Tampering with scientific temper

Is scientific temper an attitude for both the public and the private domains or is it only for the public domain? Is it opposed to or can it coexist with superstition? These are questions India must debate

December 09, 2014 02:27 am | Updated April 12, 2016 09:05 am IST

In early November, the Prime Minister announced that an important initiative to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru was the “promotion of scientific temper among children”. Endorsing this view, a few days later, the Home Minister, who is also the convener of the committee tasked to organise the celebrations, lauded Nehru’s leadership role in promoting scientific temper and in establishing the institutions of science in the country. He described Nehru as a “Rashtra Purush,” high praise which the Sangh Parivar reserves for very few. The message from the two leaders is clear: India needs to invest in “scientific temper” especially among the young if we wish, as a nation, to be a proud participating member of the world of scientific knowledge. There was no ambiguity about government intent. India was on the threshold of a new push towards scientific temper.

Issue of domains

Some weeks later, the Union Cabinet Minister for Human Resource Development, which is the Ministry in charge of schools, colleges, universities, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology, and thus with the responsibility for the “promotion of scientific temper among children”, was reported, by the media, to have spent four hours with an astrologer in Rajasthan.

When queried about the nature of the consultation, since it concerned the link between palmistry and forecasting the shape of the future, and about the message this publicly reported consultation would give to children, the Minister responded by asking the media to respect her privacy. She thereby introduced a new element into the debate. Is scientific temper an attitude for both the public and the private domains or is it only for the public domain? Is it an attitude of being, for the whole person, or is it only a protocol for public activity? Is scientific temper opposed to superstition or can it cohabit easily with superstition? Is astrology a science or is it superstition? Can the evidence from the palm provide testable hypothesis about future events, such as high humidity means that it will rain, or increased particulate matter in air will produce respiratory illnesses? Is there a causal relation?

These are interesting questions and India, following the Prime Minister’s call, will need to debate them. The urgency of the debate was emphasised when the former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand stated, in no less a place than Parliament, that astrology is superior to science and that Jyotish is a science to make calculations lakhs of years in advance and that all other sciences are dwarfed in front of astrology. With these two counter statements, to the two of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, the debate has now got very confusing. Can one make calculations lakhs of years in advance? Is scientific temper only a public and not a private matter? Is astrology the master science?

Nehru on astrology

Perhaps it is useful to go back a little and see what our Rashtra Purush’s attitude was to astrology. In a letter to Ram Swarup Sharma, the Director of the Indian Institute of Astronomical and Sanskrit Research, New Delhi, dated July 16, 1959, the Prime Minister wrote: “Dear Shri Sharma. Thank you for your letter of the 13th July which has reached me. You have referred in this letter to my lack of belief in Astrology. This is largely true. But every kind of real scientific research should be welcomed, provided it is conducted on scientific lines. My own impression is that our forefathers in India made very considerable progress in astronomical calculations. While I welcome the effort you are making to have a scientific inquiry in these matters, I do not think it will be at all suitable for this book to be dedicated to me. I am sure you will appreciate my point of view. …. Yours sincerely, Jawaharlal Nehru.”

Sharma was researching Sanskrit texts to see how far astrology in ancient India could be separated from astronomy. Nehru’s letter has four lessons for our debate on astrology and scientific temper. The first is his lack of belief in the claims of astrology to predict the future. That is why he did not wish the book to be dedicated to him. To be honoured in a book on astrology went against his scientific temper. The second is the distinction he made between astronomy and astrology in ancient India and his appreciation of the ancient advances of astronomy. The third is his welcoming of the use of the method of scientific testing. Such a method is valid for all domains of knowledge. In spite of his disbelief in astrology, he was open to the idea that its claims should be tested by the scientific method. This was the nature of his scientific temper. He would have argued that if astrology constitutes a set of testable propositions, which it claims to be, then the claim that “a marriage conducted when Mangal is entering the fourth quadrant is doomed to fail,” made by astrology, is similar to the claim that “it will rain tomorrow afternoon in Chennai south,” made by the meteorological department. A science must be made up of testable propositions. A science has researcher independent protocols for validating its truth claims. Would different astrologers agree in their reading of a single horoscope? The fourth is his taking, as Prime Minister, a public position against astrology in spite of the public’s deep belief in it. He risked a loss of political capital but still as the first educator to the nation he had to promote a scientific temper. The message from him was clear. Astrology cannot cohabit with a scientific temper.

The fact that astrology is not a science was most dramatically established by Padma Vibhushan Jayant Narlikar, India’s most eminent astrophysicist, who, along with Narendra Dabholkar, Sudhakar Kunte and Prakash Ghatpande, conducted a statistical test on astrological claims. In an article titled “An Indian Test of Indian Astrology,” published in the March/April 2013 issue of Skeptical Inquirer , which is available on the net, Narlikar describes how a set of 200 horoscopes were collected — 100 from bright students and 100 from students — in schools for the mentally challenged. Taking all the preoccupations of a double blind process, astrologers were invited to read the horoscopes. Twenty-seven responded. Here are the conclusions. “Our experiment with twenty-seven Indian astrologers judging forty horoscopes each, and a team of astrologers judging 200 horoscopes, showed that none were able to tell bright children from mentally handicapped children better than chance. Our results contradict the claims of Indian astrologers and are consistent with the many tests of western astrologers. In summary, our results are firmly against Indian astrology being considered as a science.”

We are now called upon to choose between two incompatible positions: one that sees no contradiction between astrology and scientific temper and the other which views them as fundamentally opposed. “A Statement on Scientific Temper” released by P.N. Haksar, Raja Ramanna and P.M. Bhargava on July 19, 1981, stated that it is “an attitude of mind which calls for a particular outlook and pattern of behaviour” and which advocates the method of science for “acquiring knowledge.” It advocates for the “fullest use of the method of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human endeavour from ethics to politics and economics …” Scientific temper is thus not a private matter. Article 51A(h) places on all citizens the duty to develop a scientific temper and therefore we cannot be “ chalta hai ” about these events since social behaviour is impacted by it and a culture of fatalism created by it. We must rally behind the Prime Minister’s call to spread scientific temper. We must revive the debate of the 1980s on the nature of scientific temper. The Prime Minister must give us his views on the relation between scientific temper and astrology. Scientists must enter the debate.

The Mangalyaan launch

It is reported that when Mangalyaan was launched — the satellite which India was able to place in Mars’ orbit in the first attempt, the only country to be able to do so — the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr. Radhakrishnan, went, the day before the launch, to pray at Tirupati for its success. When asked, he is reported to have said that he did not want to leave anything to “chance.” The Mars mission was successful. ISRO deserves a double round of applause. The team of scientists had to perform a set of complex calculations and manoeuvres to lift the satellite and position it in such a way that it could be flung towards Mars using not only its own propulsion systems but also earth’s gravity. This is science at its finest. The complex calculations gave accuracy and confidence that the commands of mission control would translate into outcomes. The technology that these calculations created, and the predictions made of place and velocity of the planet and the satellite were so accurate that they could place, after several months, the satellite in Mars orbit. This is the triumph of Nehru’s scientific temper. The previous night of prayer has, however, introduced some uncertainty into the celebrations. Was it the puja at Tirupati or the science at ISRO that worked? Was “chance” reduced by combined power? Did they cohabit to place Mangalyaan in orbit, or, asked counterfactually, if there was no puja, would Mangalyaan have entered Mars’s orbit? Which was the cause of success? This is a question of scientific temper and not pseudoscientific temper.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

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