COVID-19

Pseudoscientific beliefs and world views in the time of pandemic

Print edition : November 06, 2020

Terraced rice fields in Hani in south-west China’s Yunnan province. Rice production in China more than tripled in the second half of the 20th century mainly because of increase in yield rather than expansion in acreage. Spectacular increases in agricultural productivity globally in the last century played a major role in sparing vast tracts of forests, which would have otherwise been converted to land for cultivation. Photo: AFP

A smoky industrial site in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, a June 2020 photograph. Anthropogenic activity such as settled agriculture and urbanisation has a complex and multifaceted relationship with pathogens and diseases. Some studies actually point to evidence showing a positive association between anthropogenic activities such as urbanisation and lower disease burden among humans. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

A workshop for people suffering from lymphatic filariasis in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district, a file photograph. A parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms that survive in the human lymph system, lymphatic filariasis has been found to be positively associated with forests and negatively associated with biodiversity. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Even as the world pins its hopes heavily on science to combat the biggest pandemic ever, the spectre of pseudoscience haunts humanity. It appears that irrationality tries to fill in the gaps in humanity’s knowledge that science searches for through rigorous methods which are rooted in evidence.

In early October, a group of 55 scientific societies in Spain published a 10-point manifesto pleading the case for harnessing scientific evidence to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. That the appeal to reason had to be made at a time when nearly 38 million people had contracted the coronavirus and more than one million people had died of the disease is indeed an agonising irony.

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest calamities to have struck humanity in modern history. Ironically, although modern science offers the only ray of hope in these grim times, pseudoscientific beliefs and world views retain a grip on humanity. Such beliefs have evidently shaped the discourse on both the origin of and the cure for COVID-19, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The two strands of irrationality

These tendencies can broadly be divided into two different strands, which, however, appear to have the same purpose of spreading obscurantism and of abandoning organised skepticism—a hallmark of non-science. The first of these strands of thought is propagated by what could perhaps be termed as the cultural right wing across the globe. It tends to pin the blame for the origin and spread of the pandemic to the “other”. This target could be a particular country that appears to challenge the prevalent world order, or a religious minority community that can easily be victimised, or a disadvantaged class like migrant workers. Proponents of this position often argue that certain communities are immune to the effects of COVID-19, or that the cure of the pandemic is already available in certain “traditional” or “alternative knowledge systems”. It appears to play on the prevalent prejudices in a society and utilise the pandemic as yet another tool to demonise the “other” and glorify the self. Unsurprisingly, this line of argument rarely feels the need to provide hard empirical evidence to support its claims.

The second strand of thought, on the other hand, is one that has gained popularity among, and is propagated by a number of left and progressive thinkers and scholars and environmental activists. They try to identify the linkage between contemporary capitalism and global pandemics, particularly those such as COVID-19, or zoonotic diseases, which originate from pathogens jumping species from other animals to humans. This strand of thought considers the pandemic as yet another instance of “revenge” by nature, set off by the unrestrained “exploitation” of nature by humankind or, more generally, by capitalism.

This line of reasoning appears to imagine a harmonious relationship between humans and non-human nature in some distant past, the evidence for which is not offered. Although it is quite conceivable that humans had a much more violent relation with nature in an early period, even though nature was mostly the dominant player in that conflict, this line of reasoning has no respect for such niceties. This line of argument posits that the ultimate cause of the pandemic lies in the destruction of natural ecosystems, particularly forests, driven by industry, large-scale agriculture—including livestock production—and urbanisation.

This perspective tends to recommend a strong dose of “degrowth” as the step towards a healthier and safer existence, one that is in “harmony with nature”. It advocates a radical reduction in the size of the global economy by dismantling large-scale industry and agriculture. Instead, it endorses a shift towards local and petty methods of production. Such a shift, it asserts, is the only way to develop in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and just. Concerns regarding productivity enhancement using technological capacity are directly equated or conflated with the ever-expanding profit-seeking tendency of capitalism and the ensuing consumerism. Consequently, the proponents of these views strongly argue against not just the capitalist relations that govern the contemporary world, but also the expansion of the modern forces of science and technology. We will get back to this issue a little later.

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Remarkably, even this line of argument seems to have abandoned the importance of empirical evidence as the final arbiter in settling a theoretical proposition. The evidence of the causal relationship between the disturbance of natural habitats such as deep forests and zoonosis is, at best, sketchy. Moreover, this line of reasoning does not appreciate that anthropogenic activity such as settled agriculture and urbanisation has a complex and multifaceted relationship with pathogens and diseases. And, since it is a field of scientific enquiry that is still evolving, strong assertions of conclusions in this regard may well be politically (mis)guided.

