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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tradition, Toe-Ring and Pseudo-science

Recently one of the friends on FB had shared the following photograph from the website : https://www.facebook.com/untoldstoriesoo7


Why Indian women wear toe rings (BICHHIYA)? there is a Science Behind this..read n share

Most Indian women who are married wear a toe-ring. It’s not only a sign that the woman is married, it’s also science. Indian Vedas (Vedham or Vedam) say that by wearing this in both feet, it is believed, that their Menstrual cycle course is regularized with even intervals. This gives good scope for conceiving to married women. Also it is said just because that particular nerve in the second finger from toe, also connects the uterus and passes through heart. If you notice, the toe ring will always be on the second toe of the right leg and also the left leg. It will control the uterus and keep it healthy by producing evenly balanced blood pressure to the uterus...As Silver being a good conductor, it also absorbs the energy from the polar energies from the earth and passes it to the body, thus refreshing whole body system. 
In great Indian epic called 'Ramayana' toe ring plays a vital role. When Sita was abducted by Ravana, on the way, she throwed her toe ring (kaniazhi) as the identification for lord Rama. This shows that toe ring is used from ancient time. Toe rings were introduced to the United States by Marjorie Borell who, after returning from India began manufacturing and selling them in New York in 1973. Her first retail outlet was Fiorucci, a trendy fashion retailer located on 59th Street in New York.
Think about it...

I thought about it and concluded that it was

another utterly stupid "scientific" claim in the series of "science-ifying" religion/tradition. Toe-ring, Menstrual cycles and "polar energies" with conclusions based on theory of electrical conductivity. That touches some essential areas in the lives of women. Epic!

Subsequently one of my long-time friends raised a question:

what do you think of chiropractice, pranic healing, foot-reflexology, chakras as referred in kundalini yoga etc ? do these practices fit in with 'scientific' frameworks ? lots of scientists seem to be interested in these processes ? while the polar enegry quoted above seems like a stretch, the pressure applied by the toe-ring on an energy point on the foot that has connection to the uterus seems plausible to me. i totally see your point of the agenda of 'sciencifying' religion to improve its acceptibility but at the same time i am hesitant to reject outright cultural practices of people who come from a 5000 year civilization. have you read 'structure of scientific revolution' by thomas kuhn ? if not, i would encourage you to do so. at least see a review of it on wikipedia.

and I replied as follows:

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All the practices you have listed can at best be called different forms of massage which relax the body. I have not personally found any convincing evidence (of course my reading is limited) in the science journals that these techniques have any 'healing' properties.

For example I could not find any evidence in any journal (try web of science) about a nerve that connects the toe, uterus and the heart. In fact the longest nerve in the body is the sciatic nerve (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sciatic_nerve ) which runs from the lower back to the limb. Clearly the hypothetical toe-uterus-heart nerve would be longer (unless the sciatic nerve coils up so much like small intestine which does not seem to be the case) but there is no evidence of such a nerve that I could personally find. However, given both uterus and heart are vital components in a woman's anatomy, I would expect they are well connected by circulatory and nervous systems although nothing suggests that there is a long nerve connecting all the three or that applying pressure on this hypothetical nerve would enhance the 'health of the uterus'.

And it is indeed hard to believe such pseudo-scientific claims because of the following reasons:

  1. They never cite any proper peer-reviewed source
  2. The terms are ultra-vague and usually mixed with high-flown verbiage characteristic of spirituality
  3. Some of the terms like 'naadi' of Ayurveda are deliberately confused and mixed up with the modern medical terms like 'nerves'.

Naadi was a 'model' for connectors inside the body which was proposed centuries ago and has no connection with the nervous system whatsoever. Thus at best, the article above could have stayed true to its original intention of disseminating the ancient-wisdom rather than claiming "it’s also science". To quote Richard Dawkins : "There are comforting assumptions based on superstition and inconvenient truths based on evidence". While one may 'believe' that certain things may 'heal' him, unless corroborated with strong experimental evidence, those techniques will never be accepted in the scientific parlance.

However the defenders of tradition tend to overlook the fact that science is not an enemy of tradition or culture. If at all, it has only helped discover and understand our ancestors' ways of living. In doing so we may discover some age-old practices to be redundant after exhaustive experimentation. However it does NOT make our ancestors fools. After all, the genes for thinking through, have been derived from them. Einstein's discovery of relativity does NOT make Newton a fool. Newton will be celebrated just as equally (or even more) as Einstein BUT with always a caveat that Newton's theory was limited in application. Thus if a 5000 year old 'theory' in the name of tradition is to be discarded, a scientist would do so without remorse. In fact, he will recognize that the ancestors ended up with such 'theories' and 'models' based on whatever knowledge they could collect over their lifetimes, just like we are doing. And when the ancestors are correct (for example turmeric's anti-cancer properties) the scientist gladly embraces it.

And this must be very evident from the way historians and archaeologists go hunting for finding new evidence about older civilizations, work with palaeoanthropologists and genealogists and elucidate the lives of our ancestors and their traditions. Radio-Isotope dating is a discovery that has revolutionized science and aided understanding the way of our ancestors. Thus science is an instrument to improve quality of life and is very much part of the tradition or culture.

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I believe the biggest threat to science (and thus human existence itself) is not ignorance but the pseudo-science which manifests itself in the name of 'traditions' and spirituality. It is pervasive and penetrative enough to convince those who do not dig deep.