The case of the missing Indian scientist

India has failed to spread science culture not only among the public but also among the scientists themselves

India has failed to spread science culture not only among the public but also among the scientists themselves

Jits 75th year of independence is a milestone for India; an opportunity to take stock of developments in various fields over the past seven decades. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions like this journal, the print and electronic media have not really covered what has happened to science education in this country. While politicians, writers, artists, actors and other celebrities have gotten their due, science and scientists seem to have been largely ignored. The general apathy towards science and the lack of scientific temperament among the public and politicians is a poor commentary on Indian sensibilities.

The loss of a scientific temperament

Although India has made significant scientific advancements in research areas such as molecular biology, agricultural/pharmaceutical sciences and solid state chemistry, and some commendable advances in space, nuclear sciences and information technologies, it has failed to spread scientific culture not only among the public, but also among scientists themselves. Parliament has underscored our commitment to spreading the scientific spirit by including it as a duty in Section 51A of the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment. Section 51A states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temperament, humanism and the spirit of research and reform.”

But despite these efforts, the scientific temperament remained a lofty ideal and did not really permeate society. It has left much of our national psyche trapped in obscurantism and paved the way for backward politics based on religion at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed secular values. A solid foundation for modern science was built by scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, facilitated by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. So what went wrong?

Part of the problem may lie with the scientists themselves and the science academies to which they belong. Scientists half-heartedly championed scientific causes, even when situations fully demanded it. The eminent molecular biologist, Pushpa Bhargava, in an article Scientists without a scientific temperament in The Hindu on January 17, 2015, said: “… The bulk of the country’s scientists, including many in high positions, were themselves not attached to the scientific temperament that calls for rationality, reason and lack of belief in any dogma, superstition or manifest falsehood.

In 1994, Bhargava resigned from the three academies – the Indian National Academy of Sciences, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences – in protest at their lack of commitment to “science-related social issues”. . He also wrote in the 2015 article that India had not produced any Nobel laureates in science since 1930 “largely because of the lack of scientific environment in the country, of which scientific temperament is said to be a component. important”. Like sport, which requires an athletic culture, science will only flourish if a scientific temperament is generated across the country. It is the job of the science academies to contribute and inspire the country to achieve greater scientific literacy among the public. This may better justify their existence.

Pseudoscience is everywhere

Several years ago, when certain groups of Christian revivalists in the United States fought tooth and nail to introduce creationism into the science curriculum as an alternative theory to the scientific theory of the origin of the human species, the National Academy of Sciences released a statement. He concluded: “No set of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal material rather than scientific observation, interpretation and experimentation should be admissible as science in a science course. Integrating the teaching of such doctrines into a science curriculum undermines the goals of public education. Science has been very successful in explaining natural processes, which has led not only to a better understanding of the universe, but also to major improvements in technology, public health and well-being. The growing role science plays in modern life demands that science, not religion, be taught in science lessons.

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Pseudoscience is everywhere, whether denying the science of climate change or the theory of evolution that explains the secret to the diversity we see around us. India is no exception in providing fertile ground for pseudoscience to prevail. Many attempts have been made to include pseudoscience in science curricula here. Last year, an astrology course was introduced at a national open university. There is official support for the theory that cow dung has therapeutic properties despite the lack of scientific validation of this. Official circulars cite ancient texts to support the healing properties of cow urine for ailments. Would our science academies express a critical attitude in such situations? Although we took bold steps to develop a scientific vibe, we faltered after the 1960s, mainly because our leadership lacked a sense of destiny. This was compounded by the Indian intelligentsia, which was more interested in self-aggrandizement, and an unimaginative, rules-bound bureaucracy.

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The onslaught of misinformation

“Science is a way of thinking much more than a body of knowledge,” wrote Carl Sagan. Simplifying the complexities of science into a format that is better understood by the public is an art. But we also need to impress on our people the role of science as a reasoning strategy that will help people make evidence-based decisions against the current onslaught of fake news, conspiracy theories and “truths.” manufactured – the downside of the information revolution. The irrationality that produces a distorted view of the world is not a new thing, but the spread of this material is faster and reaches millions of consumers in seconds thanks to information technology. We also see how misinformation undermines human rights and many elements of democracy.

We face a whole host of cognitive biases that encourage pseudoscience. The scientists who became famous communicators in the Western world – Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Jay Gould, Carlo Rovelli, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jim Al-Khalili – and our own scientists – Yash Pal, Pushpa Bhargava and Jayant Narlikar – hammered home a single overriding idea, which is to develop a talent for critical thinking using the proven and highly successful methodologies followed in science.

How to explain this refusal of politicians and administrators to move away from their blind beliefs even though these beliefs are backed by scientifically proven facts? How to explain the refusal to see objective reality as well as the tendency to cling to one’s own beliefs even after receiving contradictory evidence? The less people know, the more they perceive themselves today as experts. This is due to a combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability. Conversely, the more people know something, the more uncertain they become and end up like the “doubting Thomas” of the Bible.

This 75th year of independence shouldn’t be just a flag waving event, marked by self-congratulatory notes and speeches about achievement or former greatness. It should be seen as an opportunity for India to critically assess its successes and failures and prepare for a promising future. Science and science literacy play a key role in realizing this future.

CP Rajendran is an assistant professor at the National Institute for Advanced Study, Bangalore. Views are personal