We need to democratically reimagine science

Who is ‘allowed’ to imagine what science in India is determines the role science will be ‘allowed’ to play in India’s growth story

Updated - February 28, 2023 12:23 pm IST

Published - February 28, 2023 12:15 am IST

Notwithstanding the origins of India’s National Science Day, which is to commemorate the discovery of the Raman effect, instead of speaking about pre-eminent scientists and Nobel Prizes, it may be worthwhile to consider the absence of serious training in critiquing science.

Last week, an article in a mainstream publication claimed that the ‘shivling’ was proof that sages in ancient India knew of the existence of protons and electrons and that their knowledge had been forgotten because they didn’t use the same words that western scholars did. Claims such as this have heightened our awareness of, and scepticism towards, attempts to rationalise the validity of knowledge organised in some non-science system according to the tenets of science.

Two extremes

But in the resulting eagerness to steer clear of this pseudoscientific blather, many have swung to the other extreme, championing scientism — the purported superiority of science and scientific knowledge — to the exclusion of other equally legitimate experiences of reality.

The adherents of these two extremes may claim to be far apart but they are still united by their inability to imagine other, better alternatives to a world in which science and non-science can only be at war — such as, for example, a world in which we make sense of reality by drawing on science, the humanities and social sciences (HSS), and lived experience at once. Even today, keeping up the virtue in some circles of reaching for science’s take the moment anything vaguely unscientific appears on one’s Twitter feed often risks discarding more empowering alternatives.

For example, in 2020, Trisha Greenhalgh noted how waiting for evidence that scientific studies couldn’t provide could slow our response to COVID-19 in some contexts. This was an example of what “happens when we proffer science as a totalising system that has the superpower to transform all ignorance, all evil, and all regression,” as Gita Chadha and Renny Thomas wrote in 2022.

In the words of Wilfrid Sellars, our pursuit of the ‘scientific image’ of the world (what science tells us the world is) is endangering the ‘manifest image’ (the world as it appears). Yet we have also come to realise that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

For example, we know that science has an androcentrism problem. Feminist philosophers have noted that the exclusion of non-cis-men through history has privileged some learning ecologies over others, shaped the way scientists decide which questions to ask about the world, and how scientific achievement is defined and rewarded. As a result, today, amid other contests over other freedoms, the community ‘allowed’ to answer the question “What is science?” has been shrinking to admit only professional scientists, political leaders, and maybe journalists. These are all important stakeholders, but they’re not the only ones with skin in the game.

We must welcome to the table more HSS scholars who can take a critical yet informed view of science from the outside in; more people who have evolved their own ways to produce and organise knowledge based on observation and experience, including Indigenous peoples; and more people who have suffered the state’s bumbling efforts to ‘apply’ science towards economic growth at the expense of human rights.

Amenable to change

There is more about science that is amenable to change than we would like to believe. Science’s usefulness arises from the application of critical methods to produce knowledge. But all the activities and events that follow once such knowledge has been produced are not necessarily scientific. Biologist Mukund Thattai wrote in a 2018 essay that India has room, for example, to fund science as a cultural activity, to have “a science curriculum based not on dry facts but on the history and process of discovery,” which “can form the base of a broad education, in conjunction with the humanities and the arts.”

Getting from where we are today to this state is an obviously long journey. We need a cultural shift in which, for instance, a radar-based coastal weather forecast isn’t considered to be rationally superior to a veteran fisherman’s prediction based on reading familiar natural signs. We will need better science literacy that isn’t founded on the idea that the ‘scientific image’ is inherently more desirable. We need to systematically examine our fixation on, and often misinterpretation of, ‘scientific temper’. Most of all, for a democratic (re)imagination of science, there should be systematic criticism of science.

As practical first steps, we need to include HSS studies as part of science education in schools, colleges and universities, and where this faculty already exists, it should be integrated into the core curriculum instead of letting it operate on the sidelines.

Currently, in many HSS departments at the institutes that have them, scholars of English literature are hired to impart better language skills. Many students don’t develop the ability to critique science itself as a result. Instead, these institutes should incorporate disciplines such as history of science and science and technology studies, with students critically engaging with the practice of science itself.

That science holds a special place in the idea of India is a matter of pride. But far from this vague ideal, down in the weeds of daily life, science is becoming increasingly stretched between two extremes – pseudoscience and scientism – with too few imagining better alternatives for all of us.

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