Since the time of Aryabhata and Sushruta, India has made important contributions to global scientific progress. Today, its space programme exemplifies frugal engineering by building spacecraft in operation around the Moon and Mars, even as it is home to a flourishing community of theoreticians. However, should this prompt you to assume that India’s people at large are also guided by scientific thinking, you would be mistaken.
Many acknowledge that a big part of the problem lies with our education system, whose methods leave much to be desired. Indian schools are dedicated to equipping their students with the correct answers and little about why those answers, and not others, are correct. There is very little room for critical thinking.
Over the past few months, volunteers from the Breakthrough Science Society, a national voluntary organisation dedicated to improving the country’s scientific temper, have conducted workshops for students in secondary and senior secondary grades in several places. The volunteers said that students were uncomfortable dealing with questions whose answers weren’t obvious and if they were encouraged to formulate their own solutions. They also found that the students were uncomfortable asking questions, and were surprised when confronted with the idea that there are many questions to which we don’t yet know the answers. According to them, the teacher was simply the person with the answers to all questions.
Science as taught in most schools is based on rote-learning. So once these students get into research, they are in for a rude shock. Given that most research requires one to question phenomena and sometimes even reexamine fundamental concepts, the students find themselves in deep water.
Instead, teaching students to conduct small experiments to verify claims made in the textbook, or on TV, can help develop their scientific temperament from a young age. Such habits will equip them with the tools to verify facts and empower them to dismiss the “existence of airplanes in ancient India“. Education should overall train students to discern right from wrong, good from bad. If India has many capable scientists today, it is only in spite of the education system, not because of it. Imagine how much better things would be if our schools were better.
Indeed, we must imagine such a world and work towards it because the alternative is dire.
Without a proper education system, many Indians suffers from a lack of scientific temper, which clears the way for the peddlers of pseudoscience. Article 51A of the Indian Constitution states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. However, this has been lacking even at the highest levels of scientific discussion in the country – from the science congress to the new curriculum of the All India Council for Technical Education.
While there is no question about the harmfulness of these initiatives, the bigger problem lies with the fact that they have the support of policymakers. Scientific evidence should be the basis for decisions on issues like the water crisis, environmental degradation, unemployment, inflation, etc. But how can a scientist remain a mute spectator when the core of science is being maligned this way?
Another threat to the pursuit of science has been in the form of shortage in funds, for education as well as for fundamental research. Important research institutes in the country are facing funding cuts of 40-50% in their annual budget even as many scholars around the country are reeling under the effects of irregular disbursal of fellowship emoluments.
This problem is not limited to India alone: the world’s first ‘March for Science’ in 2017 witnessed thousands of scientists rally in many countries, demanding governments to treat science’s exponents better. This year’s international march happened on May 4, and its Indian counterpart has been scheduled for August 9, in all major cities. (Disclosure: Both authors are active organisers of the march in Mumbai and Kolkata.) It is expected that scientists and students alike will hit the streets as they have in previous years, urging the government to follow Article 51A in spirit as well as the letter, to actively stop the propagation of unscientific beliefs, to increase funding for education and research, and to draft policies based on scientific evidence.
Ultimately, the march’s success will depend on whether it will be able to prompt the country’s people to reflect on their attitudes towards science. If they are able to discuss the water crisis and global heating with the same interest they commonly show towards politics and cinema, we will have taken a step in the right direction.
Dibya Sankar Das is a research scholar in the department of condensed matter physics and materials science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Debajyoti Sengupta is a physics MSc student in Calcutta University.