Astrology and science

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Astrology and science

We scientists from the scientific/aca-        there? If a star disturbs my life, it would    completely against well-established science
demic community in the so-called ‘elite’      not be worth a cent’. Finally we would         is indeed very unwise and wasteful.
institutes have once again shown our          like to add that two of our great scientists      I once knew an individual who had
customary apathy in not coming forth          of yesteryear, Meghnad Saha and C. V.          blisters all over the body – a probable
to preempt the UGC’s attempt to start         Raman had expressed utter contempt for         consequence of infrequent baths and mal-
courses in vaastushastra and astrology.       this pseudo-science.                           nutrition. He went away to get a ‘treat-
Despite several newspaper reports and a                                                      ment’ for his skin problem. I learnt that
clarion call given by P. Balaram in his       ALLADI SITARAM (Indian Statistical             the treatment consisted of pasting the
excellent editorial (Curr. Sci., 2000, 79,    Institute, Bangalore), M. DELAMPADY            entire body with the waste removed from
1139–1140) we were too apathetic (timid?)     (ISI), JISHNU BISWAS (ISI), G. MISRA           the intestines of slaughtered goats! It is
to challenge the UGC on this issue. The       (ISI), S. RAMASUBRAMANIAN (ISI), T. S.         possible that this treatment was effective.
scientists in these so-called elite insti-    S. R. K. RAO (ISI), VISHWAMBHAR P ATI          However, I doubt if any self-respecting
tutes do not really have to depend on the     (ISI); T. A. ABINANDAN (Indian Institute of    scientist will undertake a statistical ana-
support of the UGC and there is no            Science, Bangalore), B. ANANTHANARAYAN         lysis of the efficacy of such treatments.
reason for their timidity! Recently some      (IISc), ARNAB RAI CHOUDHURI (IISc),            Similar comments hold for many activi-
scientists have been registering strong       ATUL CHOKSI (IISc), K. G. AYAPPA               ties that are commonplace, including
protests. But alas, it may be too late now.   (IISc), BINNY CHERAYIL (IISc), S. K.           astrology and palmistry.
The UGC has actually passed a resolution      BISWAS (IISc), K. GOPINATH (IISc),                Funding agencies in India, in their
giving legitimacy to such courses and         V. JAYARAM (IISc), P. R. NOTT (IISc),          unfortunate generous moments, have sup-
many universities may well be forced to       RAM SESHADRI (IISc), S. RAMASESHA              ported ‘Pseudo science’ projects such as
start them in July. Some of the scientists    (IISc), RUDRA P RATAP (IISc), D. P.            effect of music on plants and geomag-
at the Indian Statistical Institute have      SENGUPTA (IISc), M. S. SHAILA (IISc),          netism and human health, with disastrous
written a letter of protest to the UGC. We    VASANT NATARAJAN (IISc); Y. HATWALNE           consequences. It is not lack of open
urge academicians at other institutes to      (Raman Research Institute, Bangalore),         mindedness or intolerance that prompts
follow suit.                                  MADAN RAO (RRI), J. SAMUEL (RRI);              us to criticize allocation of resources,
   Instead of trying to start courses in      K. R. SREENIVAS (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre       manpower and monetary, for astrology or
astrology, etc. which will surely take us     for Advanced Scientific Research), SRIKANTH    palmistry. The opposition is based on
