other things, by the peculiarities of a gendered scientific labour force and scientific enterprise, but many male scientists indulging just as freely in their evaluatory fantasies, such as they are, indicates a systemic corruption that transcends (but not escapes) science. The same goes for, as in another recent example, for the view that science is self-correcting. It is not because people are not, and they need to be pushed to be. In March 2019, for example, researchers uncovered at least 58 papers published in a six-week period whose authors had switched their desired outcomes between the start and end of their respective experiments to report positive, and to avoid reporting negative, results. When the researchers wrote to the authors as well as the editors of the journals that had published the problem papers, most of them denied there was an issue and refused to accept modifications.

Again, the scientific literature, people!

Life notes Scicomm

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.


Communication, journalism and bullshit

A week or two ago, a scientist impressed with The Wire‘s coverage of science recommended that I stick to covering the good stuff (my syntax) and keep away from highlighting pseudoscience and other happenings of questionable footing.

Then, a few days ago, a science writer expressed an adjacent set of complaints to me. He said that (a) he had a problem with most science journalism simply being science communication, and (b) that whatever was being communicated was invariably optimistic about science’s intention itself.

Both these men are expressing valid concerns – but my disagreement with them was almost immediate. And the reason I’m discussing them here is that the scientist’s advice and the writer’s first complaint allude to a common concern: do people know how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience?

It’s a skill many of us take for granted, often because we’re aware of

  1. The investigative methods of science
  2. Common sources of inaccuracy and imprecision, and
  3. The features of scientific publishing

– all topped off with a passing familiarity with subjects most often in the news. For example, almost everyone in my social circles will suspect a news article claiming scientists have successfully cloned a fully grown human being or resurrected a mammoth. But I can’t say that all my readers will be able to as well.

So covering pseudoscience and research misconduct is a way to, first, highlight the existence of these modes of interrogating a claim and, second, to encourage readers to employ them with every (scientific) claim they’re ever faced with.

Another way to elucidate these modes – and delineate more like them – is to communicate sound science (as distinct from addressing it as a journalist). A typical example of this is for the communicator to take up a seemingly complicated piece of science and break it down in such a way that you stay faithful to scientists and their work – as well as to your intention to ensure a non-scientist gets the science and its spirit.

To “let the science speak for itself” – as the scientist told me – first requires an awareness of the boundaries within which scientific claims must qualify themselves. In a country like India, I suspect (from experience) that many people are unaware of these boundaries. It might not even be far-fetched to say that, in these circumstances, science communication is a form of science journalism. And science journalism can only benefit from a readership that knows and asks the right questions.

I’m reminded at this point of the words of Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, p. 530):

The suspicion and fear of science [in the early to mid-nineteenth century] was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

Science can have these attributes (at times more so than we might like to acknowledge) and such effects, and that’s when science journalism – a la the writer’s second concern – is required. But it has to be preceded by science communication, or Gwyneth Paltrow is going to sell you her jade dildos. Or worse.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.


Why does the mention of ‘ancient Indian science’ have a sheen of dubiousness?

The 2015 Indian Science Congress is set to begin on January 2, hosted by the Mumbai University. This prestigious event – modeled after the British Association for the Advancement of Science – sees India’s and the world’s foremost researchers coming together for a week once a year, talking about their work, participating in discussions and generally interacting with students, other researchers and enthusiasts. It was first conducted by the ISC Association in 1914.

This year’s roster of speakers also boasts of many impressive names: Ada Yonath, Manjul Bharghava, Paul Nurse, Randy Schekman, SRS Vardhan, Muhammad Yunus, K Radhakrishnan, etc. Of course, it’s not about the names but about the quality of presentations and all the novelty and wisdom that a gathering like this has to offer. Nonetheless, in the midst of this celebration of science is a dubious session dedicated to ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’ (Jan 4, 9.30 am to 1.30 pm) – and I say dubious not because of the people but the quality of work supposedly on offer.

During this session, some Indian researchers are set to present theses on the applications of ancient botany, the neuroscience of yoga, ancient Indian aviation technology, science in the Vasthusastra, and advances in surgery in the country 8,000 years ago (I’ve listed excerpts from some of their abstracts at the end of this post).

Making outlandish claims

Tell me there isn’t something about them that immediately pings our disbelief sensors. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Center in May 2014, claims like these have been staked by right-wing outfits bent on rewriting history to better suit the future they’re constructing. The first casualty, as always, was the truth. The next, however, was the scientific method, whose rigor and diligence was often disregarded to secure nationalistic bragging rights.

Ayurveda, or even ayurgenomics, was only the tip of the berg. On December 26, 2014, one of the speakers at the forthcoming ISC said he would talk about how airplanes in the Vedic age could fly between planets. On December 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during a speech that the Hindu deity Ganesha – who has has the body of a human and the head of an elephant – was proof that plastic surgeons were practicing in the country at the time. Around the same time, a Parliament minister claimed a sage had conducted a nuclear test in the second century BC. In November, the leader of a group calling for wider Sanskrit teaching in schools said NASA’s work on the god particle – such as it is – was founded on its knowledge of Sanskrit. And so forth.

