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By Chandre Dharmawardana, Ottawa, Canada
Galileo nearly got burnt at the stake for heresy when he claimed that the Earth orbited around the sun instead of being the fixed center of the God-created Universe. At that time most people were science Nay-Sayers. A century before Galileo, when Christopher Columbus defiantly sailed West seeking Eastern India, most people believed that the Earth was flat, as was evident to the eye. This view was common to almost all cultures, be it Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese or Hebrew. Many Tibeten Lamas held to their beliefs about Mt. Meru being at the middle of a flat earth until the mid 20th century, when the Dalai Lama declared that Philosphy must follow empirical science in such matters. Even in 2010 a Catholic "Geocentric-World society" held a convention in Texas and rejected Corpanicus.
Today many of us happily believe that people are well informed in this age of the internet and Google. Amazingly, the very opposite is also true. Rich counties like the USA or the Oil Kingdoms are not educated societies. Fundamentalist religions remain powerful and science Nay-Sayers are well funded and articulate. While the Western nations spend billions in scientific research, the average citizen prefers to use the fruits of science (i.e., technology) while refusing to come to terms with what he/she finds incomprehensible, counter-intuitive and often going against traditional beliefs and practices. Instead of expecting to build an improved world using science, Science Nay-Sayers take a very distopian view of modern knowledge. They, like their counterparts during Galileo’s times, seek to find solace in returning to “traditional ways”, even though Humpty-Dumpty cannot be be put back, with some 22 million new people ( population of Sri Lanka!) added to the global population every two months!
Flat-Earthists and science as “Patta-Pal-Boru”.
The rejection of information which is supported by over-whelming evidence has been greatly facilitated with the growth of the internet, with its wired “free-thinker” cults who want to rid themselves of the “shackles of science”, with its demand for evidence regard as `”infantile”, “unreasonable”, or even “authoritarian”. Even the shape of the earth is contested. The “concave-earth” is hollow and we live inside it, facing the sun, moon and planets at the center; the stars are an illusion.
Dr. Basil Mendis, a Peradeniya philosopher of the 1960s argued that directly perceived understanding has credence over abstract constructions “fantasized” by the mind. His seminars were dead serious about the earth being flat. The nearly spherical-earth belief is rejected as a strongly held “urban myth” or a Rudyard Kipling story. Mendis, a Catholic philosopher, held that all truth comes from God. So Mendis quit his University and became a Trappist monk. Philosophers who hold extremely idealist solipsist positions have been known from ancient times. Modern science skeptics like Bruno Latour or Nelson Goodman even regard science as a dangerous conspiracy hatched against society. I have discussed some of these in chapter 2 of my book entitled “A physicist’s view of matter and mind”.
Dr. Nalin de Silva came two decades after Mendis, with a baggage of physics, Buddhism and Sinhla “Jaathikathvaya” (roughly, “nationalism”). Dr. Silva's command of Physics has been increasingly shaky, with his recent claims of a mass for the photon, based on his misunderstanding of Einstein' s famous equation (see)
Dr. Nalin de Silva is known in Sri Lanka for his claim that science is a “Patta-Pal-Boru” (fully-fermented lie). Dr. Mendis referred to abstract mental constructs as “fantasies” or “urban myths”. Dr. Silva also rejects abstract knowledge. “Knowledge” possessed by all ordinary people (the 'pruthagjana'), i.e., those who have not become Arhanths, is really false knowledge or “Musa ” ( lies). He forgets that one of the precepts in Buddhism is to not to utter 'Musaa-vaada'. This is impossible to practice if the prutagjanas know only Musa!. Dr. Nalin de Silva (who is a pruthagjana), claims that only the Arhanths have true knowledge! This is simply the paradox of the Cretan who said that all Cretans are liars!
Dr. Silva's pruthagjana uses the sense data coming from his five senses and from the mind to make abstract constructions, or “kathandara” (stories) which in the end become formulated into “Patta-pal-boru” (fully-fermented lies). This rejection of scientific knowledge is also condemned as “Western science” linked to the culture of the “Judo-Christian religions”. That modern science was a struggle against the myths of Creator-based religions is well known to historians of science. In fact, while Buddhism is full of abstract concepts especially in its psychology and in its Abhi-Dhamma, the Buddha was one of the earliest thinkers to emphasize the importance of the experimental method in the “Gnana Sutra”, where it is asserted that truth must be established experimentally, just as a noble metal (e.g., Gold) has to be distinguished from a base metal by testing it on the touchstone (for a discussion of this, see Tchirbatsky's book on “Buddhist Logic”, Vol. 1).
