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Science, scientific temper and pseudo-science

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Summary

The Science Congress has moved away from its agenda of inculcating and nurturing scientific temper in society. The space provided by the event has been hijacked by the proponents of pseudo-science. They pretend that modern science already existed in ancient India. This is an injustice both to ancient civilisational knowledge systems as well as to modern science.

Full Article

The motto of the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) is “to advance and promote the cause of science in India”. Since its inception in 1914, the ISCA has been organising the Science Congress. In 1947, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru provided a major boost to the ISCA by connecting it with the science-based national agenda and the Constitution’s commitment to inculcate and nurture scientific temper in society at large. In 1976, national issues that had scientific and technological implications were brought on the ISCA agenda. Later, other components, such as science communicators’ meet, science for school students and women in science, were included. The involvement of political leaders in the Science Congress was aimed at their participation in the discussions and taking a cue from the developments in the world of science to see how the nation can position itself and move forward. The showcasing of achievements of Indian scientists is also part of the ISCA agenda; lately, international participation of eminent scientists has been incorporated.

 

The Science Congress has moved away from its agenda in the past several years. Previously, in the post-Independence era, politicians came to the event to gain legitimacy from science for nation-building activities. Lately, this role has undergone an inversion. Political leaders attend it with a view to use and influence the Science Congress. They seem keen to set the agenda that they think scientists should adopt. Over the years, scientists have withdrawn from this arena. Nobel Laureate Prof Venkatraman Ramakrishnan once alluded to the Science Congress as a circus in which most prominent Indian scientists didn’t take part. There are several reasons for this withdrawal: Indian scientists think that it is not possible for them to participate in this event meaningfully as they perceive it as a state-organised show, not a serious scientific event; there is also a general apathy among scientists towards engaging with the public and they feel that their own career progression is more important. Very few Indian scientists make it a point to step out in the public arena, popularise science, disseminate scientific thinking, or try to inculcate scientific temper in different sections of society.

 

In this situation, the space provided by the Science Congress has been hijacked by the proponents of pseudo-science, which has always been making grandiose claims. Unfortunately, during the 106th edition held at Phagwara recently, this agenda unfolded during the session for school students.

 

What pseudo-science wants to do is to pretend that modern science already existed in ancient India. This is an injustice both to ancient civilisational knowledge systems as well as to modern science. History uses tools/methods to ratify the historicity of a claim. These claims should also be put to the test of scientific rationale — to verify their historicity and truth value. So far, the tall claims of test-tube babies and aircraft and missile technology made by proponents of pseudo-science at Science Congress meetings have failed this test.

 

Science is an ever-changing and evolving system of knowledge, where knowledge is generated on the basis of rational enquiry, empirical evidence and by an agreement within the community of scientists. Several concepts that were considered scientifically true earlier have now been replaced by new ones. In recent years, it has been realised by scientists that there could be a transfer of information from generation to generation which is not through DNA, which was earlier considered as the only agent for such transfers. As scientific knowledge gets updated, will we correspondingly be willing to update the holy books? This will sound blasphemous! These are just a few of the problems that emerge when attempting to mix modern scientific knowledge and the holy books. The schism between the two knowledge systems is even deeper; science is a human knowledge system created by scientists as a community, based on the scientific method, and hence this knowledge is always incomplete and perpetually in the process of getting updated. The spiritual knowledge of the holy books is supposed to have a divine origin and is hence always complete, unchanging, and final. Thus, the possibility of meshing these two knowledge systems is inherently contradictory.

Furthermore, we need to think beyond science as a means of generating technology and start thinking about science as a way of life. A scientific method equips an individual to analyse situations on the basis of scientific rationality. This aspect has been neglected by policy-makers, educationists while designing science curricula, and even by scientists themselves. There are institutions in India dedicated to promoting scientific temper and scientific thinking among the masses — the Science Congress is among the vehicles for this venture — but this task is not being pursued seriously enough.

 

The Science Congress organisers should ensure that the event is held in true scientific spirit. Efforts should be made to involve the scientific community more strongly. The country’s three science academies — the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy and the National Academy of Sciences — should have a closer involvement with the Science Congress. The government should participate as a facilitator with a view to promoting the cause of science, not to push an agenda. It should be ensured that the talks and presentations are made by people who have a clear professional standing in the field concerned. Science academies can help in this process. The history of science and the history of ancient contributions to science in India should be left to historians of science to evaluate. If these measures are taken, the Science Congress can be brought back on track and can play an important role in integrating science with Indian society.

 

Arvind is Professor of Physics at IISER Mohali.

This piece appeared originally on The Tribune and has been reposted here with permission.

ੲਿਸ ਲੇਖ ਨੂੰ ਪੰਜਾਬੀ ਵਿੱਚ ਪੜਨ ਲੲੀ ੲਿੱਥੇ ਕਲਿਕ ਕਰੋ।

Update (21-Jan-2019): Link to the Punjabi translation of the article has been added.

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