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Updated: June 24, 2012 01:54 IST

The curse of scientific fundamentalism

Sukumaran C. V.
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A mother's homage to a Chernobyl victim in Moscow.
AP A mother's homage to a Chernobyl victim in Moscow.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.

—Alvin Toffler

As Professor B. M. Hegde says in his article, “Is science one of those fanatical religions?” (Open Page, June 17), “In the true sense of the word, science is only a method to understand the working of this universe.”

But science has somehow achieved the status of the only one method to understand the working of the universe. And there lies the root cause of all tragedies that befell the humans and the environment in the last 200 years. This “arrogance” of science wreaked more havoc on humanity and the environment within this short span than what they suffered in the preceding 1000-2000 years.

Terrible reminders

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are terrible reminders of our scientific arrogance. The atom bomb killed 118,661 people in Hiroshima, within seconds, on August 7, 1945 and another 74,000 in Nagasakki, two days later. Add to this the injured and the mutilated and the permanently radiation-hit generations. Then we have had the Chernobyl atomic plant tragedy and the Bhopal gas tragedy.

If the crimes on humanity committed by scientific arrogance are more than heinous, really horrendous crimes have been continuously perpetrated on the environment in the last 200 years. The very survival of the humans and of all other forms of life on Planet Earth seems to be impossible after we ushered in cataclysmic climate changes with the help of science.

With all our accumulated scientific knowledge or arrogance, we are still not wise enough to grasp the wisdom contained in the words of an American Indian, Chief Seattle, which were written 160 years ago when his people were asked to leave their land now called Seattle: “We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of a pony, and man, all belong to the same family. The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

In the name of development, man destroys trees, silences rivers, pollutes the waters, and makes the earth more and more scorching. With his scientific fanaticism, man inflicts irrecoverable damage on the web of life.

We have to learn precious lessons from tribal people on an eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle. But we have only displaced them, damming their rivers in the name of the greater common good. Thus our scientific arrogance submerged their sustainable economy and lifestyle and territories. We called such dams our temples and sacrificed the people who have been living depending on the rivers and the forests and the animals for years and years. We told them: “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country…” —Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to the villagers who were to be displaced by the Hirakud dam, 1948. (Quoted from Arundati Roy’s The Greater Common Good)

And we ‘requested’ them: “We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it will be good. Otherwise we shall release the waters and drown you all.”— Morarji Desai, speaking at a public meeting in the submergence zone of the Pong dam in 1961. (Arundati Roy)

Ms. Roy says that more than 50 million people in India have been displaced in the 50 years since independence by the big dams and other development projects. She writes in her inimitable style: “Fifty million is more than the population of Gujarat. Almost three times the population of Australia. More than three times the number of refugees that Partition created in India. Ten times the number of Palestinian refugees…The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees in an unacknowledged war. And we, like the citizens of White America and French Canada and Hitler’s Germany, are condoning it by looking away. Why? Because we’re told that it’s being done for the sake of the Greater Common Good. That it is being done in the name of Progress, in the name of the National Interest.”

It is high time we unlearnt science and the meaning of progress we learnt. And, of course, we have to redefine the phrases ‘greater common good’ and ‘national interest.’ This kind of unlearning is the way to sustainable development.

(The writer’s email is lscvsuku@gmail.com)

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I do not understand why some people are so much against Science. The author himself agrees that Science is just a tool. Am surprised that subsequently in the later part he is blaming science as if Science is the name of some entity who made people manufacture those bombs and other things. There aer very many examples of good things being misued by people (for their own greed and selfishness) for some bad purposes. Examples are like:
Internet: Started of with good intentions but many miscreants use it for illegal acts. Still merits of internet vastly outweighs the demerits.
Telecommunication: Mobile phones are of vast usage and brings many people much closer. Of course even this is misused.
Best example: Religious and old scriptures invented GOD to instill sense of humanness in people. But even this GOD concept is misused and so much havoc is created by it. Does this mean that I can burn all those religious texts and scriptures? Will it be sensible if I condemn Bhagvad Gita for this?

