Comment

A day to embody the true spirit of science

The Government is organising a Science Week, ‘Vigyan Sarvatra Pujyate’, as a prelude to National Science Day on February 28 that commemorates Sir C.V. Raman’s discovery on light scattering. The programme appears to have been designed to make youth be proud about India’s scientific achievements. Using this opportunity as nationalistic mission is rather unfortunate. On the contrary, this event should be used to celebrate the true spirit of science that defies all types of intellectual curtailments, thus promoting critical thinking in our academic centres.

The essence

A prominent physicist of our times, Freeman Dyson in his book, The Scientist as Rebel, makes a clear argument about why dissent is the soul of science: “There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture, Western or Eastern as the case may be. The vision of science is not specifically Western. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And what is true of science is also true of poetry. Poetry was not invented by Westerners. India has poetry older than Homer... Poetry and science are gifts given to all of humanity. For the Arab mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam, science was a rebellion against the intellectual constraints of Islam, a rebellion which he expressed more directly in his incomparable verses....”

The main takeaways from Dyson are: one, science is universal, like music, dance or poetry... There is nothing like Indian, American or Chinese science. Science was initially nurtured through exchanges of ideas that moved like merchandise between distant places over the ancient trade routes. Two, Dyson considered evidence-based modern science as an intellectual rebellion or as a form of dissent against social constraints, as exemplified by the Islamic and the European renaissance of science of the Middle Ages, or the reawakening in India around the 19th century that formed the background for the independence struggle.

Then and now

For Indian scientists of those days, science was a double rebellion, against English domination as well as the fatalistic ethos of Hinduism. This rebellious spirit led to a resurgence of science in India in the pre-Independence days and Sir C.V. Raman’s discovery cannot be seen independent of the social reformism of those days. With the ideological shift toward the right in recent times, the spectre of conformism that was lying low in our collective consciousness has now returned with a vengeance. And, academic freedom is now under greater pressure to tow the official line than ever before.

If science must excel it needs to promote free spirit, and, as Dyson argues, science is an inherently subversive act — a threat to establishment of all kinds, whether it upends a long-standing scientific idea, or it questions the received political wisdom or irrationality. He writes: “Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children.”

Such ideas must have played in the minds of great physicists like Einstein and others when they turned the scientific theories of the day upside down. Much earlier, Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus also took a firm stand against the prevalent wisdom despite their religiosity. As Dyson quotes the British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane: “Let him beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest and most terrible of the passions”. Haldane migrated to India in 1957 and was eternally dissatisfied with the Indian scientific enterprise and its organisational values, centred on hierarchy. He soon began to refer to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as the ‘Council for the Suppression of Independent Research’.

The ecology of dominant conformist traits is intertwined with group identity that determines the attitude towards our superiors and subordinates. Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar in their book, The Indians: Portrait of A People, trace this culture of conformism to our childhood — as a reflection of our obsession with hierarchy that spills over to institutional setups. The word they use for Indians is Homo hierarchicus — a term originally employed by Louis Dumont in his treatise on the Indian caste system.

A setting for pseudoscience

The Indian family landscape is authoritarian and patriarchal, though benevolent to the obedient, in its dealings. Early on, children are sensitised to a collective self. We grow with a loss of self and learn to subsume our worth as an individual. An Indian is thus culturally tuned to uphold the family’s integrity, religion, caste and/or regional identity rather than her individual strengths. So, when the party in power in India criticises the Opposition parties for being led by dynasts, what is being sidelined is the irony of the dynastic blood relation as a prop for personal advancement is a fundamental part of Indian cultural ethos. Such societies with patriarchal moorings automatically generate conditions for authoritarian rule, generating an ambience of fear that may not be conducive for path-breaking enquiries. Rather, it tends to feed the conceit of the rulers by inventing make-belief science or pseudoscience.

Need for a shift

In a guest editorial in Science in 2010, R.A. Mashelkar, the former Director-General of the CSIR, discusses why India is unable to break the mediocrity barrier. He concludes that tradition-bound countries such as India need to free themselves from the cultural chains of the past to foster original thinking. In an editorial in the 2010 Current Science, P. Balaram, the former Director of the Indian Institute of Science, explains why a “good humoured disdain for perceived wisdom and disregard for authority”, which is called ‘irreverence’ is important in science.

The cultural shifts are not easy to accomplish, particularly in a tradition bound society. And, scientists have a special duty to foster a free and unfettered intellectual ambience by actively engaging in the transformation of values both within and outside workplaces. A fundamental challenge, of course, is how to strengthen the social democratic norms within the institutes, representative of Indian diversity and plurality. Only then will academic centres become a marketplace of ideas. National Science Day should offer forums where freewheeling discussion of such themes are organised, epitomising the true spirit of science, thus unleashing its tremendous transformative power.

C.P. Rajendran is an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Earthquakes of the Indian subcontinent’. The views expressed are personal


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