Although “eastern science” is also based on “Musa”, that Musa is preferred by Dr. Nalin de Silva. After rejecting science as abstract and falsely “based on induction”, Dr. Silva embraces the occult sciences and claims to be currently studying “extra-sensory perception”. His notoriety here is in his trust of the words of a lady, a Pruthagjana, who hears “the voice of God Natha”, the God of the Naga tribes, absorbed into Buddhism as a Bodhisatva (as evident from a stone Inscription found at Mihintale).
Pesticides, Wi-fi radiation and Cancer claims.
Allegedly, God Natha revealed the presence of Arsenic in the Rajarata environment as the cause of Kidney diseases among its residents. Dr. Silva chastises Dr. Jayasumana for proposing “Glyphosate” as a cause without the sanction of the God (“deviyanta horaaa”). There is no experimental evidence for the presence of significant amounts (e..g, even 10 parts per billion) of Arsenic or Glyphosate in the water table of the Rajarata. But Dr Silva regards that his type of knowledge is not subject to such authoritarian constraints as “needing evidence”.
Even in capitalist countries like the USA where social welfare and subsidies for the poor are treated as creeping communism, there is a strong distrust of big business and even public health or environmental policies (e.g., on global warming). A strong divide exists between scientists and the public with respect to fertilizers, pesticides, as well as with cell-pone radiation (wi-fi). Many members of the public oppose them in the belief that they “cause cancer” (while perhaps happily puffing a cigarette !).
Even the WHO has yielded to NGO activism and declared the need for further rounds of investigation into the safety (or not) of wi-fi radiation. The 8 billion cell-phones, laptops, tablets, etc., that used wi-fi during the last 10 years, and the lack of any authenticated cases of cancer from wi-fi, imply that the probability of cancer from wi-fi in the next 10 years is less than one in eight-billion! Einstein's 1905 theory of the photo-effect which won him the Nobel prize tells us that wi-fi photons cannot cause the chemical changes needed for cancer. But such arguments do not move the Science Nay-Sayers who are propelled by public fear.
Leftist groups opposed to “big business” use the public fears of fertilizers and pesticides against “Agri-Giants” like Monsanto by inventing “evidence” for what they perceive to be the “public good”. Dedicated anti-GMO activism of well established “environmental” organizations like Greenpeace, caused some Directors to resign in protest against deliberate “mis-information”.
These Nay-Sayers of science have no hesitation of “using science” to support their beliefs. When a recent WHO report on Glyphosate (“Roundup”) was released, the anti-GMO lobby ignored the most important parts of the report and zoomed in on the non-committal claims based on statistical interpretations of the data that could be construed to mean that Glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” on long exposure to it. The activists ignored the definitive finding that microorganisms treated with large doses of Glyphosate suffered no toxicity. Micro-organisms have no immune systems or well-developed waste elimination organs like the kidneys. If toxicity exists, it is most visible at that level. Instead, this was downplayed, and an incident created by demanding Dr. Moore, a supporter of GMO foods and Glyphosate to drink a glass of Glyphosate if he actually believes it to be non-toxic!
Glyphosate is not a food. But even with a food like sugar, NO one should gulp down a glass of maple syrup or Palm treacle claiming that sugar is non-toxic. Many people would pass out on ingestion of such large amounts of sugar. Sugar is the favourite food of cancer cells; it causes type-II diabetes, obesity etc., and should be banned since our food provides enough of it.
The international Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in a very recent report also concluded that Glyphosate at the right exposure is “probabaly” carcinogenic, although no evidence from humans was presented. On the other hand, in January 2015 the German government-European Commission (GG-EC) completed a detailed four-year evaluation of Glyphosate usage in the European union. They also reviewed the data considered by the IARC, and concluded that “glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans”. The IARC was perhaps simply “playing it politically safe”.
The news media high-lighted the carcinogenic claims in lead articles, in synch with the 63% Nay-Sayers among the lay public. “TruthOut.org”, an advocacy news organ, claimed in early 2013 that Glyphosate causes chronic Kidney disease in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. The WHO findings of the lack of significant amounts of Glyphosate in the affected areas in Sri Lanka was not revealed. A “hypothesis” published in a private electronic “journal” with no scientific standing was enough for TruthOut. One of the authors of the “paper” had previously claimed that the aetiology of the disease had been revealed to her by divine intervention. From there, TruthOut was quoted by other “internet Gurus” like Dr. Mercola.
