And while the tragicomical exposure of their lack of understanding of what should be common sense make for unsightly optics, the practice of irrational behavior: superstition happens more frequently, and everywhere around us, and some of it being actively partaken by those known and close to us is far more common and dangerous.
Caking one’s smart phone with bovine excrement to impede low dose radiation is unaesthetic, besides being dangerous to one’s health. Hearing some of our citizens advocate it evokes sniggers and disdain. So do proclamations such as the recent one doubting the process of biological evolution based on the notion that nobody has witnessed the transformation of apes into humans.
However, what of having a spoon of curd before writing an exam? What of touching one’s forehead if accidentally some written matter comes under our feet? Or not crossing the road when a black cat crosses it before us? Or not handing money with our left hand?
The second set also sounds irrational but is not treated with the same contemptuous sneers as the first. How are they linked? Whereas the first is the result of the complete misunderstanding of existing scientific knowledge, the second constitutes attempts at living our lives based on irrational nonscientific ideas. These two frequently go hand in hand. For, only when humans do not feel the need to persevere and understand the world and its mysteries, do they fill such gaps with irrational pseudoconceptions. And while the tragicomical exposure of their lack of understanding of what should be common sense make for unsightly optics, the practice of irrational behavior: superstition happens more frequently, and everywhere around us, and some of it being actively partaken by those known and close to us is far more common and dangerous. However, they are not outrageous enough for opeds and primetime debates. Are the two subsets not avatars of the same problem, namely the contemptuous abandonment of logic, one when applied to specialized knowledge and other applied to day to day events.? Can every of those who share the news reports of those comical pronouncements with disparaging remarks and appropriate emoticons on social media vouch for the fact that they regularly and relentlessly question irrational and illogical acts around them?
It is especially frightening when representatives of governance reveal their way of thinking and their depth of knowledge on matters they hold forth on. But they come from among us, having been elected to represent us. If anything, they are extremely ‘evolved’ in the ability to gauge the worldview and thinking of those they represent and are accountable to.
To drive home the point that the holders of irrational beliefs are not uncommon, let me give an example. It may come as a surprise to some, but this is not the first time I have heard the opinion regarding the (lack of) human evolution. The first time it was mentioned within earshot was on an elite US east coast academic campus. The individual who did so, had an accomplished track record both as a surgeon and a cardiovascular scientist. And he was Indian. He had no issues with evolution in the context of non-human animals: humans on the other hand were ‘special’ and could not have shared ancestry with any other living form.
There have been two other instances when such opinions have been expressed between then and late last month. In both instances, these opinions came not from semiliterate, but rather well -educated people with significant contributions to society. I hope I am wrong when I fear that whereas, the current utterance on the non-evolution of man will be derided on Facebook and Twitter as well as in the corridors of academia, it might well resonate among a lot of Indians across classes, religions, ideologies and geographies. It certainly does, for a considerable proportion of Americans, who are not comfortable with the idea that they share common ancestry with other animals.
And the only reason I can conclude for this frightening scenario is our inability to advocate rationalism as an imperative social value. Such an inability fits comfily with the tendency to be flippant about scientific knowledge that has been tirelessly accumulated through decades of review and argumentation by generations of scientists spread across the globe. Adhering to superstitions and nonscientific practices, and trashing established scientific phenomena are just two sides of the same coin: the inability to be skeptical about whatever one is told, the lack of curiosity to probe deeper and the lack of courage to disagree with one social superiors. Therefore, it is important to push back and register one’s protest against such flippant utterances. It is equally necessary to also question (politely of course), the need to hang lemons and chilies outside houses. The scientific community also needs to reach out to the public with the ‘real’ deal. Could the scientific community use this incident as a jumping board to hold several public lectures on the theory of biological evolution?
Ramray Bhat is an Assistant Professor of Biology in IISc.