Perhaps the first indicator of dubiousness is the outlandishness of these claims. On the one hand, you have an inter-species transplantation of an entire head, and on the other, the way more believable legacy of Sushruta, an Indian surgeon who lived between 800 and 600 BC and his likely seminal investigation of the design of surgical instruments, especially for endoscopy and rhinoplasty.

Further, the proponents of these claims almost always refer to supposed advancements in the Vedic periods – 1750-500 BC – when the Vedas were composed and Hinduism as the right-wingers would have it was pervasive. Whatever happened between 500 BC and 1947 AD does not feature in their claim as if they resent the changes that happened in this period, especially the Mughal colonialism and British imperialism.

And worse yet, these technologies’ perceived identity is associated not with a land but with a religion and, for some reason, a language. Why ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’? Even if the purported scientific texts were composed in Sanskrit, what does the language have to do with the validity of the texts themselves?

Legitimacy through scrutiny

Statements and coinages such as these seem to admit that the claimants couldn’t muster the kind of evidence that the scientific method and scientists tend to prize today, coinages that are dismissive of what is widely held to be the nature of incontrovertibility. The claims are often repeated without substantive information, attributed to people long dead or instances with little documentation, or held to be factual on the basis of religious texts and myths.

If the BJP government is at all intent on legitimizing historic Indian research, it is puzzling why it isn’t going the way of common sense: by indexing the literature, subjecting it to textual and linguistic analysis, promoting conferences that are able to critique these efforts, increasing access to the data, complementing all of them with archaeological digs, and publishing a journal or two with well-formatted literature.

By ‘well-formatted’, I mean with citations and references (not just to other questionable work but also accredited ones), sections delineating the nature of work and why it was undertaken, one on the methods of study used and one on possible sources of error – whether statistical or hermeneutic. Scientific literature is after all an honest documentation of investigation, and its honesty lies in it being open about what can/can’t be disputed and why/why not. Without this information, outlandishness isn’t going to go away.

Admittedly, all these efforts toward legitimization need money, so spend money. Get everything checked before impressing upon the people that this or that happened. Money and efforts should also be spent to integrate scientific-historic literature like this with mainstream scientific and sociological literature, by making it easier for authors to be read and understood by other authors, and by creating a research environment that supports replication and criticism with discipline and sans vitriol. Or politics. If there is anything worth knowing about our past that is true, those who are championing such and other truths are abdicating their responsibility to make it teachable.

The correspondence principle

For example, one of the talks scheduled for January 4 at the ISC, titled ‘Neuroscience of Yoga’, seems interesting for the insights it could provide on the discipline’s physiological effects. It speaks to a concept in physics called the correspondence principle: that a new theory should be able to account for the effects of an old theory it replaced at least in the domain where the old theory worked. For example, Newtonian mechanics was able to explain the orbits of planets around stars but not the formation of black holes. In the 1900s, it was replaced by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was able to explain both the orbits of planets as well as the formation of black holes.

According to the correspondence principle, then, if both theories were able to explain planetary orbits, then they should have some comparable equations or principles in that domain. In other words, the theories must be able to ‘talk to each other’ when discussing planetary orbits.

In much the same way, if staked truths – of Ganesha’s transplanted head, Karna’s surrogate birth, and Agastya’s and Bharadwaja’s spaceships – are to persist, then their underlying principles have to correspond with the scientific zeitgeist. Otherwise, all that the claimants are doing is walling themselves in and depriving themselves of the scrutiny that still could, if allowed, dredge up a few gems from our distorted pasts.


1. Engineering Applications of Ancient Indian Botany by AS Nene (Professor of Civil Engineering (Retd.), VNIT Nagpur.

Synopsis: Normally engineers are not concerned with botany. Indian engineering philosophy (Shilpashastra) comprises of ten sciences, thirty-two techniques and sixty-four skills of engineering. All these sciences are interlinked in one way or other. Krushishastra (Biological Sciences) alone includes thee techniques and twenty-one skills. Innumerable ancient references of botany related to engineering are available in digital libraries. Such ancient texts, describe applications of various components (Panchanga-five parts) of trees, plants, and creepers to engineering. It is concludes that; * Ancient Indian engineers had adequate knowledge of Indian botany and knew how to implement this knowledge for strength, durability and aesthetic purposes. * With the advent of modern materials, organic materials were replaced by synthetic materials. * However secret of endurance of Indian heritage structures lies in materials used and the construction techniques. * More research with laboratory and field investigations is necessary.

2. Neuroscience of Yoga : Understanding the ‘process’ by Dr. Veena Londhe, Dr. Madhusudan Penna

This research reveals the changes that occur at the different levels of a human body-mind complex. The most structured and well known Astanga Yoga of Patanjali gives the benefits of each limb in a cryptic way. The yamas would simplify the practitioner’s life to a great extent and would cause less mental disturbance if followed in the right spirit. The niyamas would regulate the personal life of a practitioner by satisfying his will, intellect and emotion. The research though unable to throw light on these subjective issues still their precedence as well as pervasion throughout the life of a practitioner are in a way conducive to the overall change in his personality.

