As someone actively engaged in the dissemination of scientific information, I find it incumbent on myself to sift through the news to see how science is being represented by the media. Last week many media outlets including the AFP, reported a curious case of an Indian holy man who claimed to have survived without sustenance in the form of food or water for seven decades.
Prahlad Jani, 83, claims that a goddess blessed him at a very early age and since then he has not taken in a drop of liquid or a morsel of food. If you thought this claim was fantastic enough, there is more. India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) confined Jani and observed him for fifteen days during which time, to quote the AFP article, “he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the toilet”. However during this time, he was allowed to gargle and bathe.
It is not uncommon for humans to survive long periods of time without food. Physiologically, the body first uses up glucose and then glycogen. Once these ready sources are depleted muscle-mass starts to decrease. Ketones are used next and after a few days, fat is used in “survival mode.” Mahatma Gandhi fasted several times during his life (including a 21-day fast in 1932) during which times he did not eat any solid foods. There are reports of people surviving 40 and even 50 days without food. However, reports of people living without water or other liquids for over ten days are somewhat rare.
I am firm believer in the maxim that fantastic claims require fantastic proof. While it is possible that Jani has trained his body to live without food and water for days, the claim that he has done so for years is far-fetched and should not have been touted without a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, the fact that he was allowed to bathe casts a cloud of unreliability on the claim that he did not drink or urinate during the time. The experiment should have been performed without the provision of bathing.
Another point is worth bearing in mind. Extrapolating from a fifteen-day experiment to the conclusion that Jani has not eaten for 70 years (as some media outlets have done) is similar to accepting a claim that someone can swim from New York to London across the Atlantic because they can do 100 laps in an Olympic swimming pool.
The AFP report also notes the following:
“During the 15-day observation, which ended on Thursday, the doctors took scans of Jani’s organs, brain, and blood vessels, as well as doing tests on his heart, lungs and memory capacity”
Notice anything strange apart from the poorly-constructed sentence? Yes, exactly! The tests are all fine, but why doesn’t the report mention the one vital statistic that you and I are thinking of? Why is there no mention of Jani’s weight at the start and at the end of the experiment? One would expect his weight to fall, which immediately would rubbish his claim for living 70 years on divine yogic breath.
Finally, the comment by observing physician Sudhir Shah is extremely alarming:
“If Jani does not derive energy from food and water, he must be doing that from energy sources around him, sunlight being one.”
The conclusion that Jani does not derive energy from food and water has not been firmly established, but Shah is already hinting at the possibility of sunlight as a direct source of energy. This concept is easily digestible to Hindus and Jains who share a special reverence for the sun, but is a reckless one to make. First, a mountain of evidence must be accumulated to support that Jani possesses metabolism unlike all other humans and multicellular animals. That possibility seems unlikely. Second, there would need to be some observation that sunlight is the direct source of his energy. Finally, a process by which it occurs would need to be provided. Contrary to popular opinion, science does not satisfy its adherents by being phenomenological. If I were to claim to live on air alone, I would be required to provide a plausible hypothesis for how I was doing so that either obeyed the known laws of the physical and natural world or under very rare circumstances modified them. Providing outlandish untested hypotheses based on poorly-designed experiments is shameful.
A final word on the state of Indian science. There are many serious, hardworking Indian scientists toiling away in labs that do not get this sort of attention. If India wants to be treated as a country with scientific potential, it must get its priorities straight. A top-down approach in which government mandates how much will be spent in a year is good for building bridges, but not adequate for fostering a scientific temperament. Government institutions like DIPAS should know better than to waste money on poorly-designed experiments.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban