Show them a comet with a red tail, scare them out of their wits, and they’ll rush out of their houses and break their legs. But try making one rational statement to them, and back it up with seven proofs, and they’ll just laugh at you.
– Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, 1943
This is something straight out of science fiction. Apparently, there is a baba in Rajasthan who cures kidney stones with simple but unique method. He places his hands over the patient’s body, chants some mantras, presses his hands and moves them along the body, and, voila, the stone is in the mouth. People come to him in cars and bikes, on buses. There’s catering. The entrance fee is about Rs 2,000.
Here’s a little bit of anatomy and physiology. The stones commonly encountered are gallstones and kidney stones. As a colleague was telling me this story, I started to wonder: gall bladder stones can, by a far stretch of imagination, reach the oral cavity; however, there’s no way a kidney stone can reach the mouth. They belong to two different organ systems.
“You do not understand,” my friend exclaimed sensing my scepticism. “The stone comes not out of the patient’s mouth but the baba‘s!”
It seems the godman needs a break after “treating” a few patients – no prizes for guessing why. This is tragic, and it would be funny if it weren’t true.
In another example, a healer – among many – in Uttar Pradesh claims he can “cure” rheumatoid arthritis, a relentlessly progressive disease. His story is particularly appalling. His “treatment” involves taking out some of a patient’s blood, putting it in a bronze vessel and making the patient drink that. The physician who told me about it had a sister who underwent this treatment in spite of his warnings. After a few months, she became very ill; her haemoglobin level fell to about 2 – the normal is 12-15 – and she almost died.
We encounter such examples every day, although many of them are not so glaring. This lady required a long stay at the ICU and multiple blood transfusions. Many physicians, nurses and paramedics worked hard to save her life; their time and energy could have been spent with people in greater need. Her family spent nearly 5 lakh rupees to get her out of her self-inflicted mess. Routine treatment for rheumatoid arthritis costs less than Rs 1,000 a month and with specialist care, she could have led a pretty good life.
Some of us would say these are extreme examples and that a little bit of superstition is fine. For example, it’s considered a bad omen when a black cat crosses your path. However, one of my students recently told me how her sister had lost her job because of that. Even worse would be if we started killing black cats to prevent them from crossing our paths.
While some harmless superstitions do exist, there is no doubt that being more rational will not harm us. But whose responsibility is it to make us question our existing beliefs, or even fight such dangerous practices?
Could it be that of our parents and teachers? In the first example, it was the parents’ who’d brought their young boy to the baba to be “cured”. In the second example, the patient herself was a teacher.
What about scientists and doctors? Why not – even though many of them are themselves extremely superstitious.
NGOs, then? Some rationalist societies do such work but they need to expand in a big way to have a major impact, and I’m not sure if such societies have the requisite amount of resources. Indeed, it would seem governments are best positioned to fight superstition, but with them, the question is whether they’re willing to do it. Can they afford to reallocate resources previous earmarked for a different department to fighting superstitious beliefs – a fight that is unlikely to yield any short-term, visible results?
Journalists and people on the social media are important actors in this arena as well, although they are often on the side of magnifying superstition rather than on the side fighting it.
In my opinion, the best agencies for this activity are professional societies, especially the scientific societies, such as the Indian Medical Association and the Association of Physicians of India, among others. They are supported by governments and they should be at the forefront of this fight.
In the developed countries and even in some of the smaller countries especially in Europe, professional organisations work closely with governments and civil society to tackle contemporaneous issues that have a bearing on day-to-day life. An example is the issue of vaccines. As many refuse to get vaccinated and as the incidence of diseases like measles is growing, such societies have taken it upon themselves to educate the public on the usefulness and importance of vaccination.
Some of these organisations have a very large membership; the annual conferences of the Association of Physicians of India is like a festival. However, very rarely have I seen such conferences address issues of relevance to non-medical people, especially those that deal with the promotion of science in daily life. Considering that each specialty, and even sub-specialty, has not one but several such organisations, a single open session in one of their conferences discussing fake cures and/or irrational therapies can go a long way towards helping the people at large.
These organisations are also well-placed to work with the government to take steps and ensure that the seeds of rational thinking are sown among children, that young adults are informed through various media channels of the dangers of superstitions, and that the providers of magical remedies are dealt with in according to the law.
Then again, even all of this will not be as good as anybody, or everybody, who has a little bit of rationality left in their minds fighting superstitious at every moment and every step, without cease. Only then will we be better off as a society.
Samir Malhotra works at the Post-Graduate Institution of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh.