I agree that the academia is not without its flaws, but why single out science?

A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. — Bertrand Russell

The only belief that is required to justify science is that the universe (and its inhabitants) can be described by a never changing set of rules, and that “God” does not interfere with the workings of the universe with an invisible hand. Call it a religion and I’ll gladly be a devotee of the fairest god of them all.

The electron exists, “show” me your gods

First of all, my support for the electron, whose existence Prof. Hegde questions. Electrons can be “heard” with a Geiger counter, it can be “seen” floating around as a wave in a Quantum dot. Unlike the electron and the air, I can’t sense a deitistic god physically in the universe. The only places I can place him in are either at the beginning of the universe, inside black holes, outside of the known universe, or make him cheat when we’re not looking.

Evolution has been consistent with archaeological data rather than the stories presented (or interpretations thereof) in the Bible or the epics of India. It is by no measure complete, but the fact that everything we know continues to fit Darwin’s theory or minor variations of it, without appealing to god, more than justifies the need to teach people about it.

What exactly is science?

Science (unlike religion) strives towards generating an optimal set of hypotheses which are mutually self-consistent and yet predict — ever more — accurately our observations of the natural world. By no means are they self-consistent now, but we’ve come a long way from where we started. Experiments are used to test the understanding, and mathematics is invoked to refine the uncouth ideas of the instinct.

Science does not concern itself with human wisdom. One should look to morals and wisdom in philosophy and religion, without which science can be dangerous, and frankly quite meaningless. But putting the blame squarely on science is merely populist, and ignorant.

In support of ancient knowledge

Knowing how something works, and knowing how something behaves when it is affected upon in every way by the environment (through experiments and observations), is really the only difference between true science and collective knowledge (excluding philosophy and mathematics), the former is “computable” and modular, the latter data intensive. A good deal of research in the soft sciences falls into the latter category. Realistic models of the systems in these sciences are extremely complicated, necessitating a data-driven approach which may be easier and more successful in solving immediate problems.

The fact that Medicine, Biology and other softer sciences frequently prove too hard for the application of mathematics makes it much harder to distinguish between “correct” and false hypotheses; making it easier to falsify results. Although conscious falsifications are likely rare in ancient texts, false deductions are no less (if not more) likely.

A good example of this is the practice of Ayurveda, which is concerned more about the preparation and effectiveness of concoctions than the molecular mechanisms. The tradition prescribes a long-drawn procedure (which I believe serves as a statistical test) to prove the effectiveness of formulations. This may also be a dangerous line to tread; medieval doctors believed that transfusion of animal blood into humans would cure diseases. Homoeopathy continues to flourish in our country, despite its laughable principles and frequently disproven ineffectiveness.

Prof. Hegde starts calling science in its true form a great exercise, and ends up abhorring everything it has brought us. I cannot help feeling that his personal experience in medicine has biased him against all of science. I agree that the academia is not without its flaws, but why single out science? Why not blame the flaws of our own society as one filled with moral-abdicating, xenophobic, zealous and lazy lot, instead?

Rosy-eyed nostalgia should be no reason to forget that we are living in arguably the most advanced and civilised age in the history of the human race, in no small part due to the “materialistic” work of thousands of scientists and engineers.

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


The curse of scientific fundamentalismJune 24, 2012

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