The Sciences

Does the Indian Science Congress Acknowledge the Need to Be Reflexive?

Barring some remarkable exceptions, scientists tend to confine themselves to their labs and seldom speak out about the relationship between science and society. This is not freedom from politics but just another kind of politics.

As delegates in the Indian Science Congress share their discoveries, inventions and ideas, let’s begin on a positive note: science is potentially liberating. With its spirit of critical enquiry and constant experimentation (or ‘conjectures and refutations’, as Karl Popper would have it), science lays the foundation of an open society.

No wonder then that it’s not merely for professional scientists working in the physical and life-sciences. It also activates methodological debates in the social sciences. As Jawaharlal Nehru and others have said, it is to be experienced as a state of mind – a way of doing things, relating to people and looking at the world.

However, the narrative of science is not always smooth and straight. Even though modernists guided by the Enlightenment dream of a rational society see it as some sort of ‘foundational truth’ expanding the realms of certainty and predictability, science can’t free itself from the political economy of knowledge production.

Modern nation-states pampered it for legitimising stories of ‘development’ and fuelling militaristic power. The market needed it for mass production and to sustain the demand for boundless gadgets as the leisure class develops in late capitalism. The age of surveillance requires it more urgently for its disciplinary devices. Research priorities in science are not free from this politics.

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In other words – and as critical theorists have argued – the spectacle of technology in the popular imagination became more important than the wonder of science. As a result, science got closer to the establishment and its principle of domination. One could be technologically enriched now and still socially conservative. Examples include a promoter of cow vigilantism spreading all sorts of toxic messages through his smartphone or a defence expert pleading for nuclear bombs as a token of nationalist pride.

This is why even people like us – scientists not of the natural sciences – should take part in the debate and reflect on the practice of science. This is more so in our society, where the ruling party negates even the slightest trace of critical thinking in the name of faith. Is it possible to practice science and remain indifferent to all that’s happening around us?

Despite his silence on many of these issues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the opening note at the ingoing Indian Science Congress. Nobel laureates showed up to listen to him speak. And then, the scientists took over to discuss their research papers. Mature citizenship demands that we carry on the debate through all of this.

Labs and the world

For starters, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way young learners are growing up with science. Because of a strange hierarchy in knowledge traditions (science v. humanities), they believe ‘PCM’ – physics, chemistry and mathematics – somehow has more intellectual capital. And this is how the mind begins to close.

They tend to insulate science from the world, from its politics, culture and moral dilemmas. With chronic career anxiety, a common symptom of an overpopulated country, they then reduce science into a unified ‘FIITJEE/Aakash/Brilliant’ mantra: science as a set of riddles for instant solution, disseminated through guide books and all sorts of ‘mock tests’. In this process, science essentially loses its spirit. It becomes reduced to a mere skill, and kills the creative imagination of young minds.

It’s thus unlikely that a typical institute of technology will today produce the next S.N. Bose or C.V. Raman. The primary purpose of even the more pampered IITs has become to produce technologists for the corporate world.

Even in universities, scientists – barring some remarkable exceptions – tend to confine themselves to their labs and seldom speak out about the relationship between science and society. This insulation, often maintained in the name of specialisation and a professional ‘value-neutrality’, creates a culture of silence. This is not freedom from politics. This is another kind of politics – one that sanctifies the status quo. This seems to be why, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote with great insight, even good scientists and technologists didn’t hesitate to make the Holocaust a success.

Also read: Auschwitz to Rwanda – The Link Between Science, Colonialism and Genocide

It is thus doubly important that science see itself through the eyes of poetry, philosophy and politics. There are living examples. First, think of our orientation to nature. Science has indeed evolved through Baconian empiricism, Cartesian rationality, Newtonian reductionism, Darwinian evolutionism and new discoveries in physics.

But the question remains: Is nature merely a ‘resource’ out there waiting to be observed, operationalised, explained, reduced into elements and used in purely instrumental fashion? Or is nature also endowed with its own spirit – the way William Wordsworth saw beyond the “meddling intellect” and felt its beauty? A nuanced conversation between science and poetry will help us evolve a more meaningful and ecological approach to the world.

Second, think of modern biomedicine and the way it has transformed the experience of death. Death is today a medically monitored process to be undertaken in the intensive care unit of a specialty hospital, by yourself, surrounded by the steely façade of machines. Is it possible to die another a way, however? The way an old leaf falls from a tree in a gentle dance, the way the Sun sets in a splash of pink, orange and indigo? Let’s ask if biomedicine can engage with the spiritual discourses on living and dying. And to ask this question is to birth the possibility of practising another kind of science – one that looks beyond instrumental reasoning and appreciates the hermeneutic arts of empathy and care.

A social audit of science

Unlike the history congress, the science congress is seen as a major event for the nation. This isn’t surprising. Scientific knowledge in modernity is perceived to have a higher ‘status’. However, social philosophers haven’t always appreciated its hegemonic principle. Paul Feyerabend came down like a hammer and pleaded for an anarchist theory of knowledge. Postmodernists sought to dethrone science by deconstructing all grand narratives. Ashis Nandy and others – inspired by the spirit of a neo-Gandhian utopia – have spoken of science, hegemony and violence.

As a student of social practice, I believe that reflexivity is the need of the hour. Science has to look at itself. As the American sociologist Robert Merton once said, science is characterised by “organised scepticism” because it doesn’t take anything for granted, and accepts something only with empirical evidence. This seems to be the reason why science separates itself from mythology or the bundle of superstitions.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Measure Scientific Progress With Award-Winning Discoveries

In our times, we experience the horrors of a risk-taking society. We consume all sorts of media simulations of a hyperreal world; surgical strikes, rocket launches and a cricketer’s century look equally spectacular on the TV. We witness the subtle practice of technological manipulation through CCTV cameras and internalise Aadhaar as good living. In these times, science has to become reflexive, turn its gaze upon itself, and redefine itself.

Science for whom? Science for what? These questions aren’t simply academic. Our collective destiny depends on the way we respond to them.

A reflexive science is also humble. It invites a poet, a philosopher, an ordinary citizen to visualise a world where William Blake and Isaac Newton converse, and communicate. Are the delegates of the science congress prepared to accept this?

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.