from:  Pratap
Posted on: Jun 26, 2012 at 14:39 IST

Add "scientific fundamentalism" to "loud silence", "Dark light"
and "living dead" as a list of oxymorons. According to the
dictionary, fundamentalism "is the strict and literal adherence
to a set of basic principles" and by this definition, the
scientific method is the very opposite of that. Let me say that
many scientists do believe that the scientific method is the only
way to find "truth" about our world and universe. This is not
because they are dogmatic but because experience and evidence and
logic has led them to believe that - planes fly, magic carpets
don't. The author asserts, as Prof.Hedge did last week, that
there are alternative ways of "knowing". Well, what are they?
Show us how else we can get to the truth if not by proposing
hypotheses and then testing them against reality and humbly
gathering evidence? Can we get to truth through religion?
spirituality? meditation? witchcraft? Demonstrate these
"alternatives" and scientists will be glad to change their
positions.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: Jun 26, 2012 at 10:48 IST

I agree with both Girish and Saket. It is a fallacy to blame science for the immature decisions taken by some debauched politicians.

from:  avinash
Posted on: Jun 26, 2012 at 08:24 IST

That an Atom holds enormous energy in holding the protons and neutrons together
is science. That alpha particles bombarding certain elements can release this
energy is science. That this energy can be harnessed to make a bomb, create power
plants is the border between science and technology. Now using this 'bomb' on
humans to burn them for geo-political domination is misguided political decision.
Which part of this logic did the author not consider before writing this article. When
early human considered sharpening the stone, may be scientific quest was born. He
used it to get his prey ... another human decided to take out a third human with
this same stone. Same logic / same difference. Vilifying science is not the answer to
humanitarian issues.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 22:19 IST

Yes, but it is sad that in the name of science, all these so called 'development' projects are being constructed. It is imp that science should be used in a way that it is beneficial to all sections of Indian society and not just the politicians and urban population. Even the tribals and rural people have knowledge of their own which needs to be considered. Just because they don't have fancy gadgets or technology, doesn't mean that their knowledge is useless.

from:  Aakanksha Singh
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 16:23 IST

Indeed, the author's criticism is entirely misplaced, and he seems to ignore the
very wise quote at the start of his own article, namely, that science is just one
method to understand the universe. And it is a method is merely a work in
progress. Were it not so, then we'd need no more scientists anymore, for all would
be known.

That being said, the havoc wreaked by science or the good done by science are the
result of individual or political decisions. Science shows what can be done. If man
then chooses to unleash a Hiroshima or a Bhopal, it is the result of callous
decision-making on part of some men. Einstein was a great pacifist. Yet, his
elegant formula E=mc^2 is the governing principle behind the atomic bomb. Even
though he himself also assisted in the development of the A-bomb, you could not
accuse him of murdering the civilians in Hiroshima.

Science, when prostituted and violated in the name of king, country and profit will
bear a monster as offspring. Let's stop that!

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 15:54 IST

The author has made a laudable effort to expose
the horrific face of science.It is true that scientific
developments have made human lives comfortable.
But the scientific arrogance of our people have resulted
in utilizing science for extremely destructive purposes.
The invention of deadly weapons and lethal pesticides are examples
of this.I totally agree with the author's view that it is necessary
to unlearn science and the progress we have made.The victims of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima are reminders of the dangerous face of
science.
Thanks to the author for sparing a thought on nature and fellow
beings.

from:  Priyanka B
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 15:00 IST

It is the scientist community that have first recognised the danger of global warming and escalated to the level that today we are holding international conferences involving Heads of Givernments. Scientists today are actively advocating sustainable development. It is the economists and politicans who are finding it difficult to accept these realities.

