KBC to common man: Why people fall for pseudoscience, a rationalist explains

KBC to common man: Why people fall for pseudoscience, a rationalist explains

Back in 1995, when millions of people in India mobbed temples to see the ‘miracle’ of Ganesha idols drinking milk, a chemistry professor from Mangalore organised a scientific demonstration for the public that burst the bubble of excitement. Then teaching at the Kasturba Medical College, Narendra Nayak demonstrated to gullible Indians that what they were witnessing wasn’t a...

Back in 1995, when millions of people in India mobbed temples to see the ‘miracle’ of Ganesha idols drinking milk, a chemistry professor from Mangalore organised a scientific demonstration for the public that burst the bubble of excitement.

Then teaching at the Kasturba Medical College, Narendra Nayak demonstrated to gullible Indians that what they were witnessing wasn’t a miracle involving their god, but the basic scientific principle of surface tension.

Ever since, Nayak has demystified many irrational practices and beliefs, and in the process, also drawn the ire of those on the other side of rationality. For instance, while he was still in the middle of his demonstration to show where the milk fed to Ganesha idol was disappearing, alleged right-wing activists attacked him with stones and he had to be rushed to hospital.

While such intimidations and attacks didn’t stop over the years, Nayak carried on with his work unwaveringly – challenging superstitions, exposing ‘miracles’ like Ganesha drinking milk or weeping mother Marys, and taking on ‘godmen’, ‘godwomen’ and ‘tantriks’.

His latest success involves his single-handed campaign against ‘midbrain activation’ for the past ten years. Recently, Prof Nayak found himself at loggerheads with Sony Entertainment Television channel over an episode of the hugely popular show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), anchored by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The show featured ‘mid-brain activation’ in one of the recent episodes.

Midbrain activation is a training programme that claims to equip children to sense visual properties without actually seeing them. However, science educators and rationalists like Nayak dub them as pseudoscience meant to take gullible parents for a ride.

“I wrote to the channel promoters explaining how they misled their audience into accepting midbrain activation as a scientific and miraculous thing to do,” Nayak tells The Federal.

Following the open letter from Nayak, who also happens to be the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), the channel has pulled down the part on ‘midbrain activation’ where a young girl claimed she could read a book even when blindfolded by merely smelling it.

Midbrain activation is a training programme that claims to equip children to sense visual properties without actually seeing them. Kaun Banega Crorepati aired an episode on it but later pulled down the show.

“I also wrote to them that they were showing on national television how children of an impressionable age could be made to lie and believe in a hoax and be a part of that too.”
An 11-year-old, Nayak adds, made a fool of someone eight times her age and he, in turn, tried the same with a nation of 130 crore. “That’s episode No. 62 of the KBC season 13. In this, a girl shows ‘superpowers’ by reading pages from a book after blindfolding herself.

Sadly, neither the appendage nor its properties – whether it could cut off all light from falling on the retina – were checked by the presenter Amitabh Bachchan or his team. In fact, the child could read by using the gap between the nose protrusion and the blindfold. I have gathered from ophthalmologists that if light does not fall on the retina no human being can read,” he says.

Prof Nayak feels anchor Amitabh Bachchan may have been kept in the dark about the hoax involved in ‘midbrain activation’ by the producers. “Otherwise, I’m sure he would not be a party to that particular act on the show.”

So what exactly is midbrain activation?

A decade back, various tutorials offering tantrik ‘extrasensory’ powers mushroomed across the country. The promoters claimed they have unlocked the secrets of training the midbrain to do extraordinary feats and turn children into superhuman beings. One of the feats was to enable the children to read even when blindfolded. As the message spread and reached gullible teachers, parents and school managements, establishments promoting training in midbrain activation started mushrooming all over. To their ‘bad luck’, these establishments caught the attention of Prof Nayak.

After a short research, he found out the underlying hoax and wasted no time in exposing them. Many establishments shifted their base following his expose. During his campaign against the hoax, Nayak and his colleagues were working overtime to pin down every organisation that promoted ‘midbrain activation’. There was big money in the shady business. The promoters of this “brainless” act were leaching on parents at a cost of Rs 25,000 per seat per course of two months, he says.

“And just when we were nearing the rout of this midbrain activation fraud, suddenly KBC aired that episode, sending a new challenge, which was met head-on by me.”

But then why do people fall for such hoaxes so easily?

Prof Nayak says it’s not so easy to think and act rationally. “You need to break a few moulds. For example, the religious mindset. Even though we live in a country that has no state religion, yet a major chunk of the population thinks religion has the answer to all their problems. This is fundamentally wrong. In modern life, it is the individual who has the power to decide his or her own path. The herd mentality will only make you irrational.”
People basically have to train their minds to think and act rationally. “Now when you impose religious values or thoughts on yourself, suddenly you appear to be slipping away from your own faculties of reasoning and rational thinking. You tend to follow a beaten path. This is where rationalism comes to your aid.”

That it doesn’t come easy, as the prof says, was proved in abundance after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

While scientists managed to discover a vaccine, the vast majority of anti-vaxxers, including people in India, still seem to be driven by paranoid politics and pseudoscience.

Narendra Nayak has been debunking claims of divinity, superstitions, blind-faith and exposing god-men for a long time.

“Rationalism is against all non-science, pseudoscience and bad science. We have seen people falling for pseudoscientific products and fake medicines. I myself complained against homoeopathy and ayurvedic medicines that claimed to boost immunity against Covid infection. The complaint has been lodged with the Advertising Standards Council of India that has banned many such ads. Some of them wanted to prosecute me, but they did not show up at the court,” Nayak smiles.

Coming to misconceptions about Covid vaccines and people falling for them, he says, “I have been talking about how believing in science could benefit all, and the same goes for vaccines too. One of the forums I spoke about was at the ASPEN Global Science Congress, which has been accepted worldwide.”

But development of scientific temper, Nayak explains, is a long-drawn, step-wise process. It’s not like people get up one fine morning and feel they have become rational. “One has to start questioning things that are evil to society.”

Nayak gives a very basic but important personal example. “When I was around 10 years old, my mother would often ask me why I do not pray before going to exams. I remember I had told her I believed in myself more than the unseen god. I knew she was following the family tradition, but I kept refusing to pray. Then one day, I prayed before I went to write my exams – ‘oh god, please fail me this time…’”

So, what happened? Did god answer his prayer?

“I came first in the class. So, I was convinced that praying never works. I was also convinced that when praying does not work, who do we pray to? When I told this to my mother she liked my spirit and asked me to keep believing in myself.” After that, there was no looking back.

In 1976, when Prof Nayak met internationally renowned AT Kovoor, he requested the Sri Lankan rationalist to come to Mangalore for a workshop. “Kovoor told me he would accept the request only if an organisation dedicated to rationalism invites him.”

Prof Narendra Nayak met internationally renowned AT Kovoor.

This made Nayak and a few others start the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association in Mangalore. As they carried on with their work to promote scientific temperament, many budding rationalists joined and made it a thriving movement. “Weekly meetings, frequent exposes and debunking of social dogmas and superstitions in the society made Mangalore a hub of rationalism.”

There was another factor that further accelerated the movement in Mangalore.

“In the 1990s, owing to the changing political atmosphere in the country, religious sentiments based on superstitions and dogmas also started to spread fast. For instance, hardline sentiments over what to eat and not. Suddenly, there were heated debates and street fights over the dietary habits of people of different religious groups. Political leaders tried their best to kill rational ideas and scientific temperament by offering sops and intimidating free thinkers with legal actions. RTI activists, rationalists, non-believers and sceptics were targeted for not following the tenets of majority communities.”

All that, he says, made the rationalist movement even stronger. “The district unit became the most active in the country and I had taken on many lobbies in different states but mainly in Karnataka. These lobbies included religious, social, and medical groups. I had great help from rationalists and free thinkers like Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh. Both were murdered – Dabholkar in 2013 and Lankesh in 2017 – because of their work.”
In the past three decades, Mangalore’s rationalists were able to make a national impact through their campaigns.

Many youngsters who blindly believed in superstitions, Nayak says, began demanding scientific evidence and exercising greater reasoning behind every religious belief and superstition. The association members point out that it first created an impact at family levels and later spread to peer-level discussions.

Rationalists are also fighting for their space at the policy-making level. “In Odisha, we have created a pressure group to fight social dogmas and practices like witchcraft. We have had campaigns against over 250 ‘Andh Shraddha’ items, but they keep coming back into society. So, we want a policy against superstitions and the practice of witchcraft,” says Sudhansu Sekhar Dhada, who has whipped up a big rationalist movement in Odisha since 1983.

Similar efforts have also been going on in Maharashtra, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Gujarat with over 1 crore officially registered members.

But fellow rationalist Narendra Dabholkar’s death served as a challenge to Nayak and others to make sure that all the struggles and sacrifices do not go to waste. The challenges were formidable.

In 2019, a Karnataka special investigation team (SIT) told a court that the Hindutva outfit, Sanatan Sanstha, which was accused of murdering journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017, also watched the activities of rationalist Narendra Nayak in Mangalore in 2016, and identified him as a target.

There were three more persons reportedly on the right-wing group’s radar — writer KS Bhagawan in Mysore, Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami of Nidumamidi Mutt from Bengaluru who has earned the reputation for being a progressive seer, and playwright Girish Karnad in Bengaluru. Later, Nayak was also provided police protection.

“Why should a right-thinking citizen have a gunman when he goes around? How many of us have to die before the government realises there is a need for an anti-superstition bill?” Nayak had earlier questioned in a meeting. Later, the Karnataka government promulgated the anti-superstitions bill and it became law in 2020. “But nothing came out of it as there is no governing body,” Nayak says.

“Chennamalla Swamiji later changed his stance stating that his devotees want him to disassociate from the rationalist path. Bhagawan has health issues and cannot participate actively anymore. So, it effectively makes me the last man standing,” Nayak says with a wry smile.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Nayak still believes that rationalists are the biggest group in the world. “It is the third-largest group in the world after Christianity and Islam. Rationalists are categorised into non-believers, humanists, sceptics and atheists. In India, the rationalist movement has found support mostly from the left parties.

A study by the FIRA found that the number of atheists is increasing world over. FIRA was founded by Basava Premanand in 1997 to bring together rationalists, atheists, sceptics, secularists and scientific outfits. It has now grown to an umbrella organisation of 83 different groups. “It is a loose collaboration of like-minded organisations,” says Nayak.
According to him, Nirmuktas, free thinkers as they call themselves, are the new order of atheist societies all over the world. Scandinavian countries have 100 per cent atheists while in the United Kingdom they are up to 60 per cent followed by the US at 27 per cent. Japan and China have also reported a high number of atheists and freethinkers.

“So, the stock of rationalists is increasing all over the world.”

Next Story