back to the dark ages, our educators          SASTRY (JNCASR); S. Chatterjee (Indian         sane scientific sense. If a ‘guru’ claims
should perhaps think of having a course       Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore);         that he could levitate, the evidence he
on ‘Indian heritage’, designed so as to       K. H. PARANJAPE (Institute of Mathematical     provides should exceed the totality of
salute the wonderful contributions that       Sciences, Chennai)                             experience of countless experiments that
we have inherited from all the different                                                     have been carried out since Newton! In
communities in India in the fields of                                                        north Karnataka, a black magic called
music, art, mathematics, astronomy (not                                                      ‘Banamathi’ is a source of terror. It does
astrology!), etc. and also what has been                                                     not make sense to initiate a scientific
passed on to us by the many tribal            This is in response to K. N. Ganeshaiah’s      study of Banamathi as a means of des-
communities who have peopled this land        letter published in Current Science (2001,     troying people and homes, although the
for centuries.                                80, 719–720). It is indisputable that we       social psychology that provides fertile
   We do not want to waste our time nor       should have freedom of speech and free         ground for such black magic could
the readers’, in rebutting point by point     access to knowledge. After all, that is the    indeed be scientifically investigated.
the long rambling letter by K. N. Gane-       premise on which science functions and
shaiah (Curr. Sci., 2001, 80, 719–720).       its remarkable self-correcting power ori-                              M. R. N. MURTHY
We think serious scientists should spend      ginates. However, scientific work is not
time on serious science rather than res-      arbitrary. At any given time in the history    Molecular Biophysics Unit,
ponding to such letters! Since he has         of science, there are definitive problems      Indian Institute of Science,
unnecessarily dragged in the name of the      which are lurking in the minds of experts      Bangalore 560 012, India
great Indian statistician C. R. Rao, we       that are about to find expression. That is     e-mail:
can perhaps cite other anecdotes to           why it is legitimately claimed that if the
establish that C. R. Rao has no belief in     great Rutherford was not in the scientific
astrology. We suggest that our scientific     arena, atomic physics would perhaps have
colleague Ganeshaiah look at the excel-       been delayed at the most by an year! It is
lent book by S. Balachandra Rao (Astro-       not to deny that there are no blind alleys     In an article published in Current Science
logy, Believe It or Not, Nava Karnataka       or cul-de-sacs in science. However, it is      (2001, 80, 719–720) K. N. Ganeshaiah
Press), where he describes and then           possible to identify problems that are         pleads that astrology and palmistry should
proceeds to debunk this pseudo-science        either totally outside the scope of science    be allowed into university curricula.
and ends with a quote of Swami Viveka-        or outright meaningless. Investing public      The title of the article ‘An unscientific
nanda. ‘Let stars come, what harm is          money or resource on activities that go        way to bury astrology’ hints that he

