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Towards an Index of Scientific Temper

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What is Scientific Temper? What does it mean to have scientific temper? How do you know whether a citizen of India has it or not? How do you observe/measure scientific temper?

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As per the Indian constitution, Indian citizens have eleven duties. And one of them is to develop “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform“¹

What indeed are scientific temper, spirit of inquiry and reform?

From Nehru onwards, many politicians, bureaucrats, science activists, science communicators, academicians including scientists, have written about scientific temper. And there have been conferences and declarations on scientific temper2-5. But I could not see any clear and commonly accepted definitions of the terms. So I raised these questions in several workshops on science writing for scientists, and researchers over the last three years.

What is Scientific Temper? What does it mean to have scientific temper? How do you know whether a citizen of India has it or not? How do you observe/measure scientific temper?

As scientists, we need well defined, measurable, quantifiable concepts to create a common understanding of phenomena.  However, there has been no attempt to define, measure, or quantify the concept of scientific temper, a term mostly used only by Indians. Hence most of the literature available has no practical consequence.

Obviously, when the makers of the Constitution wrote those lines, they had not thought about these issues. But then, later in history, we do find that people have created indices of abstract notions such as Human Development and Happiness. So is it not feasible and desirable to have definitions and measures for “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” in place? Shouldn’t Indian scientists take a lead in this matter?

To initiate this dialogue let me summarise the answers that I have managed to harvest so far by raising these questions on various platforms.

First, we must reformulate the question: are there observable, behavioural, if possible, measurable, characteristics that can be used as indices of I. scientific temper, II. spirit of scientific inquiry III.  Humanism and IV. reform?

These are the answers I have got so far to this question:

 

I. Scientific Temper

  1. A person with scientific temper has curiosity.  He or she feels that natural phenomena can be understood or is understandable. That the person has curiosity is detected by the questions that are asked by the person. This is a measurable parameter.
  2. The person is an active seeker for the answers to the questions that arise in his or her mind. This is detectable by the behaviour of going to others who might know the answer – others who may be dead and gone but have left books or may be far away, but have written on websites. Again, an observable / measurable parameter.
  3. Skepticism and critical thinking form the core of scientific spirit. The person does not accept the answers received as true. So he or she questions the answers. Again, observable behaviour.

Questioning a phenomenon as in 1 above and questioning an answer as in 3, are entirely different capabilities. The ability to detect logical contradictions within different parts of the answer (or with other accepted answers) is the underlying factor, not curiosity. This can indeed be detected in people, but I am not very sure of how it can be measured. If you can help, we can crack the problem of making an index for scientific temper.

Now the other terms in the Constitution:

 

II. Spirit of Scientific Inquiry

The factors that can help measure “spirit of inquiry” are perhaps connected to the factors mentioned under the notion of scientific temper. The notion of spirit of inquiry is an extension of curiosity and can be detected in some people as an experimental attitude.

We want to know what will happen, if…

The tendency to check whether one is on the right track empirically is detectable in behaviour. It is an extension of the second factor of scientific temper – active seeking – except that it is not oriented to people, dead or living or to existing knowledge. The person is actively engaged in prodding phenomena, constructing knowledge, using different modes of inquiry.

It is also the foundation of the third factor of scientific temper: the recognition that human knowledge is fallible. But the spirit of inquiry is a conviction that if one moves systematically, the problem of human fallibility can be rectified.

Now, the problem is – though the spirit of inquiry is, at times, detectable in people – we don’t have a measurable parameter… Is it possible to convert the notion of spirit of inquiry into some quantifiable parameter(s)?

 

III. Humanism

The word “humanism” in the Constitution appears to be a contradiction in terms. Because the concept asks us to go beyond ethnicities, language, religions, and even nationhood to accept other human beings and their welfare as goal for our actions. So India, as a nation, is asking its citizens to keep aside nationalism.

The concept of humanism is too abstract. It is perhaps difficult to see the positive side of humanism being expressed. Concepts such as compassion, altruism and philanthropy need not be oriented to humanism directly, and thus do not seem to be good candidates to serve as proxy measurements for humanism. We may, however, consider the opposite, inhumanity. Discrimination against a set of people – expressed through speech or deed – is easily detected in behaviour. Perhaps, with some tweaking, the concept of inhumanity may become a candidate for a quantifiable factor to measure humanism.

Somehow, I feel an aversion to doing this. It would be better to create a measure of the positive aspects of humanism rather than measuring its lack, absence or the negative aspect.

