Our Scientists Have to Lead the Way

India lacks Scientific Temper. It is up to our scientists to change this through dialogue and discussion. If they do not engage with society at large, they do a disservice to science.

Back in August 2017, scientists and citizens throughout the country marched for science – one of their recurring demands was the promotion of scientific temper in our society. In fact, through Article 51A, the Indian constitution directs citizens to develop scientific temper as a fundamental duty. But what is scientific temper?

In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, to whom the phrase is attributed, scientific temper is “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 absence of scientific temper is rife in an Indian society still filled with harmful superstitions and obsolete practices. The Indian education system, which promotes regurgitation of textbooks, fails to stimulate critical thinking. If education does not foster a ‘questioning attitude’, how does society espouse scientific temper? A couple of years ago, the noted scientist Pushpa M Bhargava linked the absence of scientific temper to the apathy of scientists to intervene and interact with society. Surely scientists, the most adept proponents of scientific temper in the country, are best suited to demonstrate its workings. Yet, in the past few months, scientists have gone through two public incidents where they have not exhibited scientific temper.

In the more recent event, Minister for State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh caused a controversy by suggesting that Darwin’s theory of evolution is incorrect. He based his claim on the lack of records in ancient Indian texts of apes transforming into humans. He recommended that Darwin’s theory be struck down from school curricula. In response, the Indian scientific community started an online petition demanding that the Minister retract his statements. Singh further volunteered to organise an international conference on the validity of the evolutionary theory. The incident was eventually resolved when Singh’s boss, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar, asked Singh to refrain from making unscientific comments. Three Indian science academies also put in a joint statement condemning the comments, adding: “It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.”

Now, I am a scientist, and Darwin’s theory appears completely scientific and beyond reproach to me. More importantly, it is an epitome of scientific temper: Darwin deduced his theory through meticulous observations in spite of the traditional belief of creationism. Can we make similar observations in our locale to help people understand his theory? Bt Cotton failing to protect from Bollworm or the spreading of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in urban hospitals are contemporary examples that can be utilized to reach similar conclusions. To inculcate scientific temper, people do not need to necessarily to agree to this theory, but to practice his method.

Simply saying that the Minister’s claim is unscientific and filing a petition for him to recant his statement does not resolve this issue. The consequences of such an approach are:

  1. It demotivates any one who wants to challenge existing theories.
  2. An opportunity to showcase how evidence-based arguments work is lost.
  3. Scientists disconnect themselves from the society, which is exacerbated when Javadekar says that “we should let scientists be”.
  4. It downplays someone who actually showed scientific temper – Singh agreed to sponsor a conference for evidence-based questioning of the theory.
  5. It projects science to be out of the reach of non-scientists. Instead of explaining how evolution works in simple terms, using relatable examples, it becomes a science versus non-science discussion.

Aren’t these the very qualities we want our citizens to be imbibing? How do we expect them to question their beliefs when scientists react so uncompromisingly when their scientific beliefs are questioned? The origin of humans has been a hotly debated topic, not just in India, but internationally. Yet, over the 100 years since Darwin’s theory, scientists have repeatedly failed to convert believers of intelligent design to accept the theory of evolution. (I recommend the documentary Flock of Dodos to those interested in the subject. It voices concerns on both sides of the story as it tries to establish who the real dodos are – the scientists, the creationists or the public.)

In a similar vein, an astrology conference at the Indian Institute of Science was cancelled after protests from scientists and alumni. Unlike the debate on evolution, the resort of many Indians to astrology has deeper roots in our social structures – astrology has been looked up to as a relief from painful situations. Calling astrology unscientific does not take away from its illusion as a simple and non-invasive cure to people’s problems. For this, it is not sufficient to simply deride it, but to enable people to question its methodology, outcomes and rationale themselves. Astrology does not seek scientific validation and neither do the people subscribing to it. In calling off the conference scientists may feel victorious but this victory would not be as impactful as engaging in an open dialogue.

It is in India’s national interest now for its scientists to take up the mantle to disseminate scientific temper through monitored conferences and community talks. Neil Degrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss are two American advocates of scientific temper, but both have drawn staunch lines between science and religion. India perhaps needs a more inclusive approach, as suggested by Dr Jayant Narlikar, where the aim is not to debunk traditional beliefs but simply to equip people to question them. Religion, he says, must accommodate scientific facts, science must accept that it cannot explain everything.

In a diverse society, the method of dissemination would need to be tailored for the audience – skits at local fairs in rural areas, a TV series similar to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even smaller YouTube ad videos that can spark critical thinking. Leveraging current technologies through the medium of TV or radio would be more effective than confining the dialogues to science exhibitions in schools or colleges. To fashion scientific temper into a common practice, it has to be taken out of the realm of the science enthusiasts and aligned to existing social and cultural norms.

In fact, scientific temper is not the prerogative of scientists alone, but anyone who makes choices in an evidence-dependent manner. To take the voices of these scientists and rationalists to the Indian masses is going to take a bigger effort than simply putting out statements of protest. A key point that needs to be worked around is that society comes with its own set of beliefs, and despite the lack of evidence, people may choose to continue believing in these. To try and change everyone’s mind is not possible, but the inculcation of enough scientific temper for people to start determining ’cause and effect’ and to holding their beliefs accountable for outcomes, is in itself a great first step towards a healthier society.

About the author

Shambhavi Naik

Shambhavi Naik is a Research Analyst at the Technology and Policy Programme, the Takshashila Institution. She has a PhD in Cancer Biology from University of Leicester and has worked as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the MRC Toxicology Unit, National Centre for Biological Sciences and Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in the past.