from:  Sampath
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 14:23 IST

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are NOT the faults of science. It was the problem of the people who handled them. In fact, nuclear fusion is one of the beautiful manifestation of our understanding of nature about which we should have rather been proud of. Using atomic bombs to destroy the fellow beings is NOT done by the scientists, instead by some power maniacs which should be addressed in an altogether different context. As people often say correlation doesn't mean causality. Its the pace with which technology develops that frightens us. This makes one to feel that he has no control of what is going around him and thinks that science and technology has to be blamed for it. I would rather try to improve my power of discretion of how to use the technology than blaming the 'scientific arrogance'!

from:  Maya
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 14:04 IST

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not results of scientific arrogance it is due to political arrogance. Infact religious arrogance killed more people over centuries.

from:  Raju
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 12:04 IST

Religion and science can never be fanatical, it is the interpretations
of the power driven ideologies that alter thoughts. Writers observation
on unlearning science in effect should have been understanding science
for greater good.

from:  Sudhesh
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 11:28 IST

Science started with the discovery of 'fire', iron-steel, the wheel and the underlying knowledge of 'nature'. Should we abandon them because some people used them to wage wars - with bows, arrows, chariots and burning others' homes? The 'atom bomb' was based on Albert Einstein's theories. Indeed, only after Einstein's letter,FDR started the Manhattan Project. Einstein, a pacifist, had to choose between a Nazi bomb and an American one. Most of the nuclear scientists, including Oppenheimer, opposed its use. It was a military-political decision. It is not science, but the lack of scientific temperament that is at the root of human tragedy.

Marx warned about the pseudo-socialism of feudal ("idealist") reactionaries. Those who decry 'progress' and glorify poverty forget the millions who perished in periodic famines, infant-maternal mortality and epidemics - which science redressed. Anthropomorphic worship of 'Earth' is going back even further, to our tribal past!

from:  Thiru V. Ramakrishnan
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 11:00 IST

The article on scientific “fundamentalism”, is another fundamentalist view that we need “no new knowledge, especially the systematized type”, is a call to return to nature. It is highly idealistic.
Shall we all go back by 150 years (or more) have a life style of the age old good “tribal people”, who are wiser than us?. Personally, are the tribes of current wise Activists ready to give up the modern facilities like electricity, the modern transport system, the communication services like telephone, internet and may other modern amenities, the gift of Science. It is good to preach, but those who preachers, do not stick to their own principles. Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi were rare humans, not normal people.
You seem to be a hero worshipper of Arundhady Roy. I had an opportunity to meet your Hero in Goa in October 2011. She and her colleagues stayed in the Goa International Centre, in air conditioned rooms. Yes, parents can preach to the children to live like be like tribal’s or not to drink, have a very simple life, but can have themselves a nice drink, if occasion permits..
To be too idealistic is also fundaemtalistic nature. Let us be reasonable human beings.
Scientists are guilty of giving their knowledge to build the atom bomb. But you have understand the situation in which they did it. Einstein was a refugee in America. Many scientists had fled Nazi Germany. The second world war continued, killing many millions, and if they thought it right to help to put an end to that bloody war, I wound not blame them, for I would have done the same.
Please, tell me if the Chernobyl power plant was built by the scientists?. Was the Bhopal tragedy was due to the arrogance of scientific knowledge. Are all the Dam built by the Scientists or Engineers?. It is true science was applied there. But the tragedy was not due” scientific arrogance”, but due to human error. Yes it will happen again. We, including Scientists are humans, not Gods.
Be passionate about whatever you, think and do. That is the nature of the creative people. But be reasonable, this is not an ideal world.
I am a 72 year old, retired CSIR Scientist.

from:  Gopinathan Krishnan
Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 at 08:18 IST

This author is really 'illiterate' by the same quotation by which he has started this piece of writing. Science doesn't say to kill, displace or do anything to someone, its the human decision how to use this knowledge. How could the newspaper like The Hindu select this kind of completely flawed argument to publish... unfortunate...

from:  samadhan patil
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 21:17 IST

Author appears to be one of Toffler's illiterates himself, blissfully ignorant of the dynamism of change and confusing political tyranny for scientific arrogance. Science is but a tool. Choices we make, decisions we take are all human. Why blame science?