A discussion of the Truth out article is given in.
A survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAA) in January 2015 revealed that 85% of scientists supported GMO foods, while more than 60% of the public OPPOSED them. Thus, although a large scientific consensus exists, when the Nay-Sayers make out that scientists are “at loggerheads” about such matters, they can perhaps point to the differences in emphasis taken by the IARC and the GG-EC .
The Golden Rice controversy.
Ms. Shiva Vandana, (SV) is an Indian anti-GMO activist who flaunts her “scientific credentials”, though she abandoned science immediately after her Ph.D in an arcane area of physics, and not in agriculture, biology or chemistry. Dr. Patrick Moore, an ex-Director of Greenpeace who resigned from the NGO accuses Ms. Shiva Vandana for indirectly causing the death of millions of poor Indians by her campaigns preventing the use of “golden rice” (a GMO rice that is fortified with carotene genes) in India (). Of course, this accusation is some what tongue in cheek, but the introduction of Golden rice to India has the potential to save many lives and reduce much misery.
SV is against farmers using even non-GMO high-yield hybrid seeds that mature quickly and need less water and manure. Her position is ideological, lauding “traditional methods and traditional seeds”. I have argued elsewhere that traditional rice varieties must be promoted for specialized “niche markets”, and as a source of bio-diversity, while the new varieties are essential to feed the population (). Followers of Shiva Vanadana in Sri Lanka turn out to be, strangely enough, Marxist activists like the late Sarath Fernando of ‘Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform’ . They have recognized that the cries of “traditional agriculture and rice” could be used for the purpose of organizing rural farmers for their political struggles -an objective that has defied Leftist activism usually confined to urban areas. These Nay-Sayers find it politically expedient to reject the “green Revolution” of Borlug, and the tremendous achievements of the rice scientists of Sri Lanka at Bathalagoda and Kundasale.
Anti-pasteurization and anti-vaccination lobbies.
Some science Nay-Sayers deny the origin of many diseases via microbes and other pathogens. Evil forces, Karma, divine wrath, dis-equilibrium among the “tri-dosha,”, i.e., va-pith-sem (air, bile and phlegm) are blamed. Scientific medicine is rejected and alternative medicine is held to be the correct approach. Public antipathy is found, especially in the wealthy, organic-food eating upper classes, demanding a “free-choice” for themselves in regard to pasteurization of milk, the use of fluoridation of water to prevent dental disease, or the use of vaccines against measles and other illnesses. In Canada 28% of the public distrust vaccines, making the work of public health officials a nightmare. Un-vaccinated children contract the disease and create the potential for new mutants.
Medical questions cannot be entirely dealt with using hard science since the human body is as yet too complex for present day knowledge. Mental processes have an immense impact on health but neuroscience is an extremely young science. Hence traditional knowledge integrated with science is the way forward, at least for now. What science recommended regarding cardio-vascular diseases and nutrition has changed every few decades, and the public is bewildered. IN such cases, the public should follow main-stream science, while researchers should follow all leads including unlikely possibilities. The Nay-Sayers of Science use these uncertainties to great advantage.
Bottle necks and information controls.
Another reason for the rise of skepticism of science is the muffling of science by governments. Government scientists in Health or Agriculture have to state things that “fit government policy”. Even if fish stocks are dangerously low, this cannot be revealed. In the UK, scientists were not allowed to reveal the actual situation with regard to Mad-Cow disease. Close collusion between government regulators and drug companies leads to the approval of inadequately tested drugs, or lack of penalties for hiding relevant data. Nuclear industry became unsafe as the regulatory agencies began to be funded by the industry itself, as happened in Japan!
Evolution has of course been a favorite issue with Science Nay-Sayers. A recent survey showed that 99% of scientists believed that humans have evolved from “simpler” animals, while nearly 40% of the US public rejected it, with this latter number increasing much more in southern USA. It would be interesting to obtain data for a country like Sri Lanka, a high-literacy Asian country with a Buddhist culture. There is respect for science and knowledge in Traditional societies like China, Japan and India. The small but influential westernized urbanites and Post-modernist journalists are the intellectual vanguard of the Science Nay-Sayers in Asian capitals of countries like Sri Lanka or India.
Unfortunately, politicians ask researchers to “fund their research from industry”, and do “industrially relevant research”, while cutting independent funding available for research. The old idea of “ivory tower” universities, independent of industry or even governments, and funding their research using their own wealth is feasible only for a few world renowned universities. It is the governments and the profit motive that have politicized science and “killed the hen that laid the golden eggs”.