In a similar vein, the idea of “degrowth” suffers from numerous fallacies, the least among them being the absence of evidence that correlates a lowly existence of the majority of the human race with a “happy” and “sustainable” future. Such arguments also tend to discount the cost of a wholesale shift to a path of low (if not negative) economic growth, and the differentiated burden of such a shift in an extremely unequal world.

The vast majority of humankind—predominantly those living in the developing and the less developed word—is yet to achieve basic levels of human development. Life expectancy at birth in a country that is ranked low in terms of measures of human development is less than 60; it is more than 78 in a country that ranks very high in terms of human development. The Human Development Report (2019), published by the United Nations Development Programme, highlights that while a child born in a country ranking very high on the human development index has a high probability of being enrolled in higher education, a child belonging to a country that ranks low on the index has a far lower chance of merely being alive.

The World Bank reports that about 10 per cent of the global population lives in extreme poverty, meaning that this section earns less than $1.90 a day and is severely deprived in terms of basic human needs. The majority of this population lives in Africa and Asia, where poverty rates are the highest. In a lower-middle-income country like India (the World Bank classifies countries with a per capita gross national income in the $1,026-$3,995 range as lower-middle income), the average household’s energy consumption is just about one-third of the global average. About four-fifths of all households in India have an average monthly consumption of less than 100 Kwh. To put this in perspective, 100 Kwh would approximately be the average monthly consumption of a household that uses two to three electric bulbs, two electric fans, one (or may be two) electrical appliances like a refrigerator or a washing machine, and an electronic device such as a desktop.

These are a few clear indicators of the development deficit that plagues the overwhelming proportion of the population in poorer countries. Achieving the basic standards of life for this section would require not just economic growth but an expansion of productivity through appropriately developed technology. Naturally, this would also require an immense amount of conventional energy resources, at least in the near future. Thus, the argument for wholesale deindustrialisation is tantamount to completely ignoring this hard reality, as also the fact that any material development would require harnessing nature and natural resources.

Most importantly, this perspective fails to differentiate between science and technology on the one hand, and the question of its ownership under capitalism on the other. Moreover, it discounts the fact that modern science and technology has the potential to play a major role in resolving the contradiction between economic development and environmental sustainability, even if this potential is constrained by capitalist relations. The motives of capitalism, on the one hand, propel an immense and never-ending development in scientific knowledge and technology, but, on the other hand, significantly shape, and often undermine, the extent and nature of the eventual realisation of the capacities that are created in the process. The possibility of harnessing this immense potential, by freeing the progress of modern science and technology from the bounds of capitalist relations, is completely missed out in this discourse.

The remarkable increase in agricultural production and productivity in the 20th century, for instance, was certainly due to the Green Revolution technologies that followed the development of the science of genetics. These technologies undoubtedly were promoted by corporate agribusinesses for their own profit motives. Nonetheless, they played an immense role in providing a measure of food security, particularly in the developing world, as well as in the conservation of forests. It needs to be emphasised that the gain in yields was responsible for achieving much higher levels of agricultural production without much expansion in area under cultivation. The impressive increase in productivity levels thus played a major role in sparing vast tracts of forests, which would have otherwise been converted to land for cultivation.

To take an example, rice production in China more than tripled in the second half of the 20th century, but this enormous gain in production was mainly due to increase in yield rather than expansion in acreage. China was thus able to free up land while increasing cereal production simultaneously. Such expansion in yields allows land to be freed for other constructive purposes. Those purposes, however, under capitalism, are, once again, shaped by the motives of capitalist profit. The need, therefore, is to envision a social and economic structure that promotes sustained progress in science and technology, without, however, allowing its direction and realisation to be controlled by the objective of capitalist profit. Such a social system would incorporate the critical aspect of environmental sustainability as part of the development of science and technology, thus providing the means to resolve the contradiction between economic development and environmental sustainability.

Abandoning Evidence: The Common Denominator

Strikingly, the two strands of thought, despite featuring at opposite ends of the political spectrum, actually come together in significant ways. Both strands appear to undermine the achievements of modern science. The first argues that everything that is scientific was already present in traditional knowledge systems. It looks backward at an imagined past, with the promise to find solutions. The second line of thought tends to argue that science is nothing more than a social construction of the dominant structural reality of human society—capitalism—and is solely driven by the guiding logic of capitalism, profit. In this world view, scientific development and technological progress are seen as being part of a capitalist conspiracy. Modern science and technology, it apparently argues, enjoy no autonomy whatsoever and must be substituted by “local knowledge systems”.

