Comment

Only through the prism of science

India needs its top leader to make people realise why science has no substitute in the battle against COVID-19

On Friday, April 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his third COVID-19 address to the nation. To raise the people’s morale, Mr. Modi asked them to light up candles, diyas (lamps), torchlights and mobile flashlights for 9 minutes at 9 p.m. this Sunday. Soon after his address, the citizens outreach portal of the Government of India tweeted a video explaining the ‘science’ behind the Prime Minister’s request.

Editorial | Light and sound: On Narendra Modi’s 9-minute light ceremony

The video had a former president of the Indian Medical Association claiming that the request was based on a yogic ‘principle of collective consciousness’. The doctor said that if the people collectively thought that they would not be afflicted by the coronavirus, then their collective consciousness would ensure that this happens. This, he said, was based on a ‘quantum principle’. The tweet was soon deleted. But the incident shows how pseudoscience may be endangering India’s public health policy at this critical moment.

Need for scientific temper

At no point in its modern history has India needed its people as now to urgently understand how microbiology impacts public health. The Central and State governments are making huge efforts to give us a crash course on the spread and arrest of COVID-19. But in our country, the Prime Minister’s voice on national issues carries the most weight. In this hour of national crisis, India needs its top leader to make the people realise why science has no substitute in battling the virus. How has Mr. Modi fared as a promoter of scientific temper?

In October 2014, the Prime Minister made two claims linking cutting-edge life sciences to Indian myths, including the Mahabharata. In a speech delivered in Hindi, he said that Karna’s birth was a result of stem cell science and technology. He also said that the world’s first plastic surgery was performed on Ganesha, giving the deity his elephant head. And, he made these remarks while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai.

Invoking ‘Mahabharata’

On March 25 this year, a day after announcing the national lockdown, Mr. Modi interacted with the residents of Varanasi. Invoking the Mahabharata again, he told them that the Mahabharata war was won in 18 days and India would win its war against the virus in 21. In his English translation of the epic, Bibek Debroy, the Chair of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, doubts that the war of the scale described in the epic took place. Or that “miraculous weapons and chariots were the norm”.

The Prime Minister’s 2014 remarks mixed up science and mythology, and sent out the following public message: our epics are historical truths; the fantasies within them are records of our ancient accomplishments in cutting-edge science and technology; and since the ‘knowledge’ they contain has come down to us as part of our unbroken tradition, our indigenous wisdom can solve the problems that the life sciences currently face. One wonders how those who believed his 2014 remarks would have responded to his projection of winning the war against the pandemic in 2020.

Since Mr. Modi’s 2014 remarks, a number of Central and State leaders as well as lawmakers belonging to his party have peddled pseudoscience and untenable claims that fracture the backbone of the life sciences. For instance, in 2017-18, the then Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Satyapal Singh, called the theory of evolution ‘scientifically wrong’ and demanded its removal from the school curricula. Such views are illustrative of a thriving ecosystem of opinions masquerading as ‘indigenous’ science.

Although this ecosystem has been around for long, it has strengthened in recent years. Chief Ministers, Union and State Ministers, lawmakers, film personalities, businesspersons, gurus and other notables with large public following have repeatedly made pseudoscientific statements. Science gatherings have been used to peddle such ideas. And public defenders of science have been marginalised.

Dispelling the darkness

It is not surprising therefore that a ‘theory’ that sound vibrations kill the virus recently found a large number of takers. Nothing but the acceptance of this myth masquerading as science explains the outrageous interpretation of the Prime Minister’s call to thank the nation’s essential service providers with applause, bell-ringing and banging of metal thalis (plates). Several groups of people hit the streets on the evening of March 22 to ‘celebrate’ the ‘Janata Curfew’. They practised intense social proximity and banged metal utensils merrily and mercilessly. Did these actions increase the danger of the community spread of the virus? If they did not, then why did the Prime Minister tweet the next day that many people had not taken the lockdown seriously?

Mr. Modi did not ask people to erupt on the streets and endanger public health. However, it is not implausible that it happened because his message was interpreted by groups of people influenced by the present anti-science ecosystem. Dozens of pseudoscientific solutions to the pandemic are floating within this ecosystem. After Mr. Modi’s Friday morning address, claims about the prowess of light to fight the virus have begun circulating on social media. The Prime Minister has for years had the authority to crack down on this ecosystem. We would have been better placed in the fight against COVID-19 had he done so.

And thus, the challenge: we are confronting a pandemic that only science and technology can fight in an ecosystem rife with belief in pseudoscience. The 20th century philosophers of science, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, argued that pseudoscience was a great danger to liberal societies. We can only hope that it is not irreversibly damaging India’s public health in this moment of crisis.

Atul Mishra is an associate professor of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Jul 14, 2020 12:21:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/only-through-the-prism-of-science/article31253482.ece

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