Any list of technological mavens would include the late Steve Jobs. Quite apart from his prowess at leading teams that mixed and matched existing technologies to create new products, Jobs is himself listed as the lead inventor on some 200-odd patents.
However, as his recently released authorised biography (Steve Jobs By Walter Isaacson) makes clear, the late founder of Apple was also influenced by many pseudoscientific beliefs. In the ultimate analysis, this may have cost him years, perhaps decades, in life span.
When Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2003, the prognosis was excellent. The cancer was a rare, slow-growth type. It had been caught early and it was treatable. The treatment involved surgery to remove tumours and then, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy as follow ups.
Unfortunately, he opted out of conventional treatment. Jobs was a lifelong food faddist and a vegan who had often experimented with all-fruit diets and periods of purging and so on. He swore that his food habits helped keep him healthy (and free of body odour, an assertion disputed by colleagues).
Jobs adopted a special anti-cancer diet, accompanied by folk herbal remedies, and acupuncture. Despite the pleas of everyone, he delayed conventional treatment by over a year while waiting for the “cures” to work. By then the cancer had metastised to other organs, like his liver.
When he ultimately opted for normal medical treatment, he was one of the first cancer patients to have genome analysis done, not only on his normal DNA but also on the cancerous cells. That enabled doctors to specifically target the cancer cells better. However, despite aggressive treatment, including pancreatic surgery and a later liver transplant, the cancer kept recurring. As we know, it eventually killed him.
Jobs is hardly the only victim of pseudo-science. Every year, countless numbers opt for faith healing, crystal-therapy, chiropactic therapy, homeopathy and so on. In sum, these are huge industries raking in billions. Like Jobs, many others end up suffering not just monetary loss but active physical harm through their beliefs in pseudo-science and the rejection of conventional science.
What is the difference between pseudo-science and science? Both offer rule-based systems. Let’s start with the latter. Philosopher Karl Popper once defined science through the lens of falsifiability. Any scientific claim or hypothesis has to be amenable to testing, via experiment and empirical observation. If it is proved false, it is discarded or modified. If the hypothesis stands up to testing, it is accepted as theory and incorporated into the body of scientific laws.
A pseudo-science makes scientific claims and asserts laws that just don’t stand up to either empirical observation or testing. However, instead of discarding or modifying those claims, the practitioners of pseudo-science continue to make them regardless.
Practitioners of pseudo-science are also often resistant to rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Some have been known to resort to legal action rather than submitting data in favour of their claims or conducting experimental tests when faced by challenges. Simon Singh, the noted popular science writer, faced legal action for calling into question specific claims made by chiropacters. Deepak Chopra has also been litigious in defence of his alternative medical theories.
Pseudo-science abounds, not only in medicine and biology, areas in which they arguably cause the most damage but in many other fields. Astrology, for example, along with other rule-based forms of fortune-telling such as entrail-reading, palmistry and tarot, is a pseudo-science with a venerable history. Many political decisions with far-reaching consequences have been influenced by astrologers and soothsayers.
When a powerful politician or a despot favours pseudo-science, the consequences are often disastrous for people at large. Stalin’s pal, Trofim Lysenko believed in “dialectical crop-genetics”. His tried to increase crop yields through odd experiments like burying harvested grain in ice to make future yields more frost-resistant. Lysenko contributed significantly to starvation and malnutrition across the USSR and retarded agronomic progress by decades.
Hitler believed in eugenics — the concept of scientifically breeding “better” human beings along with associated concepts of racial purity. Logically enough, he followed through on his espousal of eugenics by killing off folks that didn’t meet his standards. The apartheid of South Africa and the segregation of the US South were based on similar spurious pseudo-scientific claims.
More insidiously, Christian fundamentalists have blocked teaching evolution in American schools for well over a century, and also opposed stem-cell and other genetic research, which confirms evolutionary theory. They have more recently started insisting that “intelligent design” (a belief that natural laws exist because the universe was designed) is taught in science courses.
There is, obviously, space for both religion and science in our world and indeed, many scientists are religious. But pseudo-science tries to bridge the gap by pretending to be a science and laying down laws. But it demands blind faith in those laws rather than submitting to scientific method. And, thus, it vitiates both scientific study and the practice of faith.