Strikingly, these propositions are often asserted without their being subjected to the hard scrutiny of evidence. A sense of obscurantism seems to colour both the strands of thought. Evidence is often sacrificed at the altar of theoretical arguments, which are, a-priori, deemed correct. In doing so, both the lines of thought seem to undermine even the method of science.

For instance, an alternative system of medicine like Ayurveda is often argued to have come up with definitive cures for COVID-19, without the claims being subjected to the rigorous scrutiny demanded by modern science. Empirical observations and experiences, unsubstantiated by the rigorous methods that have become even more robust with scientific progress, are passed off as evidence of cures or solutions for vexatious problems or issues. The principles of science are either ignored or scorned.

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Thorough testing for efficacy and safety has increasingly been institutionalised as part of the practice of modern medicine. In fact, this painstaking institutionalisation and the associated regulatory mechanisms often make the process of drug discovery or vaccine development a time-consuming affair. It is not enough, for instance, to claim that a cure will work merely by demonstrating a few cases to that effect. Such claims have to be proven for a significant number of cases; the probability of success of a medicine is measured against those of neutral cases (placebos). The values of such measures have to be established, quantified and documented; exceptions, if any, have to be clearly laid out and explained. In addition to establishing the correlation between the administration of a particular medicine and indicators of improvement in the health of infected persons, the mechanism of the working of the treatment, including its failures, have also to be well explained.

It is true that the results of modern science are often incomplete and evolving. It is therefore possible that at times new medicines are released under special conditions, and with an acceptable level of risk. Even in such cases, these special conditions as well the acceptable levels of risk have to be clearly defined and monitored. Such rigorous standards imply that many medicines or medical procedures are eventually rejected, no matter how promising they may have appeared at an earlier stage of testing.

The fascinating trajectory of the drug Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a treatment for the coronavirus is a case exemplar. At the initial stage of the pandemic, it was claimed that the drug prevented the replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in human cells and could therefore be an effective treatment for COVID-19. These claims led to various trials by a number of private and public institutions, including the “Solidarity” clinical trial to find an effective treatment for COVID-19 launched by the World Health Organisation and its partners. Meanwhile, HCQ was celebrated as “The Cure” by many in the medical fraternity and was vigorously promoted by the political establishment in many countries, most notably in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) temporarily granted the drug emergency authorisation for use in COVID-19 patients. However, later, more detailed studies did not find much evidence that HCQ was effective against the disease. Most of the trials on the effect of HCQ on the coronavirus have since hit a dead end, and the USFDA has cancelled its authorisation. Recent medical research has highlighted that the drug might have severe side effects on various organs and that it must be administered with abundant caution. While some trials continue, and it is possible that the drug is still being prescribed by doctors in different parts of the world as a preventive medicine, it is clear that HCQ is no longer considered the panacea for COVID-19.

A similar story now appears to be playing out with regard to the experimental drug REGN-COV2, which was recently administered to U.S. President Donald Trump, despite the fact that it was still at a preliminary stage of experimentation. The President has since apparently promoted the drug as a cure, which has perhaps encouraged Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that produces the drug, to apply for emergency-use authorisation. Further testing may or may not favour the use of REGN-COV2 for the treatment of COVID-19, but as of now it appears that it has got a boost due to reasons that are far from scientific.

These examples highlight that the practice of modern science does not take place in a vacuum. Science is indeed a social activity, which is influenced by social structures that shape the direction of its progress. And, the social structures often interfere with the working of the institutions, practitioners, and even with the method of science. Nevertheless, the prolonged, meticulous, and systematic quest for real evidence against which a hypothesis is continuously tested is what gives science its cardinal virtues. This is what gives modern science—including the field of medicine—the qualities of reflexivity, objectivity, and self-correction. The proponents of “alternative systems of medicine” such as Ayurveda, for instance, often attempt to escape these rigorous standards of testing by claiming that their approaches are fundamentally different from that of modern science—that they are less analytical and more “holistic”, “intuitive”, “integrated”, or “personalised” and therefore cannot be weighed against the principles of modern medical science. This tendency to turn away from being held accountable on the basis of evidence unveils the essential non-scientific character of this strand of opinion.