Dr.Leena Phadke, Dr.Sanjay Phadke (Smt Kashibai Navale Medical College, Pune; Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital & Research Centre, Pune; Centre for Behavioural Medicine, Pune; Yoga Forum, Munich)

Yoga has attracted much attention in recent times driven by interest in health benefits associated with practice of Yoga. While ‘Outcome Research’ has shown clinical benefit in various lifestyle disorders, the ‘process research’ has not kept pace and there is dearth of information on underlying physiological mechanisms and whether there is any specificity to changes associated with different yoga processes.

Our work spanning a decade focuses on the ‘process research’ that includes inquiry at three levels viz. the Autonomic Nervous System (mind-body link), brain mechanisms, and biomechanics. Sophisticated signal analysis technology was specially developed for this purpose (that includes ambulatory polygraph device and signal analysis software). Several studies were carried out with trained yoga practitioners during practice of various yogasanas, pranayam, and dhyan-dharna protocols and multiple parameters of interest viz. ECG (Electrocardiogram sampled at 1 KHz. for assessing HRV), Respiration: bilateral nasal breathing, Core Body Temperature, Pulse & SPo2 (oxygen saturation), EEG (Electroencephalogram – brain electrical activity), and EMG (Electromyogram – muscle electrical activity) etc. were recorded. Methodological sophistication helped unravel several physiological changes, including some paradoxes observed for the first time, are unique to practice of yoga.

3. Ancient Indian Aviation Technology by Capt. Anand Bodas, Ms Ameya Jadhav

Aviation Technology in ancient India is not a tale of mythology but it is a total historical document giving the technical details and specifications. Ancient Sanskrit literature is full of descriptions of flying machines – Vimanas. From the many documents found it is evident that the scientist-sages Agastya and Bharadwaja had developed the lore of aircraft construction. Aeronautics or Vaimaanika Shastra is a part of Yantra Sarvasva of Bharadwaja. This is also known as Brihadvimaana Shastra. Vaimaanikashastra deals about aeronautics, including the design of aircraft, the way they can be used for transportation and other applications, in detail. The knowledge of aeronautics is described in Sanskrit in 100 sections, eight chapters, 500 principles and 3000 slokas. Great sage Bharadwaja explained the construction of aircraft and way to fly it in air, on land, on water and use the same aircraft like a sub-marine. He also described the construction of war planes and fighter aircraft. This paper will deal with manufacturing an alloy for making aeroplanes, the specialized dress material being virus proof, waterproof, shock proof etc. for the pilots. This was given by Bhardwaj Sage in Brihatvimanshashtra. He had mentioned the 97 reference books for the aviation.

In 21st century we all should study and spread the achievements of our Sages.

4. Reflection of Scientific Principles from Vāstuśāstra by Dr. Rahul V Altekar, Dr. Asawari Bapat

The present paper reveals the scientific principles that were followed in ancient India in building structures. Leaving the controversial aspects, the paper embarks on the less known technical aspects of Vāstuśāstra. It discusses the driving philosophy behind delicate and minute carving, uniformity and consistency in design, excellence in aesthetics and decoration, optimization of natural resources utilization, and inseparable approach of architecture and engineering. Thus it focuses on the mantle of key factors like Anthropometry in designing customized homes, various land testing methods (to determine liquid limit, Natural moisture content, Natural dry density, Plastic limit, Permeability, Fertility, hardness), metrology, tooling, joints and application of natural resources (primarily trees, wind and sunlight). It also reviews the different kinds of building materials, their classification, properties and applications.

5. Advances in surgery in ancient India by Dr.Ashwin Sawant (+91 99207 48444)

Suśrut Saḿhitā is the first text of surgery,created not later than 1500 B.C. in India. References of advanced surgeries are also found in Ŗgvedā considered as first text of universe, created not later than 6000 B.C. Indians had realized importance of anatomy for accurate surgery, long before Greeks and were dissecting human body to gain anatomical knowledge, at least a millennium before the Hippocrates. Indian method of human dissection seems better, since it could make visible, minute structure lying just beneath the skin ,which is not possible, even in modern method of dissection. Indians had developed 20 types of sharp instruments and 101 types of blunt instruments required for the surgery, made from pure Iron, many of which are resembling with modern surgical instruments. Indians had well understood importance of healing wound, essential for the successful operation and performed 7 steps of treatment to heal the wound. Vaikrutāpaham , a 7th step recommended in wound-healing, essential for normalizing the wounded skin , is still unknown to modern surgery. Indians knew more than 4 ways of stopping bleeding , an important component of successful surgery. They developed different surgical procedures required in any surgery and used to practice them on dummies, dead animals and on naturally resembling things like fruits & flowers. Pre-operative and post-operative care advised is as per modern protocol.

You can find full descriptions here.