Technology deficit

Print edition : November 05, 2010

"Vigyan Rail", a science exhibition on wheels, organised by Anna University, Chennai; Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi; and Indian Railways, at Chennai Central Station in April 2004.-V. GANESAN

Science is seen mostly as mediated by technology. Yet science popularisation' in India is rarely about technology.

SCIENCE popularisation occupies a unique place in India, both within governmental institutional frameworks and in civil society. This has much to do with societal roles and responsibilities as perceived by diverse actor, especially against the background of the national movement for independence and in the context of the oft-cited fundamental duty enshrined in Article 51A(h) of the Constitution to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform. Over the years, there has been considerable debate on what constitutes scientific temper and on whether the notion has connotations other than what meets the eye.

The present essay does not propose to address this debate, seeking instead to examine societal requirements for what is broadly termed science popularisation, a term that does not truly capture the burden placed by the constitutional injunction. This perspective may also help one better understand public needs and restore to common citizens their rightful place in a complex communication process that is both multidirectional and multidimensional.

Science and the public

Science has always been a specialised branch of knowledge although from ancient times well into the 19th century a scholar may have worked over a wide range of areas covered under different disciplines today. As an extension of broader philosophical pursuits, even a somewhat educated layperson could connect with scientific discoveries. However, with greater specialisation in ever narrower areas within disciplines, the distance between science and the public has widened enormously.

Some other important factors, too, have contributed to this sense of alienation. In earlier times, those who pursued scientific knowledge depended on the patronage of sections of elite lay society, such as royalty, nobles, merchants and rich philanthropists, who sought association with the advancement of human knowledge or to benefit from its application such as in navigation, weaponry, and so on. With funding of science having moved in the 20th century to faceless bureaucracies or corporate entities, scientists have felt less of a need to communicate with a wider public. The public confronts technology more directly than it does science and often understands the latter as mediated by the former. But with technology and its relationship with science becoming more complex, and new technologies themselves posing a variety of problems, the public understanding of science, too, is being transformed. There is also a growing public ambivalence to science and technology owing to the large gap that has opened up between the promise of S&T and the delivery of their fruits through public policy.

Reducing the growing mystification of science in the public mind is a major need. Part of this, but only a part, is to convey more S&T knowledge to those who otherwise would not be able to access it, chiefly those outside the formal educational system. Information or factoids are undoubtedly important to feed a genuine thirst for knowledge among the lay public and ward off incorrect information or combat superstitions. However, this alone will not demystify science. That knowledge has to be made interactive so that science is literally brought within the public's reach and its principles are better understood.

Science popularisation programmes undertaken during total solar eclipses have been successful precisely because they have been interactive and multidimensional, covering not just the phenomenon of eclipses and how they happen but also addressing the solar system and the wider cosmos, how science came to understand them, and a lot more. Perhaps, most importantly, fear of eclipses was overcome without tackling the superstitions head on with its attendant danger of making people who believed in them feel stupid or threatened and, therefore, defensive. The sea change in public attitudes to solar eclipses has been truly remarkable: from the first concerted awareness campaigns during the mid-1980s when the streets of Delhi were deserted during the mid-afternoon eclipse and popular movies were screened on television to ensure that people stayed indoors, to the eclipse-gazing during the total eclipse in 1995 when Doordarshan telecast it live commentary by eminent scientists and science communicators, through to 2009 when many organisations and supporting agencies conducted programmes throughout the country. Rethinking a solar eclipse, how it occurs, how it is seen purely as a celestial phenomenon of rare beauty is one thing, but to also experience it as a window to a wider world of science, a process of observation, theory formation, questioning and further investigation, is quite another.

Loss of certitude

The public has many questions but rarely gets a chance to ask them and even more rarely gets good answers. In the modern era, and owing much to the European positivist tradition, science came to acquire the reputation and image of having final, definitive answers to all questions: to be scientific meant being imbued with certitude. This is one of the abiding myths of science, often perpetuated by scientists themselves since it contributes to its popularity and the sense of awe it inspires. However, in science itself extant hypotheses and postulates have been the best possible answers at a given time and also stepping stones to further investigation and new hypotheses. Science popularisation, too, must help cultivate a spirit of inquiry, raising informed questions and embarking on a quest for fresh answers.

This is all the more important at the present juncture. In society, and even within science itself, the earlier mood or feeling of certitude no longer prevails. The probabilistic nature of scientific laws, as in quantum theory, opened the doors of non-certitude. Developments resulting from scientific discoveries, such as nuclear weapons, also prompted a new type of self-examination and ethical questioning among scientists about directions of and choices in research. Many questions came to be raised by new applications and technologies, such as in genetic manipulation, cloning and nanotechnology. Even sections within the scientific community argued that since not enough was known about the future impact of such technologies further research should be suspended until these were better understood. In the wider public, such fears were magnified.

But there were real fears and apprehensions too in the public mind arising from the unequal appropriation of benefits from development paths utilising these technologies. Widespread use of fossil fuel brought in its wake large-scale pollution and finally global warming, which threatens all of humanity. The massive disease impact, loss of human life and long-term effects of industrial-technological disasters such as the deformed babies caused by the drug thalidomide, the Bhopal gas tragedy and Chernobyl have all combined to create a picture of technology not only not benefiting humankind but also standing as a clear and present danger. On top of existing fears about safety and the hazards of nuclear waste, other frontier technologies such as genetically modified (GM) foods and nanotechnology were seen as posing unpredictable dangers.

People viewing the solar eclipse at a programme organised by the National Science Centre in New Delhi on July 22, 2009. The sea change in public attitudes to solar eclipses has been truly remarkable.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Several public intellectuals, increasingly vocal and influential in shaping public opinion, and other critics in civil society advanced the notion that the danger came from modern science and technology itself, seen as intrinsically socially divisive, ecologically damaging and inspired by western elitist, anti-nature philosophy. Earlier debates had revolved around notions of the misuse or abuse of science and the bad handling of technology, but the challenge was now more fundamental. To add to the problem, the very notion of scientific temper was seen by some critics as being part of the problem, part of the same techno-centric model.

Clearly, a different perspective on science and technology, and hence science popularisation, was required, one that could explain the societal processes that threw up specific technological choices and institutional structures governing the practice of science. Such a perspective has indeed been forthcoming from the People's Science Movement. In order to truly meet public needs, science popularisation necessarily has to deal with such and other contentious issues, in which debates will cross disciplinary boundaries, will not remain strictly confined within the domain of scientific disciplines, and will have to deal with social and ethical issues and issues of political economy.

It is understandable that established decision-making hierarchies in India are not comfortable with such pluralism although they seem to be getting more so going by recent consultations with civil society in a number of public policy areas.

But, as government gets more accustomed to wider consultative decision-making processes necessarily involving pluralities of opinion, agencies with mandates to promote a scientific temper may also not shy away from promoting discursive communication programmes so as to capture such plurality and promote a questioning attitude. A scientific temper, as against merely acquiring more scientific knowledge, requires in Amartya Sen's words both internal pluralism, which means debates between contrary views on an issue, and external receptivity, which means an openness to ideas from other quarters.

The missing link

Whereas it was never true that science preceded technology, or that new technologies only emerged after and on the basis of scientific discoveries, the industrial revolution certainly saw several technological breakthroughs, such as the internal combustion engine, follow from new scientific knowledge: in this case, the notion of latent heat or the various technologies arising from the discovery of laws of electromagnetism. Even as late as the Second World War, governments regularly turned to applied scientists boffins as they were termed in Britain to come up with counters and improvements throwing up several new applications such as radar, sonar and the computer. But in the past century and more, it has become increasingly necessary to separate scientific discoveries from technological innovations since the former are themselves more and more dependent on innovations in complex machines, laboratory equipment and techniques. Yet all technologies, more so in modern times, embody science and serve as a window through which to perceive and understand science.

Science is seen by the public mostly as mediated by technology. And yet, when science popularisation is undertaken in India, it is rarely about technology. Is it because as a society with an inbuilt hierarchical social structure and ideational constructs India values the conceptual and intellectual more than the manual and artisanal? In India, artisanal and labouring castes are not only ranked the lowest but are also the lowest on the economic scale and have a low social status. The higher wages received by skilled workers in Europe or the United States may be ascribed at least in part to shortages in the workforce, but the dignity accorded to labour cannot be explained only by supply and demand. The same is true for the prevalence in the West of a DIY (do-it-yourself) culture and the proliferation of DIY stores, the widespread familiarity with and possession of tools and small machines by middle-class men and women, the extent to which the middle classes do so much of their own household repairs, carpentry, painting, and so on.

In India, technology itself is poorly understood, let alone grappled with. Rough-and-ready jugaad solutions are the order of the day, and skills at all levels lag behind the needs of the times. Of course, this problem will have to be tackled through better education and training, for which the infrastructure, capabilities and institutional mechanisms are lacking. But even the present lack of these is indicative of some basic problems in perception and understanding embedded deep in our culture.

Science popularisation needs to bring the technology dimension into its ambit. This could be truly transformational in terms of the audience addressed and hence brought into the discourse. Most of all, it would be about changing entrenched attitudes on the part of all the actors. After all, scientific temper is itself an approach, a mindset. It has to be imbibed and cultivated by all.

D. Raghunandan is Secretary, Delhi Science Forum, and Treasurer, All India People's Science Network.