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Bludgeoning scientific temper

Azim Premji said “actions must be based on good science”. But it is astrology, Vedic maths, cow urine therapy and havan impact studies that have entered academia, leading to truth becoming a casualty in the war against Covid-19.

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By Dunu Roy

In May of 2021, there were two speakers at one of the nationally aired lectures organised by the Covid Response Team. Both the speakers and the event illustrate the deep fissures in the dark and fearful valley through which the nation is passing.

First, there was industrialist and philanthropist Azim Premji who said “actions must be based on good science”. He was followed by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar who urged people to “remember God in this hour of crisis”. Second, the event was organised by an institution linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh whose goal is to build a Hindu rashtra which is as violently committed to Brahminic Hindu superiority as it is opposed to the mlechha non-Hindu.

In this context, Premji’s appeal to accept and confront the “positive” truth stands in stark contrast to Ravi­shankar’s advice to avoid “negative” information. But the implicit opposition between science and god in these couple of lectures is even more critical when we remember that they were speaking on the issue of how to respond to a raging virus pandemic. Which leaves hanging the question of whether the listener should mask up, wash hands, maintain “social” distance and vaccinate or beat thalis, clap taalis, and light diyas? It also leaves hanging the question of what is “good” science.

These issues are not new; they go back more than a century. The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, founded in 1876, was devoted to “the pursuit of fundamental research” in basic sciences in colonial India. This was followed by the founding of the Indian Science Congress Association in 1914 “to advance and promote the cause of science”. Jawaharlal Nehru coined the phrase “scientific temper” in 1946 as an attitude of logical and rational thinking that steered clear of “speculation unconnected with the day-to-day problems of life”.

Subsequently, the government of independent India announced its Scientific Policy Resolution in 1958. It is topical to recall that it was through this resolution that the Plague Research Laboratory (for vaccines) was geared towards “promoting the development of science and technology in the country to assist the process of economic development”.

In 1963, the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper was formed by scientists Pushpa Bhargava, Satish Dhawan, and Abdur Rahman, and others were asked to sign a declaration that “knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation”. However, scientist after scientist across the country refused to sign the declaration, and the Society died a natural death. Yet, by the 1970s, several voluntary initiatives had emerged, such as Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, Bangalore Science Forum, Paschim Banga Vigyan Manch, Jana Vignana Vedika, Tamil Nadu Science Forum, Assam Science Society and Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti. Many of these later merged into the All India People’s Science Network “to popularise science and scientific outlook among common people”.

In 1980, a Statement on Scientific Temper was issued by a gathering of eminent academics at Coonoor under the aegis of the Nehru Centre, Bombay, deploring the “growth of tendencies to escape into magical beliefs and instant solutions” and emphasising “the application of science and technology for our national reconstruction”. At the same time, the government’s 1983 Technology Policy Statement highlighted the need “to safeguard our independence and our unity” and also opened the doors to technology acquisition and transfer from the West.

India’s then minister for science and technology stated that “a prerequisite to understanding India’s changing innovation system was an understanding of America’s changing investment needs, as the two went hand in hand”. The latest Science Technology and Innovation Policy of 2021 carried this trend further to “make the Indian STI ecosystem globally competitive”.

Thus, from the idea of science as rational thought to science as an instrument of national growth, its popularisation among the masses and then to its linkage with the global market: the concept and understanding of science and its purpose has changed over time in pace with the surrounding socio-political environment.

But the crucial point to note is that neither have superstitious and fundamentalist beliefs changed nor have socio-economic inequalities reduced (indeed, if anything, they have deepened) over the 150 years that science has been taught in Indian schools and colleges. In fact, over the last couple of decades, astrology, Vedic mathematics, cow urine therapy, havan impact studies and much of what would have been called mumbo-jumbo in an earlier era have been given honourable entry into the halls of academia.

An attempt was made in 2011 to address this dichotomy when there was an assemblage of science activists in Palampur which declared that “there has been a marked increase in public display of religious and sectarian identities, ascendance of irrational cults, glorification of obscurantist practices, religiosity and wielding of religious symbols”, while “the neo-liberal regimes of many countries (including India) have changed this social contract of science in favour of markets and corporate entities”.

Without analysing how and why these changes had taken place in spite of six generations of science education, the participants reiterated “that scientific temper should be strengthened and diffused widely in our society” by incorporating it “into the school curriculum at all stages”. Similarly, Premji’s current appeal to “confront this (Covid-19) crisis, its scale, its spread and its depth truthfully” does not explain why truth has become a casualty in the “war” against the virus.