from:  saket
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 17:50 IST

I really don't understand why the author is blaming Hiroshima and Nagasaki, building dams, and displacement of people on science. These were the acts of individuals mostly politicians, who may have used misquoted arguments of science or the tools it provides to their perverse ends. The need of the day is more of science which is well argued, peer reviewed. Then only one can meet the challenges raised by climate change, energy crisis, poverty etc. Its unfortunate to see Hindu publishing such obviously flawed arguments.

from:  Girish
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 15:47 IST

I'd like to add a couple of points to this article. We live in an age where a new kind of fundamentalism is emerging - I would like to call it rationalist fundamentalism. I myself got swept up by this wave - I was a passionate atheist and grabbed every opportunity to damn religion with both hands. However, on some introspection and broadening of horizons, I realized the beauty of tradition and empiricism, of which religion is a part. Tradition evolves in an organic manner, as opposed to top down scientific research.My aim is not to question scientific research-No doubt, the scientific method is robust. However, there is much to be gained from traditions, which have a great deal of empiricism built into them; For example - Ayurveda. While every science or rationalist oriented person would love to take potshots at Vastu Shastra,I found out that it was an empirical phenomenon simply based on geography & direction of the winds. No doubt,these have been corrupted, but is science free from it.

from:  Anmol Sharma
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 12:34 IST

Science is defined as the systematic study of humans and their environments based on the deductions and inferances that can be made.But sad to say, the definition of science no longer remains the same.It has become a tool for enhancing the human comfort by erasing every earthy element,encroaching every piece of land and engulfing every source of water.The prospects of science is used to combat the process of aging,increase in food production by the use of genetically modified seed varieties and destruction of pests by the use of lethal pesticides.We are living in a world where all we need is available by the click of a button.We have robots for doing all the laborious tasks,machines for making computations easier and gadgets to memorise and remind us of all the important facts.The result of all these is the creation of a new species who does no work on its own and get things done under the mercy of machines.Every inhuman deed is dignified in the name of development and national interest.The poor, the most affected have always raised their voice against this.The unending protests against Posco project (The Hindu:June 22,2012) and the Kudankulam power plant stand as testimonial to this.Knowledge can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes.The key to sustainable development lies in making there right choice.Unfortunately we have failed miserably in this regard.The trial for our crimes has begun in the court of nature.The only thing that can be done is to accept our faults and make a promise to protect the nature.Otherwise science which paved the way for human comforts will mark the end of human era.

from:  Priyanka B
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 12:12 IST

Other than science, what else seeks to explain the working of the universe? Religion. Of course the above article is silent about that while it goes on a tirade about how scientific arrogance is the bane of society. And I agree with the author, there are dimensions of science that have been abused and are now ruining the environment But scientific progress has OTHER dimensions. Would our society not like to benefit from scientific innovations in health care? And religion, has often done more harm than good. Communal riots in the name of god, religious identity and differences..Atleast scientific thinking has allowed us to question retrograde thinking and superstitions in favour of logic and rationality. Science allows one to question science itself while religion is based on the fundamental idea that it is sacred and unquestionable. Believe, have faith or be damned!

from:  Pooja
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 11:51 IST

I am not entirely sure what author really means by scientific arrogance. Science is a tool that gave humans sense of inquiry and curiosity. Without the advent of science the author could not have raised his voice to people across the world now!! Let us not demean science. Arrogance is from human end. Human arrogance is the word probably. Science was a tool for the human beings, which they used at most times, not always, trying to show their supremacy over the Earth.

from:  Veeresh
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 07:38 IST

Although I agree with the author's premise in principle, it is wrong to blame science for a ills in the society. Human progress as measured through materialism bears a direct correlation to the progress in science. While our culture teaches us ways for moral progression, it is highly imperative that we also keep up with the world in terms of science and technology albeit without sacrificing the environment.

from:  Krishnan
Posted on: Jun 24, 2012 at 02:42 IST
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