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Pseudoscience's Constant Appeal in the Shadow of Beautiful Science

Although pseudoscience is a constant annoyance, real science is alive and kicking!

Fifty years ago, polymath Jacob Bronowski, creator of the TV series The Ascent of Man, and author of the book by the same title wrote:

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of schoolbooks, we shall not exist…And I am deeply saddened to find myself surrounded in the West by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into---into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about “Are we not just animals at bottom”; into extra-sensory perception and [pseudo] mysteries.” They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: and understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.

Luckily it is now 50 years later and the dark, possible scenario that Dr. Bronowski warned against has not materialized. Science is alive and kicking. Thanks to Einstein’s theory of special relativity chemists were able to explain why gold, unlike other metals, is not silvery and does not react with oxygen. Engineers have used a combination of the Doppler effect and both of Einstein’s theories to give GPS in our cell phones almost pinpoint accuracy. Thanks to the polymerase chain reaction that can make billions of copies of DNA, innocent people have been freed from jail. High school students continue to learn that, thanks to science, we continue to use filtration and chlorination, now often coupled with ozonolysis, to prevent cholera and typhus fever, diseases that routinely killed millions until the early 20th century. We have clever RNA vaccines that saved many lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. And most of our best students still gravitate towards fields that would not exist without science and mathematics: medicine, engineering and computer science-offshoots. Albeit a minority, some still choose pure chemistry and physics and become researchers who have no problems obtaining funding. It’s a sign that governments and industry still value science.

Of course, science, a manifestation of rational intelligence, has not magically remained important in both Western society and elsewhere. It is a vital part of our society thanks to the efforts of dedicated researchers, teachers and outreaching scientists like the many men and women of NASA, like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. Working against them are people who still celebrate superstitious mysteries instead of pondering scientific questions like, ‘why do stars on the edge of galaxies move faster than they should’? There are still believers in homeopathy who mock 245 years of progress in chemistry and medicine by insisting, without evidence, that solutions diluted to an extent that they do not contain a single molecule of the original solute can have a therapeutic effect. Not considering evidence is unfortunately a reflex of a brain trying to conserve energy--- to imitate electrons by taking the path of least resistance. Hence pseudoscience will always rear its ugly head.

We should not be discouraged by the fact that we have a very small, albeit loud, minority of medical doctors who exploit people’s suspicions of large industry by putting forth baseless ideas such as RNA vaccines somehow disrupting our own DNA. More importantly, we have to resist the paralyzing reflex to blame science for problems like the weapons of war and environmental issues. Every problem of that nature can be attenuated by placing value on all human lives; with creativity and with the fruits of science. We should not forget that, as Bronowski said, “We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.”

Enrico Uva is a retired chemistry teacher who still enjoys learning chemistry, other sciences and mathematics.

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