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A March by Scientists

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Summary

The scientists need to understand and appreciate the fact that it will take an eclectic effort to solve many of the problems in our society.

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When the mainstream media is busy covering politics, politicians, and the economy, leaving very little time for useful yet “uneventful” and little-understood topics like science and scientists, events in the last few months leading up to the “March for Science” has taken a bit of space in our collective imagination. We have read news and criticism on the “March for Science”. While the event was mainly symbolic, it has brought to the open an important topic and counter-narrative by social scientists and philosophers warranting a healthy discussion.

 

The intent behind the “March for Science” event was a genuine one. Equally legitimate were the demand to increase the budget for science and developing a society with scientific temper and science-based educational curricula. However, it’s time that we, the scientists in India, articulate good reasons, and there are plenty, what science can do for the society in bringing democracy to the forefront and why the freedom of inquiry must be preserved. This should be in line with what Vannevar Bush, an inventor and science administrator in the USA, submitted in his report, “Science, The Endless Frontier” to the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1945. While doing so, it is important to stay contemporary on the challenges and what science can do in providing solutions for the specific problems that our nation faces. For example, we need to state, and with metrics, on how increasing the investment in primary healthcare will reduce the nation’s long-term financial burden by curbing infant mortality, reduce the nation’s burden on deadly diseases like heart diseases, cancer, obesity and diabetes and how an increased investment in science will move the innovation quotient of the nation upward leading to more employment and wealth creation. Above all, we need to state why the nation must invest more in high quality basic science and cite examples from our own past on how investment in basic science had led to long-term value creation. The letter to the Primer Minister, sent as a pretext to the event, although factual and genuine, lacked all these. The good news is that we have plenty of reasons on why a knowledge-based society driven by empirical evidence from all disciplines can alleviate most problems that our nation faces today. The onus is on us, the scientists, to provide evidence and with metrics that science can indeed help India achieve her rightful place in the 21st century. Especially important is to mention how science will bring the practice of democracy to the front, will provide equal opportunity to all and aid citizens with tools to bring the miscreants to justice. While doing so, it is important to assure the nation that the practice of science will follow the highest standard of propriety and spell out the specifics on the transparent checks and balances that need to be in place to stop wrong doings and misuse of the nation’s resources. This is precisely what is missing is our current narrative. While making those promises, it is important that we take accountability seriously while making promises to the nation, remain true to ourselves and come back to the nation every 5 years on what is achieved against what we had set out to do.

 

The scientists need to understand and appreciate the fact that it will take an eclectic effort to solve many of the problems in our society. The society may become sanguine about science but the scientists realize that the pursuit of truth through empirical evidence is not restricted to natural sciences alone. Scientists need to get out of the myopic view on what constitutes the truth. Each scientist has, a personal history, religious inclinations, desire for recognition, cultural barrier and fear of failure. On most societal issues, the view of a scientist is colored as much as by evidence, observation and experimentation as it is by one’s cultural and religious beliefs and inclinations. Therefore, it is difficult to separate a scientist, the person, from the culture in which the scientist grows up and imbibes the work ethics during the period of training and the practice of the art. One may argue that a scientist does not interpret the data based on his/her religious and cultural beliefs and to a large extent it’s true. While doing so, it is important to note that there may be no clash of thoughts while formulating a specific hypothesis or designing an individual experiment, but on larger societal issues, the case is different. Take the example of “believing in god”. There is nothing, not in science, that can explain the presence of god with empirical evidence but many scientists believe in god defying solid evidence based on millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The same scientists visit temples, mosques and churches, pray and follow religious practices. Therefore, it’s not true that all scientists believe in evidence when it comes to their own personal choice and on larger issues outside of their narrow sphere of experimentation and hypotheses building. Hence, stating that all scientists follow logic and evidence on all accounts will be wrong.

 

Although there is no official survey in our country, a closer look to our society suggests that scientists are as religious and/or ritualistic as people from other works of life. In fact, a 2009 Pew survey in the USA suggested that more than half of the scientists believe in god or a higher power. This brings us to the question; does it make a religious scientist a non-scientist? No, it does not. Frankly, one’s religious and cultural beliefs should not even mater. The real question that we need to answer is whether it is possible to remain true to one’s religious and cultural beliefs and still be fiercely independent in postulating and deriving rigorous conclusions based on empirical evidence?

 

Therefore, it is time that we scientists climb down from the moral high ground and end the notion that only natural sciences practice empirical evidence-based learning. In fact, social scientists have already provided with methodology and framework to solve many of the societal problems outlined above. It will be good if our scientists broaden their horizon of the pursuit of knowledge, embrace disciplines outside of their own, including some of the suggestions provided by the social scientists, and learn to question the answers that they usually get at the end of experimentation and observation. Giving a strong message and teaming up with intellectuals and academics from all other disciplines will make a strong case on why the nation needs to support the pursuit of knowledge. This will narrow the chasm between science and other disciplines and make a strong appeal to our political class on the importance of science in nation building.

 

Binay Panda is at Ganit Labs, Bengaluru.

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