1088                                                                                 CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 80, NO. 9, 10 MAY 2001

knows how to bury astrology in a scien-         they are already doing with biotechno-          is, he mockingly asks, ‘Are art and
tific way, but does not want to reveal it.      logy, information technology and bio-           literature scientific?’ Art and literature
Throughout the article he protests too          informatics) to attract funding and students.   are cultivated for their aesthetic value,
much, is understandably ambivalent and          Many departments of zoology were chri-          not because of their scientific value. But
equivocates, and the imagery of death of        stened over-night as departments of             astrology claims to be a science. Its claims
astrology and burial recurs. ‘. . . these       microbial technology in our universities.       are belied because (a) its premises are
subjects are perhaps dying due to neglect       But I am digressing. I am only surprised        false, (b) its approach is at variance with
by guardians of the new schools of              that Ganeshaiah is vehement in making           the tenets of the scientific method, and
knowledge. Before we hit the last nails         his point when he knows, as well as I do,       (c) it does not grow like other sciences
on the coffins of these subjects . . .’ and     that superstitions die hard. Have not           by the self-corrective method adopted by
so on. Again ‘even considering it is unscien-   astrology and palmistry survived all these      science.
tific . . . why should anyone hesitate to       centuries and do they need to be defen-            Its premises are absurd as it is based
study astrology?’. The author also remarks      ded in the pages of a mere science journal?     on geocentric astronomy. It looks upon
that history, art and literature are not        Ganeshaiah is in excellent company, for         sun (a star), moon (a satellite) ‘Rahu’ and
science subjects, but are being taught in       most scientists in India are undercover         ‘Kethu’ (points in space) as planets,
universities.                                   astrologers and will be only too happy if       while it ignores planets like Uranus and
   One would have thought, especially in        palmistry, astrology, etc. are at last given    Neptune which are massive and also
Bangalore, that astrology was being seri-       academic respectability.                        Pluto, not to mention the asteroids.
ously studied and believed by a worri-                                                             Its method is unscientific because the
somely lot of people. Every newborn                             M. K. CHANDRASHEKARAN           supposed effects of planetary positions
child in a family has its horoscope                                                             on men are not arrived at on carefully
cast. The late founder editor of the            Evolutionary and Organismal Biology Unit,       collected empirical data. Questions are
astrology journal often used to lecture in      Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for                     not raised as to why and how planetary
the Department of Mathematics at the              Advanced Scientific Research,                 positions produce the effects attributed to
Madurai Kamaraj University, when the            P.O. Box No. 6436, Jakkur,                      them. No hypothesis or theory has been
topologist M. Venkataraman was there.           Bangalore 560 064, India                        proposed to explain the effects of plane-
So what is Ganeshaiah talking about?            e-mail:                        tary positions on human beings.
Possibly about the editorial on the                                                                In the absence of any hypothesis or
subject in Current Science (2000, 79,                                                           theory, the question of checking their
1139–1140). Then why is he neglecting                                                           validity does not arise and so all roads
occult science, voodoo, black magic,                                                            to growth by the self-corrective proce-
seance and other such fascinating                                                               dure are blocked.
subjects? Tycho Brahe (1546–1601),              I am surprised to note that K. N. Gane-            Ganeshaiah quotes C. R. Rao to make
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and             shaiah (Curr. Sci., 2001, 80, 719–720) is       the point that there must be something in
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) also                ‘disturbed’ by the editorial in Current         astrology: ‘Among 3458 soldiers Jupiter
practised some magic besides their serious      Science (2000, 79, 1139–1140) express-          is to be found 703 times, either rising or
work. But those were times when women           ing concern at the efforts of the Gov-          culminating when they were born.
were first branded as witches and then          ernment of India and UGC to introduce           Chance predicts this should be 572’. If he
were burnt at the stake. Are Brahe,             astrology in Indian universities. On the        thinks that the figures are very telling, I
Copernicus and Kepler today remem-              other hand, I am disturbed that Indian          suggest that he calculates the chances of
bered today for the magic they practised?       scientists have not protested, in one           all the 80,000-odd horoscopes of 80,000-
Whoever protested against Indian or             voice, against efforts to accord this kind      odd citizens of a single city pointing to a
Hindu heritage studies? All the great           of respectability to astrology.                 particular day and time of death. Such a
Indologists like D. D. Kosambi, A. L.              Ganeshaiah’s main contention seems to        thing happened on 6 August 1945 in
Basham, Helmut Glasenap, Paul Thieme            be that we should not make ‘a body of           Hiroshima. The ‘miracle’ repeated three
and Max Mueller have been always held           knowledge’ unavailable to ‘willing stu-         days later in the city of Nagasaki.
in high esteem.                                 dents’. There are several such ‘bodies of          It was not without good reason that the
   For all we know there might indeed be        knowledge’ such as phrenology, numero-          eminent mathematician, David Hilbert
universities which might offer to teach         logy, omenology (I have seen a book of          said, ‘When you collect the ten wisest
astrology and palmistry in lieu of botany       about 200 pages in Kannada on Halli             men of the world and ask them to find the
and zoology, which is not a bad idea at         Shakuna, omens related to house lizards),       most stupid thing in existence, they will
all. Everyone can identify trees such as        etc. not available to ‘willing students’.       not be able to find anything stupider than
the neem, banyan, mango, cashew, may-           Universities are not expected to squander       astrology’.
flower and pine without having to study         their resources to make available useless
botany for six or more years. Even philo-       and patently absurd ‘bodies of know-                                J. R. LAKSHMANA RAO
sophers can tell apart a bat from a frog,       ledge’ and thereby encourage superstition
or a roach from a beetle. These days our        in young minds.                                 ‘Maithri’, XII Main,
universities are in such bad shape that            Ganeshaiah has doubts as to whether          Saraswathipura,
they will gladly teach any subject (like        astrology is really unscientific. Granted it    Mysore 570 009, India

CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 80, NO. 9, 10 MAY 2001                                                                                           1089