Biodiverstity-disease relationship

A similar lack of respect for the scientific method of systematically testing an argument against evidence is seen in the various propositions that emanate from the second strand of thought—one that sees the coronavirus as an example of “revenge by nature”. For instance, the causal relationship between reduction of biodiversity and emerging infectious diseases, or that between intensive cultivation and deforestation, are presumed to be conclusions already arrived at, even as the scientific debate around the evidence continues to unfold. Arguments of this sort can at best be termed working hypotheses. Only further evidence would eventually either support or refute them.

A case in point here is the famous “dilution effect” hypothesis in the field of disease ecology. It argues that the reduction of biodiversity, essentially an outcome of anthropogenic activities, is causally related to the emergence of novel infectious diseases among humans, wildlife, and domesticated species. The basic inference drawn from the hypothesis is that higher biodiversity, measured as the number and richness of species in a particular geographical space, protects against zoonotic pathogens. The implications of the dilution hypothesis are obvious; they point to a convergence of the objectives of wildlife conservation and human health.

A number of mechanisms have been postulated to explain the working of the hypothesis. For instance, greater biodiversity, it is posited, might lead to greater densities of non-competent (or less-competent) hosts to a pathogen, which, in turn, minimises the probability of disease transmission as it reduces the densities of competent hosts (in this case humans). In other words, the greater number of non-competent hosts interfere with pathogen transmission to human populations. There has also been a plethora of empirical work providing evidence supporting the hypothesis and the various underlying mechanisms.

Nevertheless, the dilution hypothesis remains highly debated. Many studies support alternatives to the dilution effect. Some of them present evidence to argue that there is no clear and strong relationship between biodiversity and disease burden. Other scientists have postulated that an “amplification effect”, rather than the dilution effect, may well dominate the relationship between biodiversity and disease, meaning that the former is positively correlated with the latter. It has been argued that the dilution effect hypothesis fails at larger spatial scales, and that at the global level, biodiversity, particularly of mammals, may in fact be positively associated with the probability of emerging infectious diseases. In a similar vein, there is some evidence that point to a positive association between increase in biodiversity and forestation over time with increased burden of disease in humans. It has also been argued that just establishing a correlation—negative or positive—between biodiversity and disease risk is not enough; there is a need to provide evidence for the actual ecological mechanisms that causally bind species richness with the risk of disease.

A research paper titled “Human infectious disease burdens decrease with urbanization but not with biodiversity”, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2017), presented the findings from a study that investigated the spatial and temporal relationships between disability-adjusted life years lost to infectious disease and potential demographic, economic, environmental and biotic (biodiversity, reservoir host or vector biodiversity, etc.) drivers for 60 intermediate-sized countries where data were available and comparable. The study concludes that “countries with more biodiversity per unit area also had greater disease burdens”. It also highlights that “increasing biodiversity over time was associated with a non-significant decrease in disease across the disease agents”. The study negates any large-scale dilution across pathogens. Further, the study remarks that disease agents are generally unresponsive to changes in biodiversity. Only two diseases of the 24 that the study examined “retained biodiversity as a significant driver of disease burden in temporal models, and the effect was positive for one disease (food-borne trematodiases) and negative for the other (lymphatic filariasis). The study did not find a significant difference in the disease burden between what it classified as “heavily forested countries” and “lightly forested countries”. However, it concluded that “increasing forestation over time was correlated with increases in disease burden, driven primarily by lymphatic filariasis and other zoonoses, but also by ascariasis (a geo-helminth) and leprosy (a directly transmitted disease)”.

Thus, while there is broad scientific agreement that biodiversity is associated with zoonotic disease transmission, the general validity of the dilution effect evidently remains controversial. The science of zoonosis now seems to be moving towards a terrain where the relationship between diversity of species and the burden of disease is regarded as being context-specific, or, as it has been termed by some, “idiosyncratic”. This perspective regards species diversity as acting differently, depending on competing drivers—host density, contact rates, transmissibility—of disease transmission. The overall impact, therefore, would be net of these effects.

It will not perhaps be inappropriate to quote a few conclusive elements of the still brewing biodiversity-disease debate from a review article titled “Towards common ground in the biodiversity–disease debate” published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (2019). The effect of biodiversity, it concludes, would be greater on “multi-host, wildlife, vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, especially those parasites with complex life cycles and free-living stages,” than on diseases that are “directly transmitted, and are host-specialist” in character. The latter are caused by pathogens that do not require an intermediate host or vector and have few interactions with species other than their host. Diversity of species makes little difference to the likelihood of their transmission. Simian immunodeficiency viruses and human immunodeficiency viruses, which are transmitted sexually, exemplify such pathogens. On the other hand, pathogens that interact with multiple species and infect many of them would show a higher response to biodiversity. This response, however, might support the dilution effect hypothesis, or the amplification effect hypothesis, or even both under specific circumstances.

