Scientific bent and bent science

Print edition : April 04, 2014

ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan at the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati in November 2013 with a model of the PSLV C-25 that put the Mars orbiter in orbit. One accomplished physicist's rather unscientific explanation was that this provided a legitimate psychological boost to the team involved in the mission. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

AT the end of the day, a fundamental duty enjoined by the Constitution seemed to run into a fundamental right guaranteed by it. It seemed as if the aspirational virtue of developing a scientific temper—added, along with a few other pious sounding and non-justiceable exhortations, as a “fundamental duty” in the Constitution by the Forty Second Amendment, albeit under the shadow of the Emergency—had to take on an assertive and entrenched “fundamental right”, that to profess, practise and propagate religion, envisaged by Article 25. Religious practice drawing on this right came with an unwieldy baggage of superstition and obscurantism, and a blind aggressiveness, before which scientific reason seemed powerless. This was the uncertain but realistic note on which a conference on scientific temper in memory of the martyr to the rationalist cause, Narendra Dabholkar, organised by Vigyan Prasar, the voluntarist forum under the Department of Science and Technology entrusted with spreading awareness of science and reason, ended in Delhi in February.

In his concluding address to the conference, barely six months after his father was slain in a cowardly attack by bigots, Hamid Dabholkar, who now carries forward the work of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, made the interesting observation that, in its campaign against superstition, the organisation was careful not to tread on the religious beliefs of people. That was one strand of thought running through the meeting, which was broadly a commingling of three types: staunch yukthivadi, or rationalist, activists who opposed religion tooth and nail as irrational and anti science; the more temporising science evangelists who, like the young Dabholkar, felt that a scientific outlook and religiosity could, had perforce to, coexist; media practitioners and natural and social scientists who sided with the one or the other.

One academically accomplished physicist went out on a limb to justify the visit by the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), K. Radhakrishnan, to the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati before the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission last November to have the miniature replica of the spacecraft blessed by the deity there. It provided, was this scientist’s rather unscientific explanation, a legitimate psychological boost to the team involved in the mission. That may sound weak and far-fetched but is not altogether surprising, given the dodge on secularism in India. Although the preamble to the Constitution envisions India as a secular state, in practice secularism here does not reflect the Renaissance idea of the separation of the material and the spiritual, nor that of giving unto Caesar and the state respectively the things that pertain to each. Here, the term implies a positive tolerance of all religions. It is only a short step from that to tolerance of religion by science.

That is bad enough. What makes it worse is the media stereotype of a superior religious or moral value combating pernicious science. More often than not, the lab in the average Indian film is a place where a goateed character in a white scientist’s gown is up to no good, concocting multicoloured lethal liquids which effervesce menacingly to drive home their destructive power. Science, in the movie, is generally cast as untrustworthy and bad. Bad science is not vanquished by better or good science, but by subversion of science. The best that the science of the earthling can come up with is not a patch on that of the scientifically far superior invading alien of Hollywood sci-fi. It should be the apotheosis of reason to be conquered, annexed and assimilated into such an evolved, not to mention out of this world, scientific consciousness.

But then, a morally defined mortal with a boy scout-ish knapsack of goodness, or a chosen one of a religion or cult with queer meditative or telepathic traits, blithely bypasses the scientific method and establishment to set up a gratuitous and fatuous contest between terrestrial conscience and humaneness with all their frailties and extraterrestrial science with all its absoluteness, a contest whose outcome is obviously foreknown.

Writing even in the early 1930s, Bertrand Russell reflected a wariness about science as it changed from a discipline of “love of knowledge” to become one of “power over knowledge”. In his The Scientific Outlook (first published in 1931), he traced the “first impulse to scientific knowledge” to those who, like Heraclitus and the Ionian philosophers, were “in love with the world” and “felt the strange beauty of the world almost like a madness in the blood. They were men of Titanic passionate intellect, and from the intensity of their intellectual passion the whole movement of the modern world has sprung. But step by step as science developed, the impulse of love which gave it birth has been thwarted, while the impulse of power, which was at first a mere camp follower, has gradually usurped command in virtue of its unforeseen success”. In this process of “love-knowledge” being replaced by “power-knowledge”, science “tends more and more to become sadistic”. “This is the fundamental reason,” says Russell, “why the prospect of a scientific society must be viewed with apprehension.”

Russell’s sceptical view of science as prone to totalitarianism may have been a combination of his own pacifist, anti-nuclear, and at once anti-Stalinist and anti-Nazi, preoccupations and convictions. He was, at the same time, an ardent champion of scientific temper to counter superstition. He contrasted the “will to believe” propounded by William James—which sought to rationalise a leap of faith as much in religion as in one’s own ability to accomplish things against odds—with what he considered the scientific “will to doubt”. In a lecture in memory of Moncure Conway in March 1922, he cited the international acceptance by scientists, based on the evidence adduced, of the then still recent theory of relativity by Einstein even though “his theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis”. “But none of them,” Russell emphasises, “least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word. He has not built a monument of infallible dogma to stand for all time… his doctrines will have to be modified in their turn as they have modified Newton’s. This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.”

