Suspension of disbelief

New facets of irrationalism, in particular a culture of anti-science, are taking root in society, aided by the media and a faulty educational system.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

September 1995 saw mass hysteria all over the country around the apparent miracle of "milk-drinking Ganesha". Here, a scene at a temple in New Delhi.

September 1995 saw mass hysteria all over the country around the apparent miracle of "milk-drinking Ganesha". Here, a scene at a temple in New Delhi.

“It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.”

— Scientific Policy Resolution, 1958

THE phrase in bold above is the essence of the term “scientific temper”, which Jawaharlal Nehru first used in his Discovery of India (1946) wherein he said: “The scientific approach and temper are, or should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen.... Science deals with the domain of positive knowledge, but the temper which it should produce goes beyond that domain.”

Nehru’s spirit and vision for Indian society, which found articulation in the Scientific Policy Resolution of the country, was adopted as a constitutional obligation of every citizen in 1976 through Article 51-A(h) of the Constitution, which says: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

India is the only country that has raised the notion of scientific temper to the level of a constitutional obligation. And yet, in all these years, India as a nation has failed enormously to inculcate and spread that spirit in society. Indian society has been, culturally and historically, steeped in religious dogmas, superstitions and blind beliefs. But, as the Coonoor Statement of July 1981 adopted by many academicians and intellectuals on the state of scientific temper in the country observed, the nation had failed to bring about the necessary societal reforms.

It is pertinent to recall what the statement said 32 years ago:

“[W]e are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly. The modern tools of propaganda and communication [emphasis added] are being used to give an impression that there exist instant and magical solutions for the problems that confront our people.

“In an age when man has travelled to the moon and returned safely, astrological predictions based on the movements of planets or the lines of one’s palm or the number of alphabets in one’s name are widely believed…. Myths are created about our past. The origin and role of the caste system is explained in a way that would justify it and imply that some castes are inherently superior. The ancient period of our history is interpreted to inculcate chauvinism, which is false pride; the medieval period is misinterpreted in a way that would fan communalism….”

Lamenting the visible “process of decay of reason and rationality”, it added: “Failure to give mass dimensions and appropriate institutional forms to scientific temper, more specially to our educational system, led to the erosion of confidence in our capacity to mould our destiny.” The situation can hardly be said to have improved. It has perhaps worsened as evidenced by recent events across the country. More significantly, new facets of irrationalism, in particular a culture of anti-science, are taking root.

As the statement noted, education is the key to inculcating a scientific attitude towards life and society. Even if the country’s education system has failed, the media have a role in informing and educating the people. But all along the media have played a dubious role. For years, the print medium has been carrying astrology columns. Most dailies still do so, but today, with increasing access to the visual medium and its great impact on the viewing public, television has emerged as the most potent agency inculcating an attitude that runs counter to scientific temper among the public, with channels devoted entirely to discourses by self-styled godmen exploiting people’s blind religious beliefs and sentiments.

Remember the early days of television? People used to gather in the early 1980s to watch the serial on the new god Santoshi Mata, itself an invention of Bollywood, after taking off their footwear outside community halls. A National Science Survey in 2004 found that for two-thirds of the viewing public, TV was the leading source of scientific information. Over three-fourths of the people had confidence in the authenticity of information on TV.

Eclipse and the media The total solar eclipse of February 16, 1980, the first in the century that had its path of totality over India, witnessed the tremendous influence of television in propagating and strengthening age-old superstitions about the ill-effects of the eclipse. With TV warning people not to step out, cities across the country wore a deserted look. Indeed, hit films were telecast during the time of the eclipse to ensure that people did not step out. This was despite attempts by scientific institutions to distribute sunglasses made of mylar film to view the eclipse and thus dispel the fear of it.

But the next total eclipse of 1995 saw a significant change in people’s attitude. With several institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) joining in to create scientific awareness about the eclipse, thousands came out with the sunglasses that were distributed to watch the spectacle despite the fact that TV channels continued to air antiquated views and blind beliefs about the eclipse. While several TV channels continued to do so even during the 2009 total eclipse, thanks to the spread of scientific temper through active campaigns by institutions, scientific departments and NGOs, people came out in huge numbers.

Interestingly, September 1995 saw mass hysteria all over the country around the apparent miracle of “milk-drinking Ganesha”. Starting at a temple in South Delhi, thanks to TV channels, the news about the event spread so fast that by midday, Hindus across the country were gripped with hysteria and it slowly spread to the Hindu temples in the United States and the United Kingdom. September was the month of Ganesh Chaturthi. Without the active role of the visual media as an agent of this hysteria, its instantaneous spread across the country and even across continents could not have happened.

What is interesting is that, despite public demonstrations by scientists, rationalists and the Ministry of Science and Technology that it was the result of combined action of the surface tension of the fluid and the capillary action of the statue material, people, and indeed TV channels too, paid no heed. Thousands of litres of milk went literally down the drain, with an increase in milk sales by 30 per cent reported in New Delhi alone. The incident surfaced again in August 2006, again in the month of Ganesh Chaturthi, in parts of Uttar Pradesh. But it did not sustain or spread widely.

Astrology course Astrology, with the dubious claim by its practitioners of it being a science growing by the day, seems to have a particularly strong hold on Indian society. No other pseudo-science has such a universal appeal, which is due rather to a failing in the human psyche than any rational basis. Despite several scientific tests proving beyond doubt that astrology has no scientific basis whatsoever, TV channels are exploiting to the hilt this human failing of great anxiety to know one’s future.

Indeed, the slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was himself involved in exposing the dubious claims of Indian astrologers in a controlled experiment carried out in Pune in 2008 ( Current Science , March 10, 2009) in association with Jayant Narlikar, the astrophysicist, and Sudhakar Kunte, a statistician, and Prakash Ghatpande, a professional astrologer. The experiment, supported by Pune University and the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), involved selecting 100 bright and 100 mentally handicapped cases and their horoscopes cast by Ghatpande himself. Professional astrologers were invited to participate in the test and each of the 27 competent astrologers (from all over Maharashtra) who agreed to participate was given 40 random horoscopes from among the 200 and asked to say which of them were of bright kids and which were not.

The results of the test were no better than pure chance. The highest score of correct predictions was only 24 by a single astrologer and 22 by two. The remaining scored 20 or less. In fact, one predicted that 37 were intelligent and three cases could not be conclusively established, which meant that none of them was mentally handicapped! The average score was 17.25, which is, in fact, less than pure chance. Interestingly, following the results of the experiment, Ghatpande quit astrology and, with his knowledge of the subject, is now actively engaged in expositing the pseudo-science of astrology. Whether the 27 astrologers who participated in the test have quit their profession or not is not known, but in all probability they have not because that would mean an end to their earnings by exploiting gullible people. There are today several TV channels, in all languages, airing programmes not on astrology alone, but on palmistry, tarot cards, aghor tantra, crystal gazing and so on that claim to foretell one’s future. In fact, according to Narlikar, but for the sad end to Dabholkar’s life, they were planning to carry out similar tests on all such obscurantist practices. It probably will be difficult to realise now.

The managers of the Indian science and education system have only ended up doing a great disservice to the cause of scientific temper by acceding to the astrologers’ clamour for declaring astrology to be a science. In 1997, the Indian Science Congress honoured an astrologer with an award. But in a more damaging move, the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2001 formally approved the establishment of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in “Vedic Astrology” and the allocation of funds to such new departments. The Indian Science and Technology community, but for letters of protest by many scientists and academicians, was an accomplice in this move as two scientist members of the commission, who were also members of the Indian science academies, tacitly accepted the decision without raising any objection, notwithstanding the fact that it was the time of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the UGC Chairman, Dr Hari Gautam, was a known supporter of astrology. The courses continue to be offered in many universities to this day. Conclusive scientific demonstration of astrology not having any scientific basis has clearly had no effect on the UGC.

What is more curious is that officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which successfully sent a spacecraft to the moon and intends to send one to Mars next month, should unfailingly offer prayers at the Tirupati temple before every launch—these days it is no less than the Chairman himself—and carefully avoid inauspicious times, such as rahu kaalam , to choose rocket launch windows. Such behaviour on the part of even the elite scientific community only helps entrench blind beliefs and superstitions. Indeed, Article 51-A(h), as a constitutional obligation, applies equally to scientific agencies, and their behaviour under the government banner should be challengeable as unconstitutional in a court of law.

The anti-science tendencies of TV channels have been increasingly evident in the last 10-15 years. The airing of programmes regularly about the doomsday predictions by Nostradamus or unidentified flying objects (UFOs) or aliens landing on the earth by channels such as India TV and IBN7 is on the rise. With authoritative-sounding commentators, aided by computer-generated evocative images, clips from disaster movies and fake footages, these programmes are self-servingly designed to up their TRP ratings. But they only serve to perpetrate the irrational fear among the public. Ironically, the latest technology is used by TV channels to propagate irrational beliefs.

One very recent instance was the continuous running of a programme based on the claims of fringe groups in Europe that the starting of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the highest energy particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva, would result in the end of the world. As an unfortunate result of this constant bombarding of the public with this totally unscientific claim, a 16-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh, perhaps under a condition of depression for other reasons, was driven to suicide. The LHC has run successfully for the last three and a half years without any disastrous event, let alone the end of the world, with the earth being gobbled up by rapidly growing monstrous black holes, as was claimed. Not just that, it has successfully observed the predicted Higgs boson, which was one of the prime objectives of the experiment.

In 2011, some academicians gathered in Palampur to revisit the Coonoor Statement on scientific temper and revise it in the light of growing anti-science and general irrational tendencies in Indian society. It made particular note of the damaging role that the media, in particular TV, had come to play in furthering these. It said: “Privatisation of electronic media has also had the undesirable effect of providing increased space for forces responsible for the spread of irrationality and undermining Scientific Temper…. Today, there are a large number of religious channels but there is not a single Indian science channel.”

It also called for setting up a national system to continually monitor media channels and the education system for unscientific content, and issue guidelines. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, for example, recently issued two sets of guidelines—in November 2011 and in June 2013—restraining TV channels from telecasting programmes encouraging superstition and blind beliefs. It also has a monitoring cell, the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC), to identify violations of codes of conduct under the Cable Television Networks Act (1995) and other guidelines issued from time to time. But this does not seem to have the desired impact on what continues to be telecast on TV channels.

In defence of what they communicate to the public, the managers of such media invoke the argument of freedom of expression and speech. The point, however, is that while it is nobody’s case that the constitutional right under Article 19 is curtailed, these channels also have their constitutional obligation under Article 51-A(h) to help develop and inculcate scientific temper in society. Scientific temper, of course, goes a great deal beyond mere avoidance of superstitions and blind beliefs, or the ambit of the recently enacted legislation in Maharashtra following Dabholkar’s murder. The media must play a constructive and responsible role in strengthening the notion of scientific temper in society.

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