The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark by Carl Sagan

I just finished watching Here Be Dragons by Brian Dunning which is an introductory video to critical thinking. Most of the concepts and tools which were described in the video were familiar to me. This was because of the book by Carl Sagan I had read a long time ago. I remember seeing a dusty copy of the book in the the public library and being a little put-off then by its cheesy title and uninspiring cover. I must say those were the criteria I used in those days to judge the quality of a book.

I still took the book because of my trust in the ability of Carl Sagan to be interesting and engaging. I was not much of a fan of science or skepticism then. But, the book managed to sow the first seeds of doubt in my mind. I still remember feverishly going through the book as it tore apart one false idea after another. After finishing it in a hurry, I put it down and went into one of my trademark crazy-walking-in-big-circles episodes as I tried to make sense of it all.

It was such a strange feeling. Like living for long in a cold, dark, damp, wet room and then suddenly sensing a strong fresh wind starting to shake the doors and windows and the sunlight poring in through the cracks and holes. It was such a sense of relief and I started to feel, for the first time that I could answer some of the questions that were so deeply bugging me.

I was deeply religious though highly skeptical of some of the stories when I was younger. Part of the reason for my religious character was my ambition. I wanted to achieve great things and I didn’t want to piss off anything that might ruin my chances. God was one among several such things.

I was also plagued by doubts about everything. I was of an extremely curious and questioning disposition and all the contradictory information piling in from all sides deeply confused and troubled me. Is evolution true? Are aliens for real? Why is that different people have different opinions about Homeopathy? When I get sick should I take English medicines? What about their side-effects? When I go and search on google I just end up getting more confused. My family and relatives were not of much help. Even my uncle who is a doctor was rather vague about homeopathy and natural medicine. Most of the explanations for why things are the way they are seemed to me to be half-baked and incoherent. Though I was interested in technology and engineering and liked reading, I didn’t know where to go to access reliable information about questions pertaining to everyday life.

The book opened my mind to the idea that maybe we have much more control over our lives than we think we have. That not every guy who says he knows how some thing works is correct. That there are some things that have been proved beyond reasonable doubt and others that have been thoroughly debunked. It did these things not by merely stating them. It backed them up with evidence, logic and references that I was able to verify. For the first time, I realized that the education that I was put through had cheated me and that the society had failed at giving me the tools I needed to protect myself from frauds. I knew a lot of trivia. But nobody had bothered to sit down and explain to me the art of critical thinking.

I was asked to always keep an open mind and give credence to all view points and be “tolerant”. Never mind the mental dissonance that sets in and the indecision that it leads to. Never mind that quacks are going to exploit you and you might probably place your own life in danger. Never mind all that because we really don’t know the truth…. science claims to be perfect, but it can’t explain everything…. there are things unknown to science… that the ancients knew and exploited. We must never say we know anything for certain…. everything is subjective… truth is a personal opinion… why do you have to choose one over the other? why can’t both/all versions be right? all religions point to the same God… never mind that their followers are at each others necks and that their teachings are contradictory… they are similar at a “higher” level… all medical systems are equally correct… they just represent different approaches to health…. never mind that some of them lack a scientific basis… never give notice to the notion that there might be a best approximation to the truth… all are equally valid… you just have to look hard enough to see it…  modern science is not for real… all the wisdom and knowledge is contained in the vedas… you just have to be clever enough to interpret it…. similar claims about the bible and etc. etc… i was just getting fucking sick of all this fucking bullshit.

This book… it pulled me out of a really deep hole that I was sinking into. I have a streak of extremism inside me and am prone to recklessness and quick action.  The book made me seek out better sources and ask deeper questions. I became a bigger fan of Sagan after reading the book. It a must read for anyone who is not familiar with skepticism and critical thinking. The video that was mentioned in the beginning is also a very good one and conveys the key ideas in a short span of 40 mins.

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Ayurveda and the myth of “natural” medicine

There are a lot of ideas circulating in our society some of which don’t have a scientific basis. More often than not they are propagated through word of mouth, anecdotal evidence peddled by people who stand to gain from it’s spread, passed from one generation to the next as ancient “wisdom”, hypocritical media etc..

Besides, people really don’t have the time or the inclination to check the veracity of each and every thing they hear anyway. Sometimes, we got to trust what people say. This makes our perspective of things as shaped by society susceptible to statistical bias and misinformation.

India is a free-for-all country where practically anything goes. The judges decide where Ram was born 6000 years ago, we have the govt. standing by while religious organizations deliberately spread lies for the purpose of attracting poor desperate pilgrims and milking them for their money, where national parties oppose projects of national importance on the grounds that it might damage ancient bridges which were supposedly, as described in a fairy tale, built by “monkey men”, where Homeopathy is a recognized system of medicine requiring qualified doctors etc..

The govt., probably in it’s eagerness to appear tolerant and to avoid trouble with anyone has placed the onus of separating the crap from the real deal on the common man. And people have far more pressing needs than to settle such questions by conducting personal research especially in a country where starvation and desperate poverty are so widespread. People are forced to make choices only when they are in trouble. I am not saying that such things don’t happen in other countries. I just think that we are not being as strict as we need to be.

I had once written about Homeopathy and how it has managed to stage a come-back and is now in full force in our country in this Information-Age when every body of scientific literature worth it’s salt has thoroughly debunked it.

Ayurveda

Aurveda in India comes under the Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yunani, Siddha and Homeopathy). It is said that one’s company is reflective of one’s character. Well, then, that doesn’t make ayurveda look too good, does it?