The will to doubt, expressed in the Popperian falsifiability premise, made science what another scientist and science historian, John Desmond Bernal, called provisional, or, subject to further refutation or change.

In the last of his wide-ranging, scholarly four volumes on Science in History, published in the early 1950s, J.D. Bernal points to how science and philosophy started out together (the term for both was the same in the early Greek period) and how “questioning” was the driving force of both. On the other hand, science and technology, now often mentioned interchangeably and in the same breath, were separate streams of human endeavour.

The development of technology in the Stone, Bronze or Iron eras proceeded independently of science, as did, he points out, fire, pottery, weaving, and the wheel, so much so that by the Greek period most of the knowhow on which our lives are based had already evolved and really owed little to science. This was true too of the inventions such as the horse collar, sternpost, rudder, trip hammer, and mechanically operated bellows, which propelled the shift from medievalism to modernism.

Bernal plots the autonomous graph of technology through the preliminary or “first industrial revolution” of the 16th century in which the mine, the mill and the ship worked by the nascent labour of a new capitalist system set the tempo for the full-blown industrial revolution initiated two centuries later which was marked by definitive changes like that from wood to coal as fuel, wood to iron as material, horse to water power to the steam-powered engine, and single to multiple action spinning. He sees all these substantially as the achievements of workers in sync with, and leveraging, technology and driven by capital available for new machines.

If technology thus proceeded more or less suo motu unprompted by science and grounded in the work of the people to improve their lives (there were, Bernal notes, important exceptions, like the grand architecture of the pyramids, waterworks, or invention of the compass and the clock where science had a bearing), science was for long under a Greek spell and something of a cloistered virtue. Its obsession, well until the 17th century, was with the skies. Astrology yielded to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry, the Aristotelian intellectual edifice was toppled and the Copernican revolution unfolded. It was only in the 17th century that the ingression of science into technology, with the discovery of vacuum, led to the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution. Science moved away from astronomy to mechanics and chemistry in the 18th century, then into what Bernal calls “the great comprehensive laws of the nineteenth century” like that of conservation of energy and the electromagnetic theory of light, which marked “the extension of mathematics over the whole field of physics” and into the field of biology with the work of Pasteur and Darwin so that by the 20th century, “all barriers are down; there is no field of Nature into which science does not penetrate. At the same time science is becoming creative, building up a world of its own of mechanical, chemical and electronic devices, and their use is tending to replace the fruits of purely technical development.”

Science was, then, a sterile, esoteric, religious preoccupation in its early phase (and until the 16th century when astronomy was applied to navigation), not, suggests Bernal, entirely to be scoffed at, because “priests and rulers from China to Peru considered that proper and orderly contact with the heavenly powers was essential to economic and political well-being. Certainly, we owe the science we have to that belief.” It was when science bent to meet a human technical requirement that a new synergy was inaugurated with the “mutual stimulation of the craftsman and scientist”. Further, such effervescent coming together of science and technology, observes Bernal, occurred at those historical junctures when class distinctions broke down, as in 16th and 17th century Europe, the Industrial Revolution in England, and the period of scientific and technical transformation that followed.

Contested territory

The energy of such people-centric science may have ebbed with a sense of the major discoveries and important inventions being done and over. Science today seems to have become contested territory where a scientocracy, people’s resistance movements and commercial business lobbies are pitted against one another. At a time when information and disinformation are two sides of the same coin, it becomes, understandably, difficult to decide whether the benefit of science rests with those who argue for the Kudankulam nuclear power plant or those who agitate against it, those who argue for genetically modified foods or are in blanket opposition to it, those for or against the Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats.

It gets worse when the market makes science its handmaiden. All it takes is a white overcoat on a personable model to convert a sales pitch for a toothpaste that promises whiter teeth and healthy gums, or for a food product that promises to make your child grow quickly taller than his classmate (a tall claim, no doubt) into a “scientistic” endorsement. In their work Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research, Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy E. Wagner document how the big players in, among others, the tobacco, pharma and food industries in the United States bend, manipulate, bully and package science and scientists, lobby for science policy and science administration, to deter or snuff out research or findings damaging to their business and to get away with misleading or outright false claims about their products.

The situation in India, with far less transparency and accountability in evidence or force, would, imaginably, be far grimmer. The corporate news media are unlikely to bite the advertising hand that feeds them by investigating such misuse of science. It is in this context that a concrete suggestion made at another meeting, following the Vigyan Prasar conference, to discuss how a public interest broadcaster like Rajya Sabha TV can help inculcate the scientific temper, becomes very pertinent.

It was fitting, even if sheer coincidence, that it was the science writer of this periodical, R. Ramachandran, who came up with the suggestion before the group, among whom was the Vice-President of India and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Hamid Ansari. Why doesn’t Rajya Sabha TV, Ramachandran asked, plan a scientific feature on the channel which knocks the bottom off the claim by the advertiser of a cosmetic cream that its application makes the skin fairer? Why doesn’t it, really? After all, Rajya Sabha TV is immune to the pressure of commercial advertising since it does not air any. And it will be both pro-science and anti-racist to call this bluff. But then, what if such a programme, in turn, knocks the bottom off the neoliberal edifice diligently built up in India over the last two and a half decades?

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