Surely then, these are unscientific approaches as they do not follow the rational method of enquiry into a problem: that identifies the problem; examines its characteristics; establishes a causal relationship and then proposes a solution that addresses the cause. What, then, is the cause of the inability of the various organisations to spread scientific temper in the scientists of the country, leave alone the populace at large?

Perhaps the founding premise in the 1980 Coonoor Statement—“The inculcation of Scientific Temper in our society would result in our people be­coming rational and objective, thereby generating a climate favouring an egalitarian, democratic, secular and unversalist outlook”—should be examined more closely. Either the premise has not been implemented properly, or else it is wrong.

If after 70 years of science teaching in the schools of an independent country a scientific temper has not been inculcated in even those who have been educated in those schools, then one could argue that science has not been properly taught there. But was non-science being taught in them? Otherwise what would explain the ascendance of irrationality that was bemoaned by the 2011 Palampur Declaration? What about the popularisation of science among the masses that was attempted by the “people’s science” activists? Did that also engage in anti-science teaching? What explains the glorification of obscurantist practices? Perhaps the problem lies elsewhere; in the understanding of “science” itself.

The touchstone of rationality is the ability to ask questions, to be curious and inquisitive, to expand the realm of knowledge. One may posit that our schools do not encourage this curiosity. However, even if the student is curious, the nature of the question asked will quite often determine the nature of the answer. For example, in the case of climate change, if the question asked in schools is, “What can I do?”, then the answer that is quite often offered by environmentalists of many hues is, “Each one, Plant one”—especially on ceremonial days like June 5. Science, though, tells us that every sapling planted by a young child may absorb one tonne of carbon dioxide over a lifetime of 100 years, but the same school-going child may be emitting more than one tonne of carbon dioxide every year! Thus planting a tree may feel good, but is it good science?

On the other hand, if the question posed is, “What causes climate change?” then the same schoolchild may be prompted and even encouraged to delve deeper into the lifestyle patterns of different countries to realise that the carbon footprint of an average citizen of a developed nation (US) may be more than 15 times that of a developing nation (Sri Lanka). This would then call into question whether being “developed” is at all desirable? Could those who are termed “developing” reject that identity if they can, within the resources available to them, provide food, clothing, shelter, work and leisure for every citizen? The child may further realise that development itself is inextricably linked to a pernicious idea of growth as embodied in GDP—the more you produce, the more you consume, the more developed you are, the more climate-unfriendly you become.

The phenomenal 40-fold growth in telephone connections in China is often compared to the mere five-fold growth in India. An inquisitive person might ask: “How can India replicate China’s success?” and go on to propose the development of cheaper technologies linked to efficient “private” initiatives such as Jio and Xiaomi. However, a thinking person would ask: “Why did China succeed where India failed?” and come to the conclusion that it was China’s dominatingly “public” Communist regime that paved the way for wide access to telephony.

Similarly, one kind of analyst would suggest food-for-work programmes as an answer to “How can India’s huge food stocks help the starving population?”, while another analyst could challenge the food acquisition policy itself when asking: “Why does India have such large food stocks when the population is starving?”

Thus, enquiry is not neutral. The scientific method depends on the kind of question asked and what is the logic adopted for finding the answer. The method of popularisation used by most proponents of scientific temper subsumes two fundamental beliefs: the first is that the proponent knows what science is; the second is that the people are irrational and hence have to be tempered—or, more pertinently, tampered. Both beliefs are a priori illogical. The example of the truly honourable judge of the Madras High Court who admitted that he did not know about same-sex relationships and therefore, took recourse to counselling before deciding on a hearing of a lesbian couple’s plea for security, stands out as a sterling model of the spirit of enquiry.

Read Also: Jammu and Kashmir High Court grants bail to man accused of promoting enmity

The reason many other judges do not follow the same spirit is not that they did not study science in school, but that they have been deliberately “schooled” for years by fundamentalist forces whose political objective is to keep people in a perpetual state of blindness, deafness and dumbness. Those who wish, therefore, to discover what good science is have to not only abandon the idea that the people are irrational, but also realise that they have to politically combat and defeat an enemy who is far more pervasive and persistent in its project of irrationality than the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

—The writer is an ecologist, engineer and founder of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre

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