What the Erosion of Scientific Temper Portends for India

The recent advent of right-wing leaders in functional democracies across the globe has seen the political class attack science and scientists with impunity.

The erosion of scientific temper is the hallmark of a society drifting into obscurantism. Those who babble without evidence against the established principles of scientific theory are the worst enemies of science – not because their words carry the power to damage or dent the principles they question but because they sow the seeds of doubt in minds unaware of science as a way of life.

The recent onslaught on scientific knowledge by the political class of our country is a matter of grave worry. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi glorifying ‘plastic surgery’ in ancient India to Harsh Vardhan, science and technology minister, claiming Stephen Hawking had recognised the superiority of the Vedas over the famous E = mc2 equation, there has been a blitz of statements on virtually every aspect of scientific research.

The audacity of the carelessness on display in their utterances is phenomenal. It has meandered from implanting the head of Lord Ganesh to the exhalation of oxygen by cows to the chastity of the peacocks. So much so that the political class has even bludgeoned Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution without any hesitation.

A refusal to accept scientific norms is not wrong. Being a rational animal, a human is bound to ask questions. But for rationality to prevail, it must also be respected. Every scientific theory undergoes scrutiny and inquiry but not in the language of faith, religion or cultural dogma. Science can only be questioned by evidence that is tangible, reproducible and can itself stand survive the almost-constant onslaught of new data. It is this immutability that makes faith helpless in arguments against science.

Having said this, it is not unknown in scientific circles to accept or refute an established theory but it is important that all new theories keep themselves open to further scrutiny. This cycle of scrutiny and re-scrutiny in science allows it to grow beyond the demesnes of its understanding, allowing a scientific temper to percolate through the layers of society. The critics of Darwin’s theory never questioned his intellectual arguments based on their grandparents not having seen apes transform into humans, as HRD minister Satyapal Singh recently said. Instead, they based their arguments on the work of other scientists, such as the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Unlike faith, which relies on the unseen and the unfelt, science questions not only what it can see but also what it can’t.

The current onslaught by the political class against science in our country is dangerous because it is putting faith and religion in direct conflict with science. In a country like India, where a large chunk of the populace is ignorant yet deeply religious, this conflict between opinion and fact can evolve quite dangerously.

The commonest excuse given for propagating falsehood is religious traditions. We are told that we are a nation of traditions, and rightly so. But being traditional is by no means the same as being unscientific. The world’s more scientific nations – such as China, Japan and South Korea – are also home to rich traditions. In fact, incongruous traditions can be tweaked by a scientific temper. When science prevails in a society, the social only order stands to be strengthened. It is notable that in the West, science has a better chance of prevailing in its conflict against the Church on matters such as anti-abortion laws. Whether such a victory would be possible in India is questionable.

The recent advent of right-wing leaders in functional democracies across the globe has seen the political class attack science and scientists with impunity. It is a known fact that science does not go with rightist thought. Science and its spine of evidence both stand erect in the storm of irrational ideas.

Across the globe, and going back in history,  the right-wing has always been threatened by science. We all know what Hitler did to science when he was in power. His scientists, including Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, relentlessly attacked Einstein on absurd grounds, using poor evidence to disgrace their stature as persons of reason.

US president Donald Trump’s rejection of climate change is another example of the right breaking from science for political gain. It appears that hostility towards science is the essential step in establishing an anti-democratic order, where hard evidence gives way to fairytales and mythologies.

To expect that our political class will change for the better is to ask for the Moon. The least that politicians can do is refrain from commenting on matters of science. If I may, they should leave science for minnows like us. They should remember what the first prime minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru, said: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”

Shah Alam Khan is at the department of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are personal.