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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Science, Society & Pseudoscience

Science, as we all perceive, is a body of knowledge that tries to understand the physical reality around us. It attempts to unravel the laws of nature and their relationships. It is an organized systematic formulated knowledge based on observation, experimentation and induction. It “teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought”, said Feynman.

Indian science and scientists are fortunate to have had Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as their first Prime Minister, for it is he who made us aware of the importance of science saying: “It is science and science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste of a rich country inhabited by starving people. … I would like to build India on a scientific foundation to develop her industries; to change the feudal character of her land system and bring her agriculture in line with modern methods…”

And that was what he exactly did: under the strong equation of political and scientific leadership of Nehru and Bhatnagar, India had witnessed establishment of a chain of national laboratories under the umbrella of CSIR. Thus, the decade of 1950-60 saw rapid growth and development of several research, educational, technical, engineering and management institutions and universities.

To be fair to history of Indian science, it must indeed be said that the first initiative to advance and promote the cause of science in India was taken by two British chemists, namely, Prof. JL Simonsen and Prof. PS MacMohan, who established Indian Science Congress to conduct annual meeting of research workers on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the first such meeting was held from January 15-17, 1914 at the Asiatic Society, Calcutta with Honorable Justice Sir Asutosh Mukherjee, the then Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University, as President.

During its existence for over a century now, stalwarts such as CV Raman (1929), SN Bose (1944), KS Krishna (1949), Mahalanobis (1950), HJ Bhabha (1961), etc. had presided over these annual events contributing their might to stimulate and promote growth of  scientific research in the country that can ultimately improve the lot of common man.

However, in the past few years, Indian Science Congress sessions have sadly been mired in controversy: with everything in it, except possibly science, they became an event of pseudoism which was dubbed by the Indian-born Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan as “circus where very little science was discussed.”

In the recently concluded 106th session of the Indian Congress at Jalandhar, addressing Children Science Congress, Dr Rao, Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University, said: “Hundred fertilized eggs were put in 100 earthen pots. Is it not test-tube babies...? Stem cell research was done in this country thousands of years ago. Thousands of years ago, we had this technology, we had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem-cell technology.”  In the same vein he is reported to have said, that “Dasavatara is better than Darwin’s theory because it also plans for what comes after the humans.”

The organizers of the Congress had, of course, distanced themselves from the said presentation. Prof. Vijay Raghavan, scientific adviser to the government, has described the event as “unfortunate” that a sitting Vice-Chancellor, that too a biologist to boot, saying something that is “scientifically completely untenable.”

Incidentally, this kind of irrational behavior of scientists is perhaps not all that a recent phenomenon, at least that is what one tempts to infer recalling what Dr. Nayudamma, late Director General Of CSIR, once said: “It is not a rare phenomenon even among scientists to be rational only in the laboratory and be extremely irrational outside the laboratory or in dealing with social phenomenon.”

Now the question is: What drives even scientists to make such irrational statements? Is it a mere demagoguery or, an act to curry political favour? Or, is it the colonial hang-up and the resultant feeling of cerebral inferiority that made scientists to make such irrational statements?  These questions are perhaps best answered by what Inkeles and Smith (1974) said: “men are not born modern”. Basically, it is by discarding tradition and superstition, one becomes ‘rational’ and ‘modern’. Individually, modernity rejects “traditional” passive acceptance of fate, fear of innovation, dependence on traditional authority and received wisdom of elders, religious and other customary leaders; rigid hierarchical relations, etc., and includes valuing education and technical skills, aspiring to advance oneself economically, stressing individual responsibility and being open to new experience, etc.

Encouragingly, that is what Prof. Raghavan did when he commented thus or to some such effect: when lay people including politicians make random untenable statements linking religion, culture, the past, etc. to science in an erroneous manner, scientific community must rise to the occasion to nip it off in the budding stage itself by addressing it through collegial communication. But when scientists make such links, they should be addressed more squarely, as otherwise there is a danger of such opinions creeping into policy framework.

Here it is also worth remembering what Brajendranath Seal (1915) said: “the sages of [India’s] antiquity may have had ideas compatible with the atomic theory of matter, they had depended upon a ‘felicitous intuition [resulting from] intense meditation and guided by intelligent observation’. This was a step removed from the modern scientific method which relied on sophisticated experiments.” 

It also makes great sense to recall here what Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate  in Physics had once advised the teaching community: “Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the [human] race-- now that it is aware of the disease to which it is liable--does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.”

To conclude, it must be said that "the test of all knowledge is experiment". And "experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth", said Feynman. That being the reality, the nation must guard itself from such pseudoism which the 
Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University had  exhibited, for it can subvert the very scaffolding that the founding fathers of Indian Science Congress had arduously built to stimulate growth of scientific thought in the country. And, if our scientists hesitate to question such pseudoscience presentations, such ill-founded theories freely aired that too, from the science forums they would only be endangering the nation and its citizens from progress and prosperity through science and technology.


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