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Is India a science superpower?

Print edition : Sep 23, 2005 T+T-

On the radical disconnect between the dreams of becoming a science superpower and the grim reality of mind-numbing superstitions and life-threatening pseudo-sciences that pervade all levels of society.

"THE next century belongs to India, which will become a unique intellectual powerhouse... capturing all its glory which it had in millennia gone by," declared Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, Director General of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in Science earlier this year. Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and author of the recent bestseller The World is Flat, agrees that India, with its talented, yet low-cost brainpower, is on its way to becoming the "innovation hub" of the global economy. Not to be outdone, the British weekly, New Scientist, has dubbed India the world's emerging "knowledge superpower".

On a recent visit to New Delhi, I found that many Indian scientists have bought into this hype. Indian science, I was told by my friends from my old microbiology-biotechnology days, has "taken off", and only "the sky is the limit". My old classmates, grey-haired professors and researchers now, have the air of quiet confidence that comes with recognition in their chosen profession.

And why not? Information and biological technologies are the twin engines pulling India's economy. At a time when global corporations come courting Indian scientists and engineers not just for drudge work, but for advanced research and design as well, all this talk about India as a "science superpower" does make sense.

What does not make sense, however, is the radical disconnect between the dreams of becoming a science superpower, and the grim reality of the mind-numbing superstitions and life-threatening pseudo-sciences that are thriving at all levels of society. Indian scientists may well be the most sought-after workers in the global economy, but many behave as if what they do inside their laboratories has nothing to do with the supernatural and/or spiritual "truths" that pass as "scientific" explanations of natural phenomena in the rest of society. If anything, corporate science and technology is only adding to the ruthlessness of the global capitalist economy, which feeds the existential anxieties that feed on obscurantism.

Do I exaggerate? Here is a report on the six weeks I spent in northern India this summer:

In early May, throughout the countryside in northern India, thousands of children, mere girls and boys, were married off on Akshay Trithiya, a day considered astrologically auspicious for marriages and other new ventures. A social worker who tried to prevent child marriages had her hands cut off, allegedly by those bent on defending their hoary traditions. There are, of course, many complex social and economic reasons why child marriages still persist in India in significant numbers. But these secular motives come with the full blessings of our priests and astrologers who have declared the bright sun and the moon on the third day of the month of May to be auspicious for new ventures, including child marriages, which are supposed to bring good karma to the parents of the child brides.

Meanwhile, astrology was getting a corporate makeover to appeal to the "modern", urban middle-classes, who were being bombarded with advertisements by the World Gold Council to celebrate the "auspicious" alignment of the stars by buying some more gold jewellery.

If you thought that scientists, especially space scientists, would have something to say regarding the astrological logic underlying popular traditions, well, think again. While the country was gearing up for Akshay Trithiya, India's top space scientists were busy seeking the blessings of Lord Balaji at the Tirupati temple for a safe launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. A miniature model of the rocket was laid in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and prayed over by priests in the presence of 15 scientists. Scientists, who have not let go their own security blanket of gods, can hardly be expected to question the comforting but false illusions astrologers sell to ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the many satellites that India's space agency has launched in the past were busy beaming television programmes selling unsubstantiated health benefits of yoga and Ayurveda, delivered in a heady brew of spiritualism and Hindu nationalism. India's most popular tele-yogi, Swami Ramdev, offers his Divya Yoga on television. Interspersed with the swami's calls for awakening "desh kaa svabhiman" (national self-respect) by teaching "crore saal purana vigyan" (science dating back ten million years), one finds totally unsubstantiated claims about the power of yogic postures, deep breathing and his own Ayurvedic concoctions for every ailment known to humankind including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma and obesity. What is Ramdev's standard of evidence? A headcount of those attending his camps, who profess to have been cured by the yogic exercises he teaches. What is his view of human physiology? It centres on the ancient notion of prana, or vital energy, which modern biology completely discarded more than a century ago. (An aside: those who think Hindu nationalism is in retreat need to pay attention to TV-gurus like Ramdev - the Hindu equivalent of American televangelists. They are clearly injecting Hindu chauvinistic themes into their "spiritual" teachings.)

What is remarkable is that all these reason- and evidence-defying traditions come wrapped in the fancy dress of "science". On my visit to Chandigarh, my hometown, I heard an Arya Samaj preacher exhort devotees at an open-air public discourse held outside my house (with loudspeakers set at full blast) to "read the ancient Vedas to learn all the sciences known to humanity". He was discoursing on how to succeed in the modern world with its prized high-tech jobs. Astrology, yogic ideas of prana and kundalini and even the ideas of reincarnation, karma and varna (that is, caste order) are justified in the language of modern physics and evolutionary biology. All these ancient metaphysical speculations are proclaimed to be "vedic sciences" (that is, empirically testable and logical within the metaphysics of the Vedas) and they are supposed to have been belatedly rediscovered by modern science. What we have here is pseudo-science in its purest form, that is, religious dogma, lacking rigorous scientific evidence and plausibility dressed up as science.

NOW here is why I find the whole situation very troubling. On the one hand, there are countless gurus - from popular tele-yogis like Ramdev