A Science Minister – and an Event – That Insults Indian Science

Harsh Vardhan and the administration to which he belongs have only displayed a lack of trust in the morality of India's scientists.

Covering politicians who constantly say stupid things while hoping that they will say a sensible thing in the future is a symptom of journalism in the age of extreme populism.

Instead of treating every madcap utterance with surprise, it is time to make peace with the fact that, when speaking of science, Union ‘science’ minister Harsh Vardhan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi simply lack the competence to speak knowledgeably. They are not going to say sensible stuff in the future. It is time to stop covering each proclamation that “the Vedas said it all” with a clarification that they did not. Everyone who has ever been willing to be persuaded otherwise has already been persuaded otherwise; the facts, as they say, are right there.

Journalism has reason to value objectivity above all else but objectivity is not ‘balance’ in some mechanical sense; it is the capacity to evaluate a bit of information such that the evaluator can eliminate cognitive and intellectual biases from the evaluation. Not surprisingly, those who would end up on the wrong end of a truly objective evaluation are the ones who demand ‘evenhandedness’ and scream the loudest about bias when a report is not empathetic. Hence the popular perception that if a story quotes someone saying A is wrong, it must also include the voices of those who think A is right.

Yet even this demand for false balance goes out the window the moment a minister comes along to publicly proclaim that people flew airplanes 3,000 years ago and grafted elephant heads onto human bodies. There is no point in collecting quotations from those who believe the minister is right when objective methods of evaluation have established that the minister is wrong. This is not journalism’s loss of objectivity because misconstrued objectivity was never journalism’s purpose.

Indeed, pretensions of objectivity would be downright unethical while reporting on a science minister’s pseudoscientific claims on a stage meant for scientists, and the audience’s quiet tolerance of his words.

Any other country with aspirations akin to India’s on the science front might have shunned a man as unhinged in his opinions of science as Harsh Vardhan, but he is protected in India by a culture that exalts, and sometimes makes excuses for, political and bureaucratic patronage. In a political culture fixated on hero worship, journalism should question his right – and those who afford him that right – to insult our intelligence and debase the endeavours of highly qualified men and women his ministry is responsible for supporting.

The man seems unstoppable – and it no longer seems fair for us to expect him to stop. At the 105th Indian Science Congress that kicked off in Imphal on Friday, Harsh Vardhan went on stage to say that Stephen Hawking had acknowledged that the Vedas might have “offered a better theory” than the mass-energy equivalence in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity (the latter probably better known as the equation E = mc2).

What Vardhan has said has no meaning. The Vedas could have offered a better theory for what exactly? E = mc2 is not a theory – it is a ‘problem’ that requires solving in contexts where the relationship between the variables as specified in the equation applies. More generally, E = mc2 is not the kind of solution Vardhan is hoping it could have been because it wasn’t exclusively developed to resolve a germane problem. On the contrary, it was developed first, based on which humans invented challenges that the equation could help surmount.

It is also funny that Vardhan’s celebration of the Vedas as an instrument with which to claim historic primacy and superiority directly contradicts the manner in which the minister sought to use a scientist from the very West that he and his parivar deride as a crutch for his nonsensical claim.

Finally, Hawking himself has never acknowledged that “the Vedas are better” (Update, March 18: a member of the Stephen Hawking Foundation’s governance panel has attested to this). The source of Vardhan’s claims has been tracked to a Facebook page run by a user whose display name is Stephen Hawking, with a note that provides no sources for its contents. Additionally, in claiming what he did, Vardhan has also insulted the memory of Hawking, a staunch atheist and rationalist wholly antithetical to the idea of mixing religion and politics.

What doing science means

Harsh Vardhan’s recklessly utilitarian conception of science – in which the only question he wants us to ask is “What good is this to me?” – has no space for science’s non-functional value.

He and his government believe that when 0.8% of the country’s GDP is being channeled into R&D, it is possible to ensure all of it is further channeled only into translational and/or technologisable outcomes by tweaking scholarship policies, tugging on higher-education infrastructure development and by announcements of intent. It is likely that the government is not stopping to think about whether science itself can work that way.

It can’t. It will stall, splutter, choke on itself and blow up – particularly in a growth-minded country like India.

If Einstein had to be wondering about relativity just so he could make the world a better place, he might not have bothered with the question in the first place. But today, the mass-energy equivalence informs everything from nuclear power to manufacturing semiconductors.

It is also important that Einstein had to be selfish, self-absorbed, even privileged to some extent. No good can come of vilifying these attributes when it is clear to everyone that, with one’s heart in the right place, enormous “value” can be created. But no, Vardhan and the administration to which he belongs have only displayed a lack of trust in the morality of India’s scientists. Instead of letting science be what each scientist wants to achieve with its rules and apparatuses, with stringent quality control, accountability and – most importantly – an equitable vision for scientific research in the country, the government has been attempting to homogenise everyone’s vision of science in the image of its own. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

This is not going to end well. The moment is already upon us when reacting from strength of insight instead of from fear of criticism – to adapt Jay Rosen’s criticism of the Times – is no longer an option. If not, we might as well all go to hell. Or whatever the Vedic equivalent of it is.