pseudoscience alert

Tomorrow I'm giving a talk at a conference of the IUBS (International Union of Biological Sciences), which normally would be just an interesting scientific meeting for me. The conference is on various approaches to improving global health - my topic will be the influenza virus. However, there's a guy in my session who is giving a talk on "Ayurvedic Biology" - to which my first reaction was, "what the heck is that?" I looked into it and wrote to the session chair and then the conference chair when I found out: Ayurveda is a bunch of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that has been popularized by the Maharishi Yogi and by Deepak Chopra. These guys recommend that you take minerals such as lead, mercury, gold, silver, and arsenic to treat physical ailments - in other words, they recommend that you take poison. They also use incantations, amulets, spells, and mantras. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever behind this, it's just a tradition (they say) dating back centuries in India.
There are many websites explaining it, so here's one quote: "Patients are classified by body types, or prakriti, which are determined by proportions of the three doshas. The doshas allegedly regulate mind-body harmony. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas." From Chopra "claims that Ayurveda works because it corrects a distortion in consciousness... Chopra repeatedly asserts that 'for every thought there is a corresponding molecule. If you have happy thoughts, then you have happy molecules.'...Chopra also asserts that masters of Ayurvedic medicine can determine an herb's medicinal qualities by simply looking at it. Scientific study is therefore unnecessary."
These guys aren't kidding! So after much effort by the conference chair - who said it was too late to invite our Ayurvedic presenter, Darshan Shankar (who turns out not to be a Ph.D. or any other type of scientist, no surprise) - we think that the chair has convinced Shankar to give a more reasonable presentation, though it still mentions Ayurveda. I hope it works, but if not I'm going to have to get up at the end and say something to make it clear I don't believe it.
This is interesting because I've never been in a position like this before. I thought about simply refusing to speak, but the conference chair put in many hours basically re-doing Shankar's slides for him, so I feel like I have to go. But we don't know if Shankar will stick to the re-written script. I'll post a followup after the conference.


  1. Well, as it turned out, it wasn't too bad - Bill Clark from Harvard, who chaired the Symposium, spent many hours with the Ayurveda speaker (Darshan Shankar) and basically rewrote his abstract and re-did his slides, so they were a lot better.
    Nonetheless, Shankar spent a lot of time talking about the importance of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) and did go into some hocus-pocus about Ayurveda. It's too nutty for me to reproduce here, but Shankar spoke quite slowly and unconvincingly, and he was really unimpressive. He is also clearly a true believer - he thinks Ayurveda really means something when it's just gobbledygook.
    Here is one of his many logical fallacies: he asserted that 40% of people in the world still ask for or use CAM for at least part of their medical treatment, and therefore that CAM "is here to stay". Even if you accept that 40% figure (which I don't), then it doesn't imply that CAM is here to stay, of course. History shows that mistaken practices can be really widespread, but people give them up once them become educated enough to know better. Let's hope the same is true of CAM.
    Shankar also used the NIH's NCCAM to support the need for more work on CAM. That's another topic I'll try to blog on at a later date - NIH should shut down NCCAM, as it's a ridiculous waste of precious NIH funds.


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