Ayurveda is a 5,000 yr old system of medicine having it’s roots in the Vedas. Many people take the fact that it is such an ancient system of medicine based on an equally ancient text to mean that it has withstood the test of time. But, that is not really logical.

It is more or less obvious that the ancient people had very little understanding of the biochemistry of the human body and that they were limited by contemporary technology(if at all there was any) from achieving any deeper insight into the complexities of the physical processes behind life. This is in evidence in the writings which involve demons and simplistic theories of disease.

Any average person today has access to several orders of magnitude more information than a guy who roamed around 5,000 yrs ago. They were humans like us, puzzled by the same questions and same mysteries that any child would be puzzled by. They came up with some plausible explanations that seemed to make sense to them. They described their thoughts in their literary works and millenia later, these works have come to be regarded as textbooks containing unassailable facts.

Instead of applying rigorous tests to the material subsequent generations came to regard it as sacred truth. Now, Ayurvedic practitioners don’t feel the need for empirical proof for their system of medicine. They just “intuitively” know that it is right and that is all that matters. After all, if you feel it’s right what else is required?

When some system is based upon gratuitous BS that has been shown to be clearly wrong or at least too simplistic, then the chances of it being effective are pretty low. If someone came and told you,

Hey, I am a computer repair man! I have a theory of computers. Every computer is a perfect divine balance of the Pancha Dhathus. They are sand, metal, plastic, wood and soul(some unholistic, unmystic, useless-stic people call it software!).

An imbalance involving the above things manifests itself in the computer being unhappy and acting like a POS(Piece-of-S**t). Based on this I have compiled thousands of pages containing big words which describe a new holistic healing method that can be used to set right misbehaving computers.

Also, it must be said that different computers have different natures. A calculator is less “soul-y” than say… a Mac which is mostly just soul. So, they have to be handled differently. You of course wouldn’t be able to do it as you require a sharply honed intuition to do it.

Do you think you would want to entrust such a guy  with your computer? Obviously, it is highly unlikely that he has a way to solve any problem. But, it is quite possible that in all that stuff he has written up, by chance, there might be something which might be mildly helpful. If you get some time you might want to go through it. But, wouldn’t depend upon him to run your enterprise systems.

No Side-Effects!

A lot of people have been taken in by this promise of “natural/herbal” treatment that is completely without side-effects and that are in-tune with the body. They delay or withhold treatment sometimes for conditions that can be controlled or treated easily using modern medicine. They keep putting up with the pain and convince themselves that their body is regaining the “balance” and eventually the disease just goes away on it’s own. But, not always! Sometimes, it horribly maims or even kills them. I have seen how people with Arthritis, Cancer, infectious diseases and other such illnesses stick to Ayurveda and end up with irreversible complications and sometimes even reduced chances of survival because of lack of timely medical intervention.

Medicine is not something that healthy people take. It is something that temporarily does something to the body to try and help it to recover. Thus, it has an effect. Now, medicines vary widely in their specificity and some might have other unwanted effects. Doctors prescribe a drug when they think that the benefits outweigh the side-effects. Most of the ayurvedic medicines don’t have side-effects because they don’t have effects. And the ones that do have effects generally tend to be toxic simply because they have been chosen based on bad science.

The dead people never walk around bad-mouthing ayurveda. But, if a single guy finds that his sickness goes away after he started taking ayurvedic medicines, he will talk about it to everyone.

When something claims that diseases can arise due to demonic possession then it should trigger your internal “crap-sense”. When it uses heavy metals and other demonstrably toxic materials in it’s concoctions you should be even more alarmed. When it gets banned in the EU and the US you should be scared of it.

Ayurveda selects medicines based on some assumptions regarding the functioning of the human body. These assumptions are in clear disagreement with science. Thus, the selections are likely to be wrong and ineffective and possibly, even harmful. These kinds of assumptions are used by a lot of other Alternative Systems like Chinese Herbal Medicine which is notorious for using animal parts that have resulted in hunting down of endangered species, acupuncture, Faith Healing, Osteopathy, etc.. All of them have been shown to be hollow and ineffective when properly tested in blinded, controlled studies using statistically sound techniques.

What one needs to realize is that intuition really doesn’t work as a means of arriving at the truth when it comes to stuff that are beyond the realm of everyday experience. This is simply because intuition is not something magical. It is something that is shaped by our experiences and a trait that helps us to take quick decisions in our day to day life. You can use it to come up with new ideas. But, not to test for it’s validity.

You could figure out how to use a computer application using your intuition because it was designed by human beings for use by human beings. Thus, you can easily make educated guesses and quickly figure it out. But, the human body was not designed by anyone and it does not accomplish things in an optimum fashion. A lot of the responses are irrational and inexplicable if you were to assume that it is perfect.

Ayurveda is rightly categorised as a “complementary” system of medicine and no one should rely on it as a primary treatment option. People should also be careful about taking herbal remedies as they might contain dangerous substances. There really is nothing called “natural” medicine. Everything ultimately comes from nature itself and there is no guarantee that everything natural is safe. To figure out what to take, it is best that we rely on the most rigorously tested and accepted bodies of knowledge.

There might be some remedies and rare herbs that have been found to work through trial and error. These herbs must be studied, their active ingredients identified, tested and then they should incorporated into modern medicine. There is really no justification for maintaining separate systems with different standards.

There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work.

Richard Dawkins

Lastly, there is this idea that people in the olden times did not suffer from illnesses and that it was probably because of traditional medicine.  The average life expectancy has been consistently increasing and when people live longer they just tend to get more diseases. Modern medicine has not been adequately appreciated at least in some circles for the improvement in the quality of life that it has brought about.