Scientific Temper and Human Survival
Here is a report that appeared on 15 January 2021.
“The situation here is dire. Every minute, 10 people test positive for Covid-19. Every eight minutes, someone dies. Ambulances circle for hours, unable to find ERs that can accept patients. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. ICU capacity is at zero. Patients lie in hallways and tents. Emergency room nurses have more patients than they can handle — sometimes six at a time.”
One would immediately hazard a guess that this news is from a local newspaper from a resource-starved region or a poor developing country.
No. This is a report from Stat News in Los Angeles, in resource-rich California in USA!
And the reason is simple. Despite some of the highest advancement in science coming from the region, the message of science in time of pandemic was not followed. No face masks, no social distancing…
In four simple words, it was complete lack of scientific temper. Lack of rational thinking. This challenge is worldwide, but let’s focus on our own nation.
Scientific Attitudes in India
India launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, becoming the first ever nation to succeed in the first attempt. Mangalyaan started orbiting Mangal, meaning Mars in Hindi, and the whole nation cheered it on. However, potential marriages still fall apart if a person’s horoscope shows ‘Mangal’!
Many would argue that India has seen a steady degeneration of scientific attitudes.
Consider ancient India.
Aksapada Gautama wrote about the ‘Nyana Sutras’ between 6th-century BCE and 2nd-century CE. The Sutras suggested that to establish something as a fact, one has to go through the following stages: Pratyaksha (Perception); Anumana (Inference); Upamana (Comparison); and Shabda or Aptavakya (Testimony). This is in line with the modern scientific method.
In fact, the text went over and above to also cover ‘tarka-vidya’ or debate and ‘vada-vidya’ or discussion. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s 2005 book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ dives deeper into the ancient Indian traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism – calling them a core part of the nation’s identity.
Vedas advocate three khands. Upasana (discipline), Aranyakas (process) and Upanishads (knowledge). This is the epitome of scientific temper.Going further, it is a well-known fact that India contributed not only philosophical knowledge, but also algebra, arithmetic, the zero numerical, the decimal system and traditional medicine.
It is no wonder then that over the last 100 years scientists, social reformers, anti-superstitionists and rationalists were revered. While we had the amazing Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Neils Bohr in the west; the contributions of Srinivas Ramanujan, C.V.Raman, and J. C. Bose were equally spectacular.
The recent Covid-19 crisis has exposed a chink in this global scientific armour. The directions issued by the respective governments in the context of the current pandemic to observe social distancing and wearing masks along with constant analysis of the disease and research regarding its vaccine is in line with scientific temper. The benefits of science and the scientific method are to be seen in the extraordinary speed with which vaccines have been developed (including in India). At the same time, vaccine hesitancy is preventing the benefits of science being denied to humanity. Strangely, this hesitancy in USA has depended on which party one belongs to. 49% of the republicans showed reluctance to get vaccinated as against 13% or less of democrats!
When we are coping with a pandemic that requires social behaviour at the individual’s level to protect the collective, these duties have become ever more important to practice. From the initial days of the pandemic to the present, there have been umpteen examples reflecting the hold of outdated tradition, superstition and irrational beliefs spread through fake news and propagated by means of the social media.
How can we claim to be a modern society if we continue to aid, abet and engage in unscientific acts? To chart out a future path, we must briefly revisit our recent past.
Scientific Temper in Independent India
The term ‘scientific temper’ was coined by Nehru in 1946. In The Discovery Of India, he writes “The scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind, all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”
And as Prime Minister, he ensured that his sentiments expressed in 1946 found an emphasis in India’s 1958 Science Policy Resolution and later on in not only building scientific research institutions but in institutionalising science-society linkages.
No Dearth of Assertions
Post Nehru, India even went even further in reasserting its faith in scientific temperament, and its importance for the country.
In 1976, Fifth Parliament by the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution inserted Article 51A(h), which said, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry”. India is perhaps unique in assigning scientific temper as a duty to its citizens.
Unlike the fundamental rights under part three of our Constitution, the fundamental duties are not enforceable through writs but are meant to be a guiding light for the growth of the nation, both at the individualistic and collective levels. The Supreme Court has emphasised the significance of fundamental duties, still being in the realms of the rules of law, also as the prescribed norm of conduct to be followed.
The Government went the extra mile and setup a nodal agency called the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC). But despite these efforts, scientific temper did not permeate through society and didn’t much alter the national psyche. Episodes like idols of Lord Ganesh ‘drinking milk’ became the order of the day.
The assertions about scientific temper continued to find a place in every science, technology and innovation policy. Most recently, there was a reassertion of this in the Scientific Social Responsibility Policy brought out by the present government in September 2019. It made a specific statement on scientific temperament in para 3.6 committing to “an approach to human and social existence that rejects dogma or assertion that contradicts empirical evidence or lacks a scientific basis, that habit surely questions everything, that privileges logic and rationality and is consistently self critical.”
Scientific Temper Vs Dogmas: The Reality
Here, the policy talks about ‘rejecting dogmas’ but dogmas don’t leave us. Scientific temper calls for a scientific attitude that sharply differs with theological and superstitious attitudes – especially against dogmas proclaimed in the name of religion. What Spanish painter and poet Francisco Jose de Goya said is especially relevant here – “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”
There is an essential incompatibility of all dogmas with science. The Lord Ganesh example, which is just one of many, shows that new India with scientific temper has to be dogma-free. That calls for a radical social transformation – in fact, it calls for nothing short of a renaissance.
What is the Essence of Scientific Temper?
Scientific temper is a way of life, in terms of both thinking and acting. It encompasses individual, societal and political level. It consistently uses the principles embodied in scientific method. It involves the application of logic. Discussion, argument and analysis are vital parts of scientific temper. Elements of fairness, equality and democracy are integrally built into it.
The spirit of enquiry and the acceptance of the right to question and be questioned are fundamental to scientific temper. But there are rules of the game. While exercising the right to question, it has to be done in accordance with the scientific method and cannot merely be a forced or forceful assertion of one’s belief.
Scientific temper can play a great role in our diverse modern society, since it is intrinsically open to all contrasting views. It has humility, being always conscious of vast areas of ignorance; yet it maintains optimism about the human ability to slowly and systematically unravel the mysteries around us. It lays emphasis on verifiability and repeatability. It considers knowledge as open-ended and ever-evolving – and never absolute.
When incorporated into society, scientific temper becomes a part of culture, a philosophy and a way of life, in which every citizen is in pursuit of truth without pre-judgement.
Scientific Temper and Escaping Old Ideas
Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman had famously said, “the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science.”
Dr. Mashelkar puts it well in an invited editorial in the prestigious journal Science. He titled it as ‘Irreverence and Indian Science’. Here is a quote from it:
“Irreverence is sadly missing from Indian science today. The ability to question the present in science to create the future science is the key to advancing scientific knowledge….Fundamentally, may be it arises from the Indian culture and tradition. The ancient saying ‘Babavakyam pramanam’ means ‘the words of the elders are the ultimate truth’. It advocates total intolerance against irreverence!”
Escaping the old ideas is as important for creating new science as it is for creating new society. The inculcation of scientific temper in our society will result in people becoming rational and objective. This will generate a climate favouring an egalitarian, democratic, secular and universal outlook.
It is said, “Hindsight is 20/20”: looking back at the last 50 years, we feel the challenges were certainly big, but we lived in somewhat simpler times. Alarmingly, challenges of the next 10 years are not only huge – consider climate change alone – but the world has become increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA).
On this issue, we do not think ‘transformation’ even begins to capture the scale and degree of reform we need! We need to spark off a renaissance. We suggest a seven point agenda to achieve it.
1.From dogma to freedom of expression
Science is able to serve humankind largely because of freedom of expression – a fundamental in any enlightened society. Science involves finding out new truths and disseminating these for the global good. Science is borderless and even more strikingly, masterless.
When in the 1600s Galileo observed that Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun, he was condemned as a heretic by the church. Hundreds of years after Galileo, how can we claim to have made any progress if we treat scientists in the 21st Century in much the same way?
Our long term goal should be to build an indigenous research culture that addresses tough problems faced by India – and free speech is essential to this. As Prof. Shyam Sunder from Yale School of Management puts it, “There is no better way of building research cultures in Asia than to develop healthy authorship, workshop, refereeing and editorial processes of the indigenous journals”.
The global science community must call upon legislators to consider – is there sufficient protection of academic open debate and contrarianism? It is not just free speech that depends on it – economic and social progress do too.
2. From Obedience to Openness
As a collectivist culture, we tend to come down rather harshly on individualist pursuits. Indian parents value unquestioning obedience and discipline over questioning and curiosity.
