[Column] Pseudoscience

Two truths and a lie – TU Delft is a technical university, the courses offered are all held to a high standard of scientific rigour, TU Delft is located in the Netherlands.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Brazen allegations (sans evidence) pertaining to the calibre of education at our institution will likely make some bristle with indignation. Especially in the wake of this summer’s flamboyant OWee festivities – we wouldn’t want to deter any earnest and callow undergraduates, now would we? But as the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So before I am dubbed an insolent whippersnapper, allow me to deflect and redirect your attention towards the Graduate School.

For those unfamiliar with the workings of this establishment, it superintends the comings and goings of PhDs at TU Delft, prepares them for a professional career, administers a miscellany of courses, doles out credits upon the completion of milestones, and in general, constitutes the linchpin that anchors the PhD trajectory. Which is all well and good, until we encounter one small snag – a smattering of its courses, some outsourced to third-party instructors and coaches, appear to peddle specious content that is unscientific and tarnish TU Delft’s reputation as a temple of knowledge.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? By virtue of being enrolled in these sessions, of course! And by corroborating my suspicions with professors and fellow PhDs who also underwent the same classes. I found them riddled (to varying degrees) with discredited research, debunked claims, regurgitated clichés, nebulous jargon, and an alarming lack of trustworthy references. I’ll name no names, but these classes were geared towards self-improvement (often involving various forms of meditation) and preoccupied with making lofty promises such as unlocking the true potential of one’s mind, being creative and inventive at will, and always ensuring favourable outcomes to endeavours in life and the PhD.

‘How exactly did such classes slip into the curriculum?’

Most colleagues I conferred with concurred with the notion that there were a handful of rotten apples in the Graduate School course catalogue. Some even went so far as to say all Graduate School classes were fuzzy, superficial, and cost time that was better spent in the pursuit of science. I also had a front-row seat when a conscience-stricken co-worker (bless her integrity!) denounced a piece of spurious content and, after a vehement exchange with the trainer, quit in a huff!

So how exactly did such classes slip past our noses and into the curriculum? Frankly, I imagine simply by hiding in plain sight. Who would ever think to market a pseudoscientific course to budding scientists at one of the world’s premier scientific institutions!? It’s ingenious!

But now that we’re apprised of the state of affairs, how do we usher in change? First of all, by refusing to take my word for it. Or the words of colleagues around us, for we may well be biased in our judgement. Second, by perusing course descriptions and syllabi prior to signing up and being mindful of what we subscribe to. Third, by conducting thorough, independent reviews (by a dedicated committee) of the content of Graduate School courses on a yearly basis to ascertain which ones may remain and which others should be retired. And fourth, by imposing more stringent requirements for any upcoming classes, including comprehensive summaries of their subject matter.

I’ll say this though – for all their shaky foundations and dubious substance, these sessions were among the easiest credits I ever made in my five years at TU Delft, and a small part of me is almost certainly going to miss them.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

Do you have a question or comment about this article?


Comments are closed.