Further, the review article points to the possibility of a complex non-linear relationship between biodiversity and disease risk. “Identifying the exact shape of these relationships” as well as determining the “relevant ranges over which to evaluate diversity and over which diversity is related to conservation action,, it posits, would be crucial to understand whether biodiversity will have an amplification effect, dilution effect, or no effect at all on disease risk. The paper also clarifies that “not all diseases are equal”, whether from the perspective of conservation or from that of public health. It is obvious that general conclusions on the biodiversity-disease relationship, therefore, can only have limited validity.

An insightful example to consider here is the case of the disease Lymphatic filariasis. It is a parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms that survive in the human lymph system. Lymphatic filariasis has been found to be positively associated with forests and negatively associated with biodiversity. Forests, in this case, seem to provide habitat for the vector of the disease (mosquitoes) and facilitate its population growth. On the other hand, biodiversity might reduce the proportion of reservoir hosts in the vertebrate population. There is an evident tension here between how conservation and the influence of biodiversity on disease burden. Forests are also known to be facilitating environmental conditions that are more conducive for parasite development, and they often also facilitate close contact between humans and pathogens.

Finally, the review paper reiterates the scale dependency of biodiversity-disease relationships. It restates the need for more scientific studies to “understand the mechanisms that underlie this possible scale dependency” that, in turn, could “lead to insights into which management targets (biodiversity, particular species and human behaviour) and which scales of action are most effective for disease control”.

Two things are clear from this: one, that science has not yet settled the issue, and two, that we still do not know with certainty the nature of the biodiversity-disease contest. The only thing that is certain is that it is only science and the scientific method that would unravel the nature of the complex relationship.

Remarkably, there are also other studies that point to the evidence of a positive association between anthropogenic activities, like urbanisation, and lower disease burden among humans, as a result of reduced exposure to non-human hosts of pathogens and a general expansion in investment and access to health care and sanitation. This dimension further complicates the relationship between loss of biodiversity, say as a result of increased urbanisation, and human health. The simple convergence between conservation and human health, which the dilution effect hypothesis appears to promote at the first instance, is obviously misplaced. There is evidently a vigorous scientific debate under way on the subject; more evidence is pouring in and is being analysed by the day.

In the face of the growing evidence that points to a complex relationship between biodiversity and emerging infectious disease, holding on to simple conclusions that suit a particular world view, one which is perhaps coloured by a romantic view of the wild, is indicative of a non-scientific attitude that underlies many of these claims. It appears that the conclusions are already settled at the level of the discourse, irrespective of the facts that are still being contested upon. Such a non-objective world view can, at best, be attributed to ignorance, or, at worst, to the influence of an ideological position that considers science as nothing more than a mere social construct.

Evolving science around zoonosis

It is natural to ask, what allows for an amplified scope to seemingly unscientific approaches to knowing the world amidst a pandemic? The foremost cause is the fact that the science around zoonosis in general, and the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, is itself still evolving. This flux in the realm of knowledge allows all kinds of claims to compete—whether it is about the relationship between human activities and pathogen transmission, or around the more specific questions about the symptoms and cure of the COVID-19.

The knowledge about the myriad dimensions of this complex phenomenon is incomplete, uncertain and evolving at a fast pace. New hypotheses on the accuracy of diagnosis, effects of the virus on the human body, and ways of prevention and cure are being floated and negated within the scientific community at a pace that is unprecedented in the history of medical science. We see the method of science at work right in front of us on an almost day-to-day basis. Although today we know much about the virus and the disease, there is much that still remains unknown.

For instance, take the case of the COVID-19 Real Time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test, which is used for the qualitative detection of nucleic acid from the SARS-CoV-2 in the upper and lower respiratory specimens. The technology to test the presence of the coronavirus in the human body has been one of our major weapons in the battle against COVID-19. It is considered the gold standard for accurate testing. It measures very high on “specificity”, which refers to the ability of the test to correctly identify persons without a particular disease. Simply put, this means that the test will rarely confuse the SARS-CoV-2 with some other pathogen in the body and therefore would rarely identify persons without the disease as being COVID-19 positive. In other words, the test will rarely give false positive results. However, the “gold standard” has been known to suffer from relatively low “sensitivity”, which refers to the ability of the test to correctly identify patients with the disease. Low sensitivity makes a test prone to false negative results where the disease goes undetected. Since this has significant implications for controlling the spread of the disease, a lot of scientific effort has gone in, and is still going on, to enhance the sensitivity of the RT-PCR test for the coronavirus.