At home, children are often exposed to dogma, superstition, and religious bigotry – and when they go to school, they are taught the opposite from textbooks. They carry this discord between personal beliefs and professional training straight into adulthood.
At the same time, the traditional school follows the “hear and see, but don’t speak” dictum in the classroom, discouraging all discussion and any questions. This is contrary to real education, which entails not only answering questions, but also questioning the answers: indeed, a key element of scientific temper.
We strongly believe that the ‘Yes Sir’ culture that India is infamous for is as much a result of prevailing family values as it is of bureaucracy in the workplace. It is also a carry-forward of the feudalistic mind-set, a result of centuries of monarchs or colonial rulers.
Yet, this is not a zero sum game – we are certain that it IS possible to inculcate a scientific temper without losing the many positive aspects of our unique culture, family values and collective identity.
We strongly advocate encouraging our children and youth to be inquisitive, ask questions, and respectfully question authority where required.
3.From Science as a Subject to Science as a Way of Life
Science is already mandatory in school education across India. Even the school textbooks carry lessons on scientific spirit. However, we need to transition from ‘science as a subject’ to ‘science as a way of life’. This does not mean that we need a disproportionate focus on STEM. In fact, it would involve having knowledge of various concepts such as logical fallacies, which are essentially a part of philosophical studies. In short, we must redesign our curriculum and pedagogies in a way that they promote curiosity, scepticism, critical thinking and reasoning as opposed to learning by rote.
An important part of this are experiments that tickle the imagination of children when they are young. It does not require large laboratories and expensive equipment – just a little imagination, and space for it in the curriculum!
For adults, the scientific approach must become a way of life. Faced with myriad problems in daily life, as we all are, we must use the “method of science” to find solutions. A few of these will be innovations that flower into new products or practices, possibly benefiting millions. Others may merely solve the immediate issue facing an individual. In all cases, it is the scientific approach – and not ritual or dogma – that will help us to move forward.
4.From Sensationalism to Sensible Science Journalism
The responsibility of media is two-fold. The first and foremost is to monitor their content in order to discourage and limit superstition and blind belief. This is applicable not only to their main programming or content, but also to advertisements. Even though channels are regulated by the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, we see very little media accountability in action. A rational analysis from different perspectives (in other words, the method of science) of any issue, whether political or social, will contribute far more to a reasoned and interesting debate than the present dogma-based shouting matches on TV. It will also leave the viewer better informed.
The second is to engage in more science journalism. Science communicators do the critical job of bridging the gaps between scientists and policymakers, as also between scientists and the lay public It is also important to address the other side of the equation – scientists. A vast majority of them do little to build relationships with their communities, mass media or the government. Whether it is a district school or a local channel, proactive outreach from the science community makes a world of difference.
Another big challenge is fake news in social media – stories created to deliberately misinform or deceive viewers and readers. It has the potential to harm not individuals, brand identities, organisations as well as governments. A scientific temper is key to rational processing of information in order to arrive at facts, as opposed to jumping at fiction based on preconceived notions and biases.
In India, scientists (and scholars in general), independent of their distinguished achievements, rarely become known to the public unless they take on administrative responsibilities or they are recognised by an organisation abroad. India does not regard its scientists as heroes.
For more of our children to dream of becoming scientists and not only Bollywood actors, those involved in science should become ‘celebrities’. This is a combined responsibility of media and the science community. Just think of the famous ISRO Mangalyaan team photograph, and how many young children it may have inspired!
5.Civil Society: From Service Delivery to Changing Mind-sets
Civil Society Institutions (CSIs) can play an important role in helping to create and spread scientific temper across the country. We have seen a demonstration of this in the 1970s and 80s, when a whole host of organisations were active and created a big impact.
In the South, there was the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) that went around the whole state propagating science and the method of science to young and old. It played an important role in stopping the Idduki dam, which threatened to ruin the environment. In Uttrakhand, the Chipko movement – to save trees in danger of being chopped down – brought home the scientifically-based importance of forests as part of protecting the environment. In Madhya Pradesh, some young scientists worked with schools in Hoshangabad on new ways of teaching science to school children. The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) was set up as an umbrella body focussed on scientific temper. Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad continued its pioneering work in taking science (and Math) not only to school students, but to the community at large. More recently, it worked with DST to create and take science to children and adults in thousands of small towns through the “Science Express” train which halted at railway stations as a mobile exhibition.
