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Charlatans in a science illiterate society

Dubious scientific discovery claims and their unquestioned acceptance by public speak volumes about the poor state-of-affairs of science literacy

Charlatans in a science illiterate society

On July 6, 2016, several news outlets carried a story that received wide coverage. The news claimed a major breakthrough achieved by Prof. Qadhi Aurangzeb Al-Hafi, a Pakistani “scientist”, in a branch of science never heard of before: Magneto-hydro-tropism, or MHT. Reading the article got one more confused.

The report of the breakthrough read like gibberish and did not read like something a journalist could or would write. Clearly, someone at the paper just took a press release he/she was handed and printed it as is. Looking for more information did not help, because searched through news outlet after news outlet covering the story, all that could be found was the exact same lines reporting this “breakthrough.” Here is an excerpt that appeared in most reports:

“The phenomenon is concomitantly based upon a weightless wave like particle named as “Magnetron”, which behaves like a vector-entity ie scalar lines producing vectorial effect.

Talking to media at Walton Airport after experiment on female rabbit in the air, Dr Hafi said that the ground-breaking discovery of MHT emerged to vivid broad-spectrum and far reaching impacts on multi-spheric segments of basic, as well as applied sciences. He said it provides nucleic framework by laying the very core conceptual foundations of an entirely new orbit-realm in high energy physics. … He said MHT is going to become a word, which is to be mile-stoned in the scientific legendary classics for the centuries to come. …

According to the findings of Aurangzeb Hafi’s MHT-Magneto-Sectoral Model the following scientific propositions have been endorsed by the experiment almost all of the living organisms, the fluids or semi fluids containing hydrogen along with three iron, manganese and cobalt, can have remarkable variations influence till 2090 — the ending corner’s period of the (80 years cycles) quasi periodic cycles maxima, that has been started from 2010.”

Where to begin? Never mind that a magnetron is a device, not some particle. What experiment did the good Professor conduct on a female rabbit in a plane, and what does that have to do with particle physics? Since when is “mile-stoned” a word? How did a single experiment conducted on a rabbit tell the good Professor that his discovered phenomenon is applicable to “almost all of the living organisms”? Why just almost all organisms? Which ones are excluded and why? The best part, however, comes at the end when Prof. Hafi puts a best-if-used-by like timestamp of 2090 on his discovery, like on a carton of milk. If you think that’s bad, try looking up the learned Professor’s website. Every page is filled with this kind of non-sensical garbage, that is an ambitious and simultaneous assault on the English language as well as the sciences. The site lists several dubious honours and achievements such as: “He is an elevatedly giant vanquisher of over 11 regional and 9 international awards including The Century Merit Award (Co-recipient with former UN Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan [Ref.: KAKHTAH] ).” What remains unclear even after parsing his website is what field his PhD is in, and what institution was insane enough to award it to him. His only publications are links to news articles citing him, most of which have been retracted by their publishers.

As an experiment, we also had a seventh grader read one of these articles, and asked her what she understood. She asked me if she was allowed to look up a few words in a dictionary, and we said that was OK. After she finished reading we asked her what she understood. She answered that she did not understand much, and does not think it even makes any sense. She said that the writer seems to know nothing and is deliberately (mis)using big words to bamboozle his audience. This seventh grader is, of course, right on the money. Yet, so many publications were unable to catch what a seventh grader readily could. We should add, we also reached out to one of this country’s most eminent physicist to solicit his opinion. Not surprisingly, he and the seventh grader agreed.

Clearly, anyone with at least an eighth grade education reading this should see lights flashing in her head saying “charlatan.” Obviously, that did not happen here. This news was enthusiastically reported by DAWN, The News International. It is worrying, given the resources available to these large papers. A little less surprisingly, it even got through the editing process at publications that may not have a Science Editor on staff, i.e. The Business Recorder  and The Business Standard. However, most disappointing was that even TechJuice.pk, a Pakistani knockoff of TechCrunch, and the University of Punjab fell for this. TechJuice removed the article from its website after the fraud was pointed out, and the University of Punjab (http://pu.edu. pk/home/section/allpress/6147) went a step further and posted an online retraction.

In the days that followed the publication of this news, we tracked its circulation on facebook. We paid particular attention to the comments people left on these reports. Not surprisingly, almost all comments were congratulatory. The public, even the segment that reads English newspapers is so science illiterate, as to be able to recognise such blatant fraud. As of today, we have yet to see a single article that calls out this charlatan. It will not be too surprising if, following the Edhi-for-Nobel-prize movement, we see an Al-Hafi-for-Nobel-prize movement in the coming years.

Before Prof. Qadhi Aurangzeb Al Hafi, we had Agha Waqar and his car running on water, preceded by Dr. Ghulam Sarwar and his car running on a mixture of 60 per cent water and 40 per cent diesel, preceded by the good Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman who claimed HAARP was being used to create earthquakes in Pakistan, and numerous alchemists who, over the years, have claimed to have developed the ability to make gold.

If you think Prof. Hafi is some nutjob working out his home’s basement, you will be disappointed. According to the biography accompanying several printed articles, he is currently the Principal Investigator (PI) of ongoing “research work” at no less than the University of Punjab! Charlatans like these, with titles of professor and doctor are the black sheep that make one cringe and ashamed of what has become of the profession in this country. Worst of all, even the institutions that hire, fund and celebrate these charlatans, either don’t have a clue or don’t mind.

This episode speaks volumes about the poor state-of-affairs of science literacy of Pakistan’s public. It will be unfair to put the blame on the shoulders of the public school sector alone. Much of the Facebook generation and English newspaper readership is educated in this country’s “good” private schools. Evidently, these days it does not take much to bamboozle even the most educated lot of our society. It seems as if there is something missing in all schools in this country, regardless of whether public or private, regardless of whether the medium of instruction is English or Urdu.

The German school system categorises schools beyond grade 4 into three categories. There is the “Gymnasium” (which has nothing to do with a gym) that goes from grade 5 to 13. Gymnasium goers are groomed for university. The education instilled in its students involves asking a lot of “why / what if” questions. For those unsure about going to university and considering vocational training instead, or unsure about being able to navigate the rigors of gymnasium, there is the “Realschule”. Realschule education, as the name betrays, is more focused on the learning of facts, or “reality”, the way things are, with emphasis on those “why / what if” questions. It goes to grade 10, when students have to decide to either switch to a gymnasium and finish grade 13 and proceed to university, or elect for a vocational school. Finally, there is also the “Hauptschule”, the least challenging of the three, which prepares the weakest of students up to grade 9, usually for vocational training. In this three-tiered education system, Pakistani school systems (public / private, English / Urdu) falls into the realschule, at most.

Our school system discourages intellectual curiosity. Regardless of the subject, whether Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English, Urdu, History or Islamiyat, our school education all the way up to high school comprises in large part of memorisation of facts, and very little reasoning. Even Mathematics is studied as rote memorisation of fixed sequences of steps, without asking or answering any higher level questions. This approach, however, is not enough to get through a good university education.

As educationists, we see several students coming from high school transitioning to university struggle with this transition. Our school system(s) are failing students and leave many without the ability to translate concepts to different problem settings.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque

Ayesha Razzaque
The author is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University. She may be reached at [email protected]

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