Friday, January 6, 2012

Nobel Laureate 'Venki' Ramakrishnan – Skeptical Scientist stirs up a hornet's nest

"The idea of favouring experiment and observation over belief, and the empirical over the anecdotal, which was at the core of the evolution of modern science, continues to be its most important guiding principle"

Venki Ramakrishnan

The Man

Dr (Sir) Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is an India-born American citizen, who came into limelight two years ago with the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (2009) for his pioneering studies of the structure and function of the ribosome that plays a critical role in the process of decoding the genetic information stored in the genome. Born in Chidambaram, Tamilnadu and educated initially in Baroda as a physicist, Venki (as he prefers to be called) migrated to the USA, turned to molecular biology as a more challenging and attractive field for his researches and ended up getting the Nobel Prize in chemistry, indicating how closely these disciplines are interlinked in modern day science. He is currently working in Cambridge, England and internationally distinguished for his contributions to molecular biology. He has just been conferred the knighthood by the British monarch, a very rare distinction for a foreigner in England.

Much like another India-born American scientist, Dr Hargobind Khorana, who was honored with the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1968, Venki received the rich adulations of a proud motherland and the Padma Vibushana honour from the Indian government.  Rather significantly, both had failed to secure suitable employment within the country early in their careers.

Venki has found himself again in the limelight in India, this time for different reasons, for stepping outside his domain and touching a sensitive nerve in the nation's psyche at a public function in Chennai last week. 

The Occasion

Going by the sketchy reports appearing in the online editions of the Times of India and the Hindu, Venki delivered two popular talks under the auspices of the Chennai unit of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, a bastion for much that is ancient and traditional in the Indian society.  In the first of these talks, Venki is reported to have spoken broadly about the nature and scope of science as the following sample of rather 'harmless' quotes clearly indicate:
  •         The idea of favouring experiment and observation over belief, and the empirical over the anecdotal, which was at the core of the evolution of modern science, continues to be its most important guiding principle.
  •       ... not possible to have very good science for sustained periods without complete freedom of thought...
  •       ... modern science had its origins in the times of Copernicus and Galileo, who were proponents of the idea that if observation and belief failed to tally, it was the belief that was deemed to be wrong rather than what was observed.
  •       Many widespread beliefs failed the evidence-based test and yet got perpetuated primarily because of the human nature's difficulty in separating cause from coincidence.

  •        It is this built-in self-correction that distinguishes science from other systems of belief. In science, it is not bad to be wrong, but it is bad definitely to falsify.

Ruffling the Feathers

It is in his second talk, titled 'The Skeptical Scientist', that Venki appears to have 'provoked a few and enthralled many' as the news item reports.  Actually, going by the staggering number of readers' comments (close to two thousand) that followed this report, it was exactly the other way round – he seems to have provoked a vast majority of the readers, enthralling very few. What were the comments he made to provoke so many to such a frenzy of diatribe against him?  Here are some statements attributed to him appearing in the very sketchy report:

  •            He termed astrology and alchemy fake disciplines that depended on the power of  suggestion and said homeopathy was based on belief.
  •            ...dismissed ‘homeopathy' as unscientific, but said ayurveda was different, and fell under a range of systems of medicine in which the efficacy of the drugs were empirically established. He, however, said that those who practiced systems like ayurveda should subject themselves to ‘double blind' tests to prove their medicine.
  •            Terms like 'positive and negative energy' used by various quacks were complete mumbo jumbo and had no precise meaning.

  •            ...the process of science "protects us from our biases and irrationality".

  •              Scientific methods protect us from the danger of false beliefs.
  •              No system that does not incorporate proper testing, criticism from peers and other checks of modern science can claim to be 'scientific' regardless of the scientific jargon used.

  •            Homeopathy has been advocated for life-threatening diseases like AIDS and cancer, for which there are real effective medicines.

  •             Astrology can be abused and used to influence decisions.
  •            Both (astrology and homeopathy) can lead people away from taking more effective actions based on logic and contemplation.
  •              A culture based on superstition will always do worse than that based on science.
  •             Explaining how much effect a placebo has on an ignorant patient, he (Venki) said there are medical systems that work by chance and not by scientific experiments.

The Aftermath

The Times of India online report was so prominently headlined when first put out that it must have drawn the attention of everyone who was browsing its website.  The readers' comments on it started flooding in thick and fast, and their strongly critical content must have so unnerved the editor that the item was not only relegated quickly to a less conspicuous space but also abridged and toned down to make it appear less 'inflammatory'.  For a media empire whose TV channel dishes out a daily morning dose of a dozen astrological forecasts, one for each set of about a hundred million citizens of the country, the affair could well have been a big embarrassment and the item disappeared from the home page altogether within hours. Venki's comments in his 'skeptic' talk went unreported in the very newspapers which had given much prominence to his earlier one.  This is an example of media reticence carried to absurd levels, something like a self-imposed gag.  Venki had suddenly become a persona non grata for his rational views.  However, the double standards of the media came to the fore when they reported widely, fully and gleefully the British Queen's knighthood conferred on him the very next day.

The Readers' Diatribe

Even a random and cursory glance at the huge number of readers' comments following the Times online report brings out a wide spectrum of opinions that are strongly skewed against  poor Venki, portraying him as the villain of the piece.  How dare he cast aspersions on their beliefs, traditions and practices? How is he qualified to comment on astrology, homeopathy, etc., all foreign to him?  Has he actually studied these disciplines to be able to comment on them?  He is battered with such questions repeatedly.  His comments are interpreted as an insult to the whole nation and to the society itself no less.
Here are just a few unedited excerpts, admittedly very selective and possibly biased as well. They include the offensive, sometimes even abusive, and often poor language in which the comments are clothed:
  •         The sages who have written the initial texts for astrology were brilliant mathematicians. Using naked eye they identified all the planets and created tables and mathematical formulas that gave the exact location of a planet relative to earth 1000s of years ago much before "mathematics" word was coined by western civilization.
  •         ... Venki should be humble and understand his limitations and not try to be the guardian of truth.
  •         For all non believers of astrology and sciences that can give glimpses into past or future I request them to visit a Nadi reader. In mast cases they are able to tell your date of birth exactly by finding a leaf that matches your finger prints besides other things...
  •         I feel sorry for guys like him who are Indian only by name. He has forgotten our roots and the fact that our religion and civilization has a very strong foundation based on sciences like astrology and ayurveda.
  •         He is not worth his PhD. Read what Einstein said about astrology: 'Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge...'
              [Einstein never said any such thing, someone else may have.]
  •         Let's remember that this gentleman got his Nobel prize for Chemistry only and NOT for his views on every aspect of LIFE...
  •         Astrology is a science. It uses ultra complex mathematical calculations using super computers to determine the effect of positions of planets and stars on humans. Today's scientists are fools, trying to create technology for the betterment of humans when such technologies have already been developed, used by hindus since last 5000 years ago.
  •         Homoeopathy is a medicine of future that cannot be understood by Morons and perverts...
  •         I agree with everybody who disagree with venky's comments. Just because he is sucessful, noble winner, he cannot comment on the subjects he does not know
  •        Saints...meditate all their lives to understand every minute activity that affects everyone's life. My point is, unless you understand the origin of Vedas and Vedic astrology, don't make it a point to ridicule it.
  •         ...Complete science is way beyond this guy. Just because his stupid science cannot explain certain things, things don't become superstition.
  •         When all theories point out that everything in this world is connected at some level, why does this moron nobel laureate feel that the Suns, Moon, Planets and Stars have no effect on humans...
  •         Any one who calls him Venki has the same innate personal maturity level of Monkey and Donkey. This Venki proved me right by his comments on Astrology.
To be fair, many of the comments that are in total disagreement with Venki's views are superbly presented, as also many of those in support of his views.  But the overall tenor is grossly and unmistakably negative.

The print media do not appear to have carried any readers' comments, principally because they chose to ignore or downplay the news item itself.
Consistent with its motto, "Let noble thoughts come to us from every side", the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan appears to have invited the Nobel thoughts (pun intended) from the celebrated scientist as part of its annual S V Narasimhan Memorial Orations.  It is not clear if the organizers knew in advance that Venki would be addressing some controversial issues, especially Astrology, in one of his talks or were caught unawares about them.  The latter is much more likely in view of the fact that the Vidya Bhavan runs a well staffed Institute of Astrology under its auspices in its Delhi centre and might not be exactly thrilled by any negative comments on the discipline from such a high profile guest.
I was, and still am, keen on getting hold of the full texts of Venki's two talks to ascertain the veracity of his purported statements, but have failed to get them so far despite a direct request to the Delhi centre of the Vidya Bhavan.  I would appreciate receiving them from any of the readers of this post.  Even otherwise, the reported statements attributed to Venki are just the kind one might expect from any top class scientist in any country, consistent with a thoroughly scientific assessment of the merits and demerits of the issues in question.  The fact that they have stirred up such unwarranted and pernicious reactions from a large segment of readers is indicative of the 'biases and irrationality' prevalent in our society that Venki has implied in one of his statements.

Objections to Astrology

The readers' ire has been directed against Venki particularly for his comments on Astrology whose validity most of them consider as beyond question or debate.  The logic implied in his comment, "...the mere correlation between the stork population and the birth rate in a nation did not establish the myth that storks bring babies", is hardly understood or appreciated.

Bothered by the widespread and uncritical following of Astrology by people all over the world, a large number of eminent scientists got together in 1975 and issued a collective appeal as set out in the statement appended at the end of this post for whatever it is worth.  The arguments therein are as valid today as they were then.  But they have had little effect on people addicted to Astrology; if anything, the situation has aggravated further.

I first came to know about this document from the late Dr H Narasimhaiah who was a ceaseless campaigner against all pseudo and occult sciences and used the document to try to inculcate a scientific temper among all segments of the state population. He was no more successful in this than the group of leading scientists who first issued the statement.

It is interesting to note that the great astronomer and humanist Carl Sagan, best known among the general public for his outstanding  13 part TV serial titled 'Cosmos' produced in 1980, declined to sign the statement on the ground that its tone was rather authoritarian and might not serve the purpose.  He said he would have preferred a statement focusing more on the description and refutation of the principal tenets of astrological belief. He set out his own position eloquently and extensively in the third episode of Cosmos, titled 'Harmony of the Worlds', especially in the text version of the video series.  A short clip relating to the theme from the video version is available on YouTube at:

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson asserted that "astrology was discredited 600 years ago with the birth of modern science.'To teach it as though you are contributing to the fundamental knowledge of an informed electorate is astonishing in this, the 21st century'. Education should be about knowing how to think, 'And part of knowing how to think is knowing how the laws of nature shape the world around us. Without that knowledge, without that capacity to think, you can easily become a victim of people who seek to take advantage of you'".

Here is a scientific appraisal of Astrology as presented in the Wikipedia:

"Contemporary science considers astrology a pseudoscience. Criticisms include that astrology is conjectural and supplies no hypotheses, proves difficult to falsify, and describes natural events in terms of scientifically untestable supernatural causes. It has also been suggested that much of the continued faith in astrology could be psychologically explained as a matter of cognitive bias. Skeptics say that the practice of western astrologers allows them to avoid making verifiable predictions, and gives them the ability to attach significance to arbitrary and unrelated events, in a way that suits their purpose..."

Astronomy vs Astrology

In popular perception there is little distinction between astronomy and astrology, a throwback to the ancient times.  The terms are often interchangeably or synonymously used and understood. Sadly, this perception is prevalent even among the educated and the intellectuals.
On several occasions people have approached me for 'astrological consultations' after they had heard about my 'doctor' tag as well as my 'starry' interests.  I have had to tell them politely that I am neither a medical practitioner nor a quack.
On some public platforms I have found myself severely embarrassed as well as offended on being introduced or addressed as an 'astrologer' by people who ought to have known better.  On some of these occasions I have had to depart from my prepared talk and spend some time explaining to the audience the fundamental differences between astronomy and astrology and why I felt offended.

The online edition of Patna Daily newspaper has been running an opinion poll with the caption "Nobel laureate Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan believes astrology is a fake discipline. Do you believe in astrology? Vote Yes or No".  At the time of this writing, a whopping 77% of the respondents had said "No".  On the face of it all my foregoing comments and analyses appeared to have turned topsy-turvy.  But my confidence was quickly restored when I found the total number of voters to be just 39 as against the nearly two thousand people who had commented on the Times online report.  The sample is far too small to be statistically significant.  I don't have to spell out whether and how I myself voted.  If the poll is still open, the reader may also want to vote at:

Objections to Astrology

A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists

(The following statement first appeared in The Humanist of September/October 1975)

Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world. We, the undersigned—astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields—wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. Those who wish to believe in astrology should realize that there is no scientific foundation for its tenets.

In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one's compatibility or incompatibility with other people.

Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.

One would imagine, in this day of widespread enlightenment and education, that it would be unnecessary to debunk beliefs based on magic and superstition. Yet, acceptance of astrology pervades modern society. We are especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. This can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.

It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.

Sponsoring Committee

Bart J. Bok, emeritus
Professor of Astronomy
University of Arizona

Lawrence E. Jerome
Science Writer
Santa Clara, California

Paul Kurtz
Professor of Philosophy
SUNY at Buffalo

Signed by 183 others, including 18 Nobel Prizewinners


Dr S N Prasad said...

I am delighted to add that Venki Ramakrishnan has read this blog post and sent the following two clarifications by email:
1) He gave only one talk in Chennai, not two. Apparently, all the comments attributed to him were made in this talk.
2) Regarding the attitude of his hosts about which I had expressed some misgivings, he writes: "My hosts at the Bhavan were very gracious."


A V G Rao said...

Astrology Vs Science is a never ending fight. Though I am not competent to speak on Homeopathy, I would like to point out that almost all Govts. permit its practice & Universities run courses.

Dr S N Prasad said...

Oh! It has happened yet again! I was introduced as a 'noted astrologer' yesterday evening in a public function where I delivered a talk on the 'Wonders of the Night Sky' and followed it up with a telescope show of the night sky. I felt like crying, but didn't express my resentment because the audience consisted mostly of school students before whom I thought I shouldn't openly react to the unintended insult from the introducer who certainly ought to have known better.


Chiranjeevi B said...

I was a witness to the whole event which Dr S N Prasad has mentioned above.

Madhav said...

Well written. Good to know that Venki himself has read this and emailed you a couple of clarifications.

@Mr.AVG Rao:
Astrology Vs Science is not really a fight. Science has won the fight long time ago. People will continue to believe what they want to believe. You can only bring the horse to the pond ... Science will continue to march on.

The government has a department called AYUSH, which is a dept for all systems like Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. But that does not make them true. All the money allocated to this department is a complete waste. The money could have been better spent on improving the infrastructure of other hospitals.

Dr S N Prasad said...

A friend has written to me as follows:

At this juncture it may be worth sharing what Swami Vivekananda said
about 150 years ago. Here it is:

"It is people who are getting old who talk of fate. Young men
generally do not come to astrology. We may be under the planetary
influence, but it should not matter much to us. .......You will find
that astrology and all these mystical things are generally signs of a weak mind. Therefore, as soon as they become prominent in your minds,you should see a physician, take good food and rest"

I think this is worth sharing for those who diatribe against Venki's lecture.

If they dare let them deny that Swami Vivekananda was an Indian.

mythili said...

This is a very well written blog post. While I certainly do not subscribe to homeopathy & consider Astrology as mumbo jumbo, I do not subscribe to the view that all forms of knowing should derive from science. As the science educator Aickenhead says science should not become the new age superstition. Science is one way of making sense of the world around us & a very powerful one at that. But it should be recognized as one of several ways.
Mythili R