“Trust the science; follow the scientists” has become a familiar refrain during our past year of living dangerously. It is the admonition of world health organisations to shifty politicians; it is good advice for all whose lives have been battered into disruption by Covid-19. But another insidious pandemic has been creeping up on us. The World Health Organization calls it the “infodemic”. It includes those endlessly forwarded emails from ill-informed relatives, social media posts, and sensational videos full of spurious “cures” and malicious lies about the virus and the pandemic. The disinformation isn’t all the work of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and “alternative” medicine peddlers. Some actual scientists have been caught in acts of deception. These are people who undermine whatever faith the public has left in science, and who sabotage the credibility of their scrupulous colleagues. One of the worst cases of fraud was Dr Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 research paper linking vaccines to autism, which endangered the lives of countless children before it was debunked and its author struck off the UK medical register. In this 700th anniversary year of Dante Alighieri’s death, we should reserve a special place in his Inferno for those who profit from turning the truths of Mother Nature into dangerous lies.
“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it,” the physicist Richard Feynman once said in a lecture on scientific method. It’s a noble truth — your theory is wrong if the experiments say so — but given the flaws of human nature, it’s not that simple. Sloppy work or deliberate fraud can make your theory seem correct enough to get published in one prestigious journal, and cited in many others. Scientific theories should follow the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest”. Yesterday’s cast-off ideas (goodbye, phlogiston) may pave the path to progress, but along the way, there are also some fake signposts pointing in wrong directions. Read more »
A child drops a chocolate chip cookie on the floor, immediately picks it up, looks quizzically at a parental eye-witness and proceeds to munch on it after receiving an approving nod. This is one of the versions of the “three second rule”, which suggests that food can be safely consumed if it has had less than three seconds contact with the floor. There is really no scientific basis for this legend, because noxious chemicals or microbial flora do not bide their time, counting “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand,…” before they latch on to a chocolate chip cookie. Food will likely accumulate more bacteria, the longer it is in contact with the floor, but I am not aware of any rigorous scientific study that has measured the impact of food-floor intercourse on a second-to-second basis and identified three seconds as a critical temporal threshold. Basketball connoisseurs occasionally argue about a very different version of the “three second rule”, and the Urban Dictionary provides us with yet another set of definitions for the “three second rule”, such as the time after which one loses a vacated seat in a public setting. I was not aware of any of these “three second rule” versions until I moved to the USA, but I had come across the elusive “three seconds” time interval in a rather different context when I worked at the Institute of Medical Psychology in Munich: Stimuli or signals that occur within an interval of up to three seconds are processed and integrated by our brain into a “subjective present”.
One day, I came home from school to a big commotion in the living room. My dad was working with an electrician and a mason, and they were together struggling to figure out how this enormous apparatus was going to work. What is it, I asked? A split-unit air-conditioner, my dad said! The thing was a deep and dark gray, with fierce frowning fins all around. It sat in our living room that day like a fine objet, detached slightly from the wall into which its cables would soon run, locking firmly into the masonry and coming out the other side, into the sunless side yard we then had, where I also parked my bicycle. The thing was powerful alright, having been designed for industrial use, and it hummed quietly to itself, rather than roaring and groaning in the way air-conditioners usually did back then. No one in our friends or family circle had ever seen or heard of a split-unit AC, and it was quite the source of living-room family pride.
My dad had bought the thing at an auction at the American embassy, which was upgrading from these four-year-old split-units to central air-conditioning. He must have paid, maybe forty thousand rupees for the thing, almost two thousand bucks in 1980s US dollars. But even this second-hand industrial unit must have seemed a good investment, as compared with the kinds of ACs that were available in the market then — old technologies that were made even more expensive by heavy import duties. And when I think back on it, I realize that many of the appliances and consumer goods we enjoyed in our home came from these sales at diplomatic compounds, or else imported by someone else and then sold locally. Our enormous six-burner stove-oven, our banana-yellow Isuzu car, our small upstairs stereo system, our several VCRs, even my silver ten-speed bike, all of these appurtenances came into lives second-hand, through foreign contacts. Nothing like them was then available in India's local markets.
Eventually our stove-burner was rusting out, so we had to send it to the welder to get a new sheeting on the back, the better to keep the rats out of the kitchen. The Isuzu was in and out of the shop a lot, and we once considered switching out its engine with a new local one. And when the woofer on the small stereo tore, I took the two speakers to Lajpat Rai Market to have them replaced with a spare ripped out of another speaker. To participate in consumer culture in India back then was like living in a Mad Max movie — the fragments of a more advanced technological and material culture surrounded us, and we made tactical use of whatever we could find. But we seemed doomed never to be able to inhabit that technological horizon. The technology of everyday life seemed to come to us from far away, and always without proper distribution, support, service.