July 19, 2018
Governance & Politics
Scientific Temper and Political Discourse
By Nitin Desai
Thousands of scientists, academics and students staged a March for Science in August 2017 and April 2018 all over India. Inspired by a global movement, these marches were also a protest against the growing evidence of a lack of respect for science in the political discourse in recent years. This year’s March for Science took place on 14 April, which is the Ambedkar Jayanti. This is truly appropriate as the restoration of a scientific temper will help to counter the false beliefs that underlie oppression and violence in society.
The examples of false beliefs voiced from the pulpits of politics are many. We aim for a digital revolution; yet one leader believes that: "Internet and satellite communication had existed in the days of Mahabharata. How else could Sanjaya give a detailed account and description to the blind king about the battle of Kurukshetra? It means internet was there, the satellites and that technology was there in this country at that time.”
We badly need medical research; but some ruling politicians are convinced that: “Cow dung and urine can cure cancer”, “Cows exhale oxygen” , “Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time”, “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery”.
We have an ambitious nuclear programme and a political leader informs us: “Maharshi Kanad had conducted a nuclear test during his time” (referring to a sage who may have lived more than two thousand years ago who actually believed that atoms cannot be destroyed). As for basic science some leaders would have us believe: “Darwin’s theory is wrong. Nobody…ever saw an ape turn into a human being” and “Astrology is the biggest science. It is, in fact, above science.”.
It does not stop at a stray remark here and there. The memorandum that the scientists sent to the Prime Minister alleges that “untested and unscientific ideas are being introduced into the school textbooks and curricula.” One such example from a school textbook says: “Indian rishis using their yoga vidya would attain divya drishti. There is no doubt the invention of television goes back to this”.
Even scientific meetings are being distorted, one egregious event being the paper presented at the Indian Science Congress in 2015 that argued that Vedic sages knew more about aeronautics that modern scientists and made planes, used even for inter-planetary travel, that “were huge in size, and could move left, right, as well as backward, unlike modern planes which only fly forward”.
The pride in our past is not the problem. There is much that is admirable in the scientific achievements of the mathematicians, astronomers and medical scientists of ancient India like Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara, Sushruta and Charaka. For them truth was universal and science was international. The extensive contacts with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece in ancient times and Arab scholars in medieval times enriched both us and them.
But the political discourse today does not refer to these proven achievements and prefers the wild claims that are possible when myth, metaphor and fact are confused. It reflects a privileging of scriptures over evidence-based history. As the appeal made by many scientists in August 2017 said: “While we can justly be inspired by the great achievements in science and technology in ancient India, we see that non-scientific ideas lacking in evidence are being propagated as science by persons in high positions, fuelling a confrontational chauvinism in lieu of true patriotism that we cherish.”
This vulgarisation of our past is not just an affront to the idea of science but an attack on our history. Worse still, it legitimises the prejudices of lynch mobs and assassins. It also vulgarises the scriptures and our rich inheritance of metaphysical speculations on the nature of reality. Ancient and mediaeval Indian society was very tolerant about philosophical, religious and ritual diversity. This included a strong and persistent materialist tradition called Charvaka or Lokayata, because it was widespread in the populace ('ayatah lokesu'). The exposition of this philosophy in Sarva Darshana Sangraha, written by Madhavacharya, the 14tn century seer of the Sringeri Math, brings out clearly how close it is to the rationalist and empirical approach of modern science including the subtle nuance of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory that science cannot tell us what nature is but only what we can validly say about nature.
The frontiers of knowledge lie in the realm of the unknown and the future and not in the known or the past. We want to be there, at the frontier, with the pioneers. But for our quest to be credible, politicians should stop mouthing scientific nonsense. More substantially, we must recognise that:
- A knowledge society should have a scientific temper and a rationalist ethos, with a belief in science and systematic evidence as a basis for belief. Superstition and quackery may well exist but would be considered a form of deviant behaviour by most people.
- A knowledge society should encourage free inquiry and be tolerant of dissent since its world view must be essentially sceptical with no rigid views about eternal truths. It must be particularly tolerant of intellectual mavericks who, even if they are wrong, help to hone and sharpen the edges of knowledge.
- A knowledge society must be guided by a profound curiosity about the world. Tolerance must rest not just on the belief that truth may lie elsewhere than in the space one occupies, but in a deep curiosity to explore unknown realms of thought and belief.
- A knowledge society must be venturesome ready to stake time and resources to chase what appear to be wild ideas.
- A knowledge society must believe in sharing knowledge with others on the same path.
Such a restoration of scientific temper in society is essential for the future we want and for countering the social violence that has become so widespread.