Another illustration of the limitations of our knowledge of the virus pertains to the longer-term impact of the disease on human organs. The situation has perhaps become even more complicated by a few reported cases of recurrence of COVID-19. We do not yet know for certain if these are indeed cases of reinfection or of the persistence of the disease from its first occurrence. This uncertainty has also raised new questions about the nature of the antibodies that the human body produces while fighting COVID-19. Longitudinal studies are being planned to understand the long-term effects of the disease and the longevity of protection provided by the immune response against it. The results from these investigations will probably have significant implications for our understanding of concepts like herd immunity.

The complex and dynamic nature of the pandemic and the limitations of human knowledge about it imply that science will take time to arrive at robust conclusions, despite the endeavour on an unprecedented scale. However, the phenomenon is affecting us deeply on an immediate basis. These two aspects of the phenomenon create a desperate situation, leading, naturally to the strong expectation that science should provide conclusive answers on an urgent basis. It may well be that the absence of ready solutions leads desperate people to hang on to whatever illusions are available.

It is noteworthy that infiniteness and indeterminateness are objective qualities of the natural world, while our knowledge of reality is finite and will always remain so. The great developments in modern science has brought us to a point where we know reality with a greater degree of certainty. Nonetheless, the knowability of nature, and its predictability in particular, is limited by the extreme complexities that define the movement of nature. The uncertainty in our knowledge of reality is an outcome of not just epistemological limitations, but also of the constitutional makeup of reality. Uncertainty, therefore, is fundamental to the motion of reality. This uncertainty emerging from the contradiction between the infinite nature of reality and the finite nature of its knowledge is playing out sharply in front of us amidst the pandemic. In other words, the uncertainty in the case of COVID-19 is almost tangible, and this gives further strength to various hues of pseudoscience. In the absence of clear and consistent answers provided by science, dominant beliefs and prejudices, both in the academic world and the wider world, masquerade as knowledge.

Problems of science communication

Finally, there is also the question of science communication, which has always been a complicated endeavour. Communicating expert level knowledge that is still evolving—as in the case of COVID-19—to the masses in a manner that is easily accessible is a demanding challenge. The challenge becomes even more daunting given the fact that the practice of science is increasingly specialised into disciplines that look at the same phenomenon from different, and new, perspectives. Multiple layers of knowledge misleadingly convey the impression that the notion of truth is subjective. This becomes even more challenging under the growing influence of the media, particularly social media. The speed of communication propelled by the new media implies that even tentative knowledge that is being severely contested within the scientific community finds its way into popular discourse in a badly baked form.

Also read: Media Role | Suspension of disbelief

Knowledge generation using the rigorous method of science is a time-taking affair, a characteristic that is anathema to artificial intelligence-driven social media. Although social media has led to an unprecedented democratisation of the flow of information, it does not, at least in its current form, have the motivation to judge the truth value of a proposition. Knowledge in this context boils down to a battle of narratives, and truth often is reduced to the narrative that the algorithm (or its maker) echoes. Driven entirely by the structures of capitalism, social media often end up translating dominant beliefs into perceived truth at a rapid speed.

Human beings, as a species, have acquired immense knowledge about the natural world and the laws that govern it. Also, the pace at which this scientific knowledge has grown, and continues to grow, under capitalism is incomparable with any epoch in history. Science has equipped us with the unique potential to intervene and shape reality, of course, in accordance with the laws that define its motion. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly laid bare the limitations in our knowledge of nature. But it is not as if science is idle; it is currently engaged in a struggle to find the answers to this challenge. The latent irrationality and the lack of scientific temper that lurk under the garb of modernity have utilised the vacuum created by uncertainty, pretending to offer solutions to desperate people across the world. The cultural right is, of course, the historical abode for such unscientific attitudes. What, however, is worrisome is that sections of the global left movement are increasingly falling prey to the spectre of pseudoscience.

Sandipan Baksi is a researcher at the Foundation for Agrarian Studies, Bengaluru. His primary research interest is history of science in India.

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