Sunday, November 19, 2006

Misusing Science

Science is a powerful tool to understand how the world behaves, and, to a certain extent, why it behaves as it does. People generally give a lot of value to what scientists say, and anything that is said to be scientific. However, most people have only a hazy idea about the basic principles of science and what even some of the common scientific terms really mean. This situation can be exploited by those who wish to mislead others, either for monetary benefit or to convince the gullible people that what they are telling them is true. Let me try to explain this by describing a few experiences that I have personally had.

Once I happened to see a beautifully designed vessel at a friend's house. Since I found it very attractive, I was examining it when I saw something written on its lid. The words said something like "Scientifically designed for loose fit". I noticed that the lid was not very tight, but at the same time, it was made such that the lid fitted neatly on the vessel. However, I was baffled by the word "scientifically". I could not understand what science was there in the design, though it was obvious that it was carefully designed. I suspect that the word "scientifically" was introduced just to impress the unsuspecting customer. The same statement was rather prominently displayed on the carton in which the vessel came too.

Another interesting instance was the attempt by a salesman to sell me a device that he claimed could save 5 to 10 percent fuel on my motorbike. The device was simpe. It consisted of a cylindrical object with tubes extending from both ends. The salesman told me that I only need to connect it to my fuel line, between the fuel tank and the carburettor, and I could save a lot of fuel. I asked him how it worked. He told me that it contained a magnet that would force the fuel molecules to align so that their combustion would take place more efficiently. He had no answer to my questions about how the molecules would stay aligned as the fuel moved through the carburettor, got mixed with air, and was pulled into the engine. This happened years ago, when I had no access to the Internet, but today the Internet tells me the whole story. For instance, just take a look at I quote:

"Magnetic devices that purport to miraculously save fuel by aligning the fuel molecules have been around for many years. ......In tests of many similar devices for automobiles conducted by the EPA, none has ever shown one iota of benefit when carefully tested. Additionally, the underlying theory of these devices is not supported by scientific evidence."

The salesman could probably convince a number of people about the efficacy of the device because he used scientific terms like molecule, magnetic field, combustion and so on. Most common people tend to believe that those who use such terms probably know what they are talking about! They get cheated.

An interesting incident was an attempt by two young men to get me to buy some clothes that they claimed could cure me of various diseases inlcuding hypertension and arthritis. I asked them how these pieces of attire could cure diseases. They explained that the material was impregnated with a special kind of clay. This clay could absorb infrared radiation emitted by the body and reradiate it, which could cure these diseases. Since they were students of engineering, I asked them whether they had any idea what infrared radiation is, and what objects emit radiation. I had to remind them that every object above the absolute zero temperature (about -273 degrees Celsius) do radiate and that the spectrum of the radiation depends on the temperature of the body. At temperatures close to human body temperatures, the radiation emtted is infrared. So we are immersed in a sea of infrared radiation all the time. I asked them what was special about the radiation emitted by the clothes they were trying to sell, and how it became special. Of course, they had no answer, and all they could say was that this is what the had been told in the marketing class. Here also, some scientific jargon is being used to confuse people and get them to buy the clothes. Let me point out here that I have no idea whether the clothes had any beneficial effects, as some people who had used them told me. If at all that is true, the effects obviously were due to something other than radiation.

The most dramatic statement I ever heard was in a discussion in one of the local television channels. One of the participants in the discussion was a well-known neuro surgeon. He was trying to show that women had some strange properties during their menstrual periods. He told a story about women who were employed by a company that was manufacturing diodes. According to him, the company found that 95% of the diodes manufactured by women during their periods turned out to be rejects. This, he explained, was due to some electromagnetic radiation emitted by them! For me, it was news that diodes were manufactured by hand, rather than by machines! And that some strange electromagnetic radiations could be emitted by women at during certain days! If that is true, husbancs need to beware!

But that was nothing. He went on to tell another story that was much more astounding. He said that during the tsunami of 2004, sea water did not enter a particular temple, though it was on the coast and on low-lying land, because of some electromagnetic radiations that were emitted from the temple! Wonder of wonders! Electromagnetic radiations can stop sea water in its tracks! Why waste money on sea walls and other structures to prevent coastal erosion? Just install some devices that emit suitable electromagnetic radiations!

Coming from a well-known surgeon, people would tend to believe what he says. I wonder whether he really believed these stories himself. I cannot believe that he does not know what the term electromagnetic radiations means. To become a doctor, it is not sufficient to study biology alone. One needs to study some amount of physics and chemistry too. So I am forced to think that his statements were deliberately made to decieve people. Either way, it is a shame.

But what was most tragic was that there was no one, not even one single person, in the panel or the audience who could get up and call the bluff. There were many who possibly did not believe what the doctor said, but no one had the basic scientific knowledge to ask how human beings or temples could emit some special electromagnetic radiations at specific times, and how these could cause damage to diodes or stop tsunami waves. They were simply stumped by the jargon.

What all this points to is the need to educate people about what science is and explain to them some of the basic concepts of science--at least so that they do not get cheated by charlatans like these.