Government too played a role. Vigyan Prasar was set up to propagate science, and a National Council for S&T Communication was created. National Council for Science Museums set up a national and regional museums, attracting hundreds of students (and others) every day. District Science Centres too were set up, to widen reach. In the 1970s, ISRO produced hundreds of TV programmes for rural school children (focussed more on the method of science, rather than science per se), and a large number of eminent scientists – especially from TIFR – were deeply involved in this effort. Doordarshan had programmes like Turning Point (again, the core was method-of-science), which were very popular. Many other institutions around the country were active, and there was a flowering of activities around science and the creation of a scientific temper.
Unfortunately, from the 1990s, we have witnessed a deceleration – possibly a decay, in many cases. It may or may not have something to do with the shift of the economic paradigm, and a change in the mind-set of both the government and the loosely-defined “middle class”.
Science communication and the much broader agenda of scientific temper needs a greater push.It is now time to quickly revive the excitement and momentum of past decades in promoting the scientific temper. Once again, CSIs can play a big role. Today, they can go beyond local activities, and vastly expand their reach by using the hyper-connectivity that technology offers. At least a few of them need to move beyond service-delivery – improving health, education or other services – to changing mind-sets.
6.From STEM to STEAM plus SHAPE
Science is universal. Newton’s laws are universally applicable. But scientific temper needs to be deeply interwoven into specific social structures that are local. And that brings in the importance of a strong coupling of science with humanities and social sciences. In the humanities and social sciences, while deep principles (e.g. enlightenment values) are portable across space and time, almost all the knowledge is local. Are we creating such strong coupling?
Take the example of one of the most advanced nations in Science, Great Britain. Hetan Shah, Chief Executive of the British Academy (give reference) recently argued that the Government has sought expert advice from the beginning of the pandemic, but that expertise tended to come from people in STEM — despite it being clear from the start that human behaviour, motivations and culture were key to an effective response. He says ‘there are more than 80 people who have sat on the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies — yet only a narrow range of social scientists, and a single person representing the humanities, are included’
He argues that science gave us vaccines, but SHAPE (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy) disciplines help us get to social realities, such as vaccine hesitancy. Humanity’s insight is more robust when STEM and SHAPE come together.
So at a policy level, involvement of sociologists, greater emphasis in social-data insights with the involvement of think -tanks and civil-society organisations, review of the social impact by using SHAPE disciplines becomes an imperative.
The results are visible. In September 2020, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser asked the British Academy, to draw on SHAPE disciplines to review the pandemic’s social impacts.
7.Exclusive to Inclusive Science
In Indian science, inequitable participation with respect to gender and social diversity is clear to see. How can we achieve accelerated scientific growth if we leave one-half of our population – and then some – behind? It is heartening to see that the draft National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020) released recently by Department of Science and Technology of Government of India contains provisions to foster a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable research ecosystem in the country. It is good for the scientists, it is good for science and it is good for India.
‘Inclusive Science’ also takes on an additional meaning: science that is aimed at including the excluded. Science that solves not only the problems that CAN be solved, but also those that urgently NEED to be solved. Science that lifts not just livelihoods, but also the spirits of 1.3 billion Indians!
The possibilities of inclusion will move infinitely in the hyperconnected world. Connectivity, content and context will have to go together to take the full benefits of the hyperconnected world.
Connectivity enables people-to-people, machine-to-people and machine-to-machine exchange of voice, text, data, files, pictures and videos.
Content, created in multiple formats and in multiple languages and especially designed to meet local needs can bring transformative change.
Context that offers personalisation with informal space for personal interaction can bring empowerment of people without hierarchical structures.
But we have a challenge of creating a perfect hyperconnected world. We have seen how 1.6 billion children, who were thrown out of school due to the pandemic, had to resort to online learning, but one third of them suffered from digital deprivation, and had no access to education. So access to digital infrastructure has to be made an essential public service, and even more, it has to become a basic human right.
Finally, we come back to the fundamentals. Social justice, wide spread education and unrestricted communication are absolute prerequisites for spread of scientific temper and for optimising the impact of science and technology.
We have proposed seven tenets to bring in the Renaissance, which will lead to radical yet sustainable transformation a society with a scientific temperament.
3 Department of Justice – Text of Article 51-A
4 Irreverence and Indian Science; R. A. Mashelkar – Science 30 Apr 2010: Vol. 328, Issue 5978
5 Sunder, Shyam. “Building Research Culture” China Journal of Accounting Research Vol. 1 Issue 1. (June 2008) Text (PDF). Chinese Translation (PDF)