Friday, November 23, 2012

IIT-M Platform for Pseudoscience?

Check out this blog post at Nirmukta about a recent talk on Vedic Science in which the speaker makes all kinds of wild claims about the scientific content in vedic and other texts from ancient India. [Don't forget to read the comments section, where quite a few IIT-M faculty, students and alumni have been posting their views.]

Pretty amazing, especially since this talk appears to be a part of a series of lectures hosted by IIT-M; in other words, it's not like this other talk organized by a cultural group/club at IIT-M.

Here's something that redeemed the event: The speaker faced a strong challenge from the great folks at IIT-M. You can find YouTube links to these snippets at the end of the post at Nirmukta. [IIT-M has a great tradition of gutsy protests.]

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The speaker runs a research institute of vedic technology. See especially his boast about how "a pioneer institute like Indian Institute of Technology Madras has recognized a vedic research institute as its external centre for pursuing MS/PhD."

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If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the fiasco unfold over a period of an hour or so. Since it's too painful (not to mention cringe-inducing) to watch, you are probably better off with the snippets from the Q&A after the talk.


  1. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Abi, thanks for the post. I actually like that they let him talk at IITM, but they did not dilute their standards for him. They critiqued him like they would critique any other presentation, using scientific arguments and techniques. This is perhaps the best way of dealing with these chaps. The scientific community in India adopts a live-and-let-live attitude towards these people. Unfortunately, this lets them thrive, and then brainwash the aam aadmi. A systematic, scientific and dispassionate take-down like this does much good for society and automatically becomes a great advertisement for science. Now an internet search on him will bring up these videos and people will be better informed.

  2. Subrahmanya said...

    1. Please have a look at the members of Research Advisory Council!
    2. The Institute has also completed a couple of research projects funded by public-money. This trend of processing of "nano" materials is also catching up at Bangalore.
    3. The Institute is recognized by Department of Scientific & Industrial Research as Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation.

    How do you avoid such things unless until you are on the panel responsible for funding and recognizing institutions?
    - Subrahmanya

  3. Suresh said...

    I remember the late Martin Gardner once describing India as a country where all psuedosciences flourish. And it is not just Gardner, others have noted it too. (We must be the only country where Homeopathy, Ayurveda and Unani are *officially* endorsed. I don't think even Islamic countries endorse Unani.)

    The attitude espoused by this guy, Sudhakara Sastry, that all current knowledge is already there in the Vedas is not new. It is already there in Dayananda Saraswati's work. (See the discussion in India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding by Wilhelm Halbfass.) A web search reveals the book Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India by David Arnold, where on page 170, we read:

    An even more extreme and influential attempt to appropriate the West to the East was made by Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj in 1875, who claimed that the discovery of modern science had been anticipated in the Vedas as the fountainhead of all science and religion

    I would just like to note that while ridicule is an easy response to people like Sudhakara Sastry, we have to recognize that this is really an attempt to respond to changing times.

    Wilhelm Halbfass notes, in the book mentioned above, that ever since the British came to India, they posed a set of questions which continue to challenge us. In particular, the questions are: Can one be "Indian" (if you will, Hindu) and also simultaneously "modern"? Is modern science compatible with "Hinduism"?

    One possible response was given by Saraswati who argued that the answer to both questions is yes because all that modern science has to say is already there in the Vedas. This is silly but one can understand the attractiveness of such a formulation. Even Vivekananda argued for a connection between "ancient Indian thought" and modern science.

    At any rate, the problems that confronted Dayananda Saraswati (and Rammohan Roy, Aurobindo, Gandhi...) still remain with us. We have not yet become a "Western" nation.

    Many "intellectual" Indians, especially those who have lost their religious faith, argue that all of Hinduism (and all religion as such) is bunk and that only science is valid. This is certainly one possible response to the Hindu's existential problem and it avoids the problems associated with Saraswati's (and Sudhakara Sastry's) response.

    But we have to understand that a vast number of our countrymen and women still have not totally lost their religious faith and they are, in their own way, trying to respond to modern science.

    Hence, even though guys like Sudhakara Sastry look ridiculous to us, we still have to find a way of responding to them without ridiculing them totally. Ridiculing them can only prove counterproductive.

  4. Anonymous said...

    At any rate, the problems that confronted Dayananda Saraswati (and Rammohan Roy, Aurobindo, Gandhi...) still remain with us. We have not yet become a "Western" nation.

    I don't really see a problem here that is unique to India/Hinduism. All the Abrahamic religions are struggling with these "teachings" of how god created the world in 6 days, and then flooded the world because he was upset, and then gave a bunch of laws to the Moses, Jesus and Mohammed which somehow ended up endorsing slavery (to pick just one example)! I'm really not trying to pick on religion but rather hoping to point out that Christians don't have an easier time reconciling their beliefs with the modern world.

    Hence, even though guys like Sudhakara Sastry look ridiculous to us, we still have to find a way of responding to them without ridiculing them totally. Ridiculing them can only prove counterproductive.

    This sounds a lot like the "tone argument" which is used by the so-called "faitheists" against the "new atheists". This is a complicated topic but the position I have come to is that one doesn't need to be polite all the time but one does need to be polite and understanding when talking to those who are less privileged than oneself. I don't think Sastry lacks any privilege at all, so I'd argue that we really need to take the gloves off in dealing with people like him.

  5. Unknown said...

    The IITM legacy continues!

    Despite a very laudable effort from the part of the organisers of the Extra Mural Lecture series by conducting a demonstration cum lecture session by Prof. Narendra Nayak (renowned rationalist, campaigner for science and a baba/psychic debunker), the highest among the administrative ladder showed their true colours. The event was well recieved by a houseful hall. But some rants thrown by a senior professor did lead to some excited discussions.

    I wrote a post about the same. You can read it from here.

  6. Sue said...

    The image of Vedas and religion has been there forever in humans of this region. The people from the "Church of Reason" are too few against an army of people following faith blindly and doing everything to spread it. There is a reason our religion (or way of life) or any religion for that matter has existed way beyond just a couple of centuries. Its been there for thousands of years. The reason has its power to associate common traits in masses which give them a feeling of being in a society. Reason on the other hand makes you an outcast (by early standards at least) A guy would till a field and be happy being a part of society rather than open books, leave his job and find reasons. Thats the reason religion has always existed. Its like in Life of Pi - "Which story would you choose? The one with the sailor or with the animals in it? - The same goes for God"