If we wish to make people rational and scientific, we must teach them the scientific method and let them work out the results for themselves.
My friend and colleague Dr Uday Balakrishnan frequently sends me interesting things to read, some authored by himself, and some by others. He recently sent me the link to an article from the famous Pakistani newspaper Dawn, a place that I might not have gone to on my own. The author of the article is the well-known Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics and mathematics in universities in Lahore and Islamabad. He is even better known for his activism against obscurantism and in favour of what we in India call scientific temper. Hoodbhoy shot into fame with the publication of his book Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (1991). His book won him many friends who described him as fearless and unapologetic and also many detractors who claimed that the book suffers from some very serious flaws in its view of Islam. I had the pleasure of inviting Pervez Hoodbhoy to the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science in 2005, when he gave a very fine lecture entitled Science and Reason in the Age of Unreason.
The present article in Dawn is entitled Ramanujan and Salam – what inspired them? After stating briefly the reasons for the inordinate fames of Ramanujan and Salam, Hoodbhoy deliberately dwells on the claims made by both Ramanujan and Salam about the role of divine intervention in their success. Ramanujan was more explicit as he claimed that a goddess visited him and whispered equations in his ears, while Salam acknowledged his religion and God as the source of his inspiration. Hoodbhoy’s agenda in writing his article is clearly to debunk the validity of these claims by the men themselves, as being unscientific and irrational, and replacing in the minds of his readers, his own claim that genes and a scholarly environment (read Cambridge University) as being responsible for their success. He states quite explicitly that:
“Some of their devotees see this in validating their own respective belief system. With the rise of Hindutva in India, and the violent persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, these claims assume considerable importance. Hence a careful, impartial examination is called for.”
I think that Hoodbhoy has a laudable agenda and his alternate theory may be correct after all. Nevertheless, I find his technique of inculcating the spirit of science and rationality problematic. Hoodbhoy either offers no arguments or when he does, they are so weak that any intelligent person can pick holes in them. For example, he argues against the possibility of a religious source of Ramanujan’s and Salam’s ideas because other people who belonged to other religions and believed in other Gods or in no God at all, made similar great discoveries, even identical ones. This is not a very strong argument because believers can always argue the nature’s secrets need not be the preserve of any one religion or God and indeed may also sometimes be sourced by atheists. What is much worse is that Hoodbhoy offers no evidence whatsoever for his alternate theory of genes and Cambridge. It is not easy to prove that genes are directly responsible for scientific genius. But at the very least biologists would look for similar traits in the siblings, offspring, parents, uncles, aunts and other close relatives. Hoodbhoy provides no evidence, not even anecdotal, of such genius in Ramanujan’s or Salam’s relatives. Nor does he offer any evidence for the role of Cambridge. I do not know what the role of Cambridge might have been for Salam, but in the case of Ramanujan, it is well known that his genius was manifest even before he went to Cambridge. Indeed, Hardy sat up in amazement at the few pages Ramanujan had sent him from Madras.
For me, it is less important whether Hoodbhoy’s theory is right or wrong. What is more worrisome is that Hoodbhoy wants his readers to accept his theory without any evidence. This is like saying ‘don’t believe that prophet, believe this one’. In this case it is worse because Hoodbhoy is saying ‘don’t believe Ramanujan’s and Salam’s theories about themselves but believe mine instead (without asking for any evidence). The average reader, let alone the religious minded ones, will see no merit in Hoodbhoy’s claims and even non-religious readers may feel free to choose one or the other, depending on their fancy. And science will stand to lose. Hoodbhoy correctly concludes that Ramanujan’s and Salam’s claims bout divine intervention can neither be proved nor disproved but in my opinion, he does not admit that his alternate theory has not yet been proven.
If we wish to make people rational and scientific, we must teach them the scientific method and let them work out the results for themselves. If this is difficult and slow, so be it; it is more likely to work in the long run. It will not be easy to teach the general public the scientific method and get them to work out that genes and Cambridge were responsible for the genius of Ramanujan and Salam; after all scientists themselves have not done any such thing. But it is at least possible to teach people to apply the scientific method and work out for themselves why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and why does it do so every day, why we have seasons, even why we have striking seasons in the higher latitudes and less so near the tropics, why we have eclipses … With some luck we might even succeed, if we are so inclined, to make people to work out that it may be difficult for one God to diligently mind the daily affairs of all people and apportion appropriate blessings and punishments. And if we succeed this far, we might have willy-nilly nurtured people who might indeed help us one day to use the scientific method to discover the source of Ramanujan’s and Salam’s amazing genius.
Raghavendra Gadagkar is a Professor of Evolutionary Biology and ex-President of Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.