 

IV Spirit of Reform

Spirit of reform makes us accept the responsibility of taking efforts to change the world as we think best – if possible, after considering all the above: only after applying scientific temper and spirit of inquiry to a problem and after considering the impact of the reform on humans in general, should we attempt reform. The history of mankind is full of stories of reforms that have had disastrous consequences on populations. Thus, it is, perhaps, the wisdom of the writers of the Constitution that prompted clubbing all these four terms into one single phrase.

The question now is – how can we detect it in people? Is there any observable parameter that can be used, even as a proxy?

Changing the world so as to make it comfortable for oneself is a quality that humans share with other animals. So, of course, such efforts taken by individuals do not count as part of spirit of reform. Reform pertains to human society, not to other natural phenomena.

Masquerading in Einstein masks, walking for science or throwing buckets of ice on oneself can also not be taken as an indicator, since these are tokenisms, not actions taken with adequate backing of scientific temper, spirit of inquiry and humanism.

I am not yet happy with the answers that I have so far.

And there are unanswered questions. Can you help?

What are the indices for scientific temper, humanism, spirit of inquiry and reform?

 

References

  1. Part IV A Fundamental Duties 51A (h) http://lawmin.nic.in/olwing/coi/coi-english/Const.Pock%202Pg.Rom8Fsss(8).pdf retrieved on 18th October 2017
  2. Bhargava P M and Chakrabarti C, Angels, Devil and Science: A Collection of Articles on Scientific Temper, National Book Trust, New Delhi, (2010)
  3. Scientific Temper Statement Revisited-2011 The Palampur Declaration, http://www.caluniv.ac.in/global-mdia-journal/DCMNT-JUNE%202013/2.%20DOCUMENTS-JUNE%202013.pdf, accessed November 2017
  4. Mahanti, Subodh; A Perspective on Scientific Temper in India, J. Scientific Temper, 1 (1): 46-62 (2013)
  5. Panchapakesan, Natarajan; Scientific temper and education: a framework for discussion, Current Science 113(9): 1655-1656 (2017)

4 comments

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1

@ Shadab
That is an interesting distinction that you make Shadab, However, the ability to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific resources itself demands a fairly high degree of scientific skill. Therefore,, I am not sure if scientific skill and scientific temper are entirely independent of each other.

2

No, they are not and this is something I tried conveying that at the end of the day the scientific temper is a skill and will require work, But at the same time the skill to figure out the reliability of references and the skill to figure out actual contradiction will require a very different level of training. I think the former should only be the part of the desired scientific temper which masses should posses.

3

I agree. It requires a much higher level of skill to figure out what is a credible reference / argument and what is not, particularly in a technical context. However, the rudiments of that skill is all that is needed to, for example, ask can Donald Trump really build a wall on the Mexico border? It is that rudiment that one is perhaps wishing for, and that is surely not a very tall ask (at least theoretically!!).

4

Scientific temper: The ability to detect logical contradictions within different parts of the answer (or with other accepted answers) is the underlying factor, not curiosity.

 
The above definition seems more like the technical/scientific skill rather than scientific temper constitution might want the citizens to have. The ability to detect logical contradictions will highly depend on the questions/field/experience. So, If this is indeed the main definition then it must also come with the nature of questions one should be judged on to have scientific temper. I personally feel this is more of a definition of scientific skill/capability.
 
Science is all about the processes, the logical steps and systematic tests while actively seeking logically coherent explanations/answers. The word temper as verb could either mean to improve the elasticity of something or to neutralize something. Keeping the two idea together I think merely people seeking answers based on scientific process and over riding their non-scientific believes over something coming as a result of scientific process is the scientific temper. Simply the ability to change non-scientific believes and biases in presence of scientific evidence conveyed by experts should be the core value of scientific temper and ability to judge a scientific and non-scientific resources is the core skill for scientific temper.
 
Now that I have stated the value and skill needed for scientific temper one can design survey to address each one of them.  Testing the fluidity of someone's brains regarding previous belief in presence of scientific evidence is not a easy task. But I guess some preliminary questions can be designed to test the extent of this core value for scientific temper. I believe even many experienced scientist will score low on this core value.
 
To test the skill for scientific temper: For example one can show various news pieces and ask the person to judge whether the content of the piece claimed as scientific is genuinely scientific or not.  As with any skill this needs to be developed and one can look for simple things like citation and whether those citations are trust worthy or not. Note that one shouldn't try to judge whether a technical flaw is detected successfully or not but rather the person is aware of what is a reasonable scientific citation in general.

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