Sunday, January 18, 2015

Scientists without a scientific temper / Pushpa M. Bhargava

Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term ‘scientific temper’ in his book The Discovery of India , which was published in 1946. He was also the President of the Association of Scientific Workers of India (ASWI), which was registered as a Trade Union, and with which I was closely associated with in the 1940s and the early 1950s. (This may be the only example of a Prime Minister of a democracy being the President of a Trade Union.) One of the objectives of ASWI was to propagate scientific temper. It was very active in the beginning, but fizzled out by the 1960s as the bulk of scientists in the country, including many who were occupying high positions, were themselves not committed to scientific temper which calls for rationality, reason and lack of belief in any dogma, superstition or manifest falsehood.
The conclusion that our very own scientists — who would be expected to be leaders in the development of scientific temper — did not possess scientific temper themselves and were just as superstitious as any other group was supported by another incident in 1964. Following a statement by Satish Dhawan (who later became Secretary, Department of Space), Abdur Rahman (a distinguished historian of science) and I, set up an organisation called The Society for Scientific Temper, in January 1964, the founding members of which included distinguished scientists like Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner. For membership to the society, the following statement had to be signed: “ I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers .”
We were disillusioned when we approached scientist after scientist and all of them refused to sign the statement. Clearly they were devoid of scientific temper. Following this disillusionment, I persuaded Professor Nurul Hasan, then Education Minister, to have the following clause included in Article 51A in the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of Indian “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.”
This should have woken up our scientists and reminded them of their duty vis-à-vis scientific temper, but I do not believe that the situation in this respect is any better, even today, than what it was 50-60 years ago. Let me cite three examples.
Little improvement
During the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, then Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi asked the University Grants Commission to issue a circular to all universities stating that they should start a degree course in astrology. For this, he said, a special grant would be given. My colleague Chandana Chakrabarti and I filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging this dispensation. Our lawyer was Prashant Bhushan. The petition was admitted but was eventually dismissed (as could be expected), for belief in astrology — which is totally unscientific and irrational and has been repeatedly shown to be a myth — is widespread, with those who dispense justice also not being immune to it. Not one scientist came forward in support of us; nor did any of the six national science academies we have, on which a substantial amount of public funds are spent every year. Our supporters, who even sent us unsolicited funds to fight the case, were all non-scientists. In fact, recognising the above inadequacies of our science academies and their insensitivity to science-related social problems in general, I resigned from the fellowship of three of our science academies in 1993.
The second example would be the silence of our scientists and the six science academies when, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a group of scientists in Mumbai, claimed that organ transplantation was known in ancient India — he gave Ganesha with his elephant head and human torso as an example.
The third example would be the much publicised symposium on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit” at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, which was held earlier this month. At this meeting, it was said that India had jumbo aircraft (60 x 60 feet; in some cases 200 feet long) that flew between continents and planets 9,000 years ago (some 4,500 years before Harappa and Mohenjo-daro). Not only that, it was also claimed that we had a radar system better than the present one, based on the principle that every animate or inanimate object emits energy all the time. And in the 21st century, “fusion of science and spirituality will happen because of the law of inter-penetration,” it was said. I doubt if any serious academic would have heard of this law which would not make any sense. These and many other absurd claims made at the symposium were an insult to the several real scientific accomplishments of ancient and medieval India.
Winding up academies
None of our so-called scientists of note and scientific academies has raised a voice against these claims. Surely, the distinguished scientists who organised the Science Congress knew what was likely to be said at the symposium, but, perhaps, they believed in it all or were pressurised politically. Therefore, there is a strong case for the annual Indian Science Congress to be banned (as I also argued in my article in The Hindu, “Why the Indian Science Congress meets should be stopped” (Open Page, September 30, 1997), or its name to be changed to Indian Anti-science Congress.
As regards the science academies, they can easily be wound up without any damage being caused to Indian science. India has not produced any Nobel Prize winner in science in the last 85 years – largely because of the lack of a scientific environment in the country, of which scientific temper would be an important component.

(Pushpa M. Bhargava is the founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and chairman of the Southern Regional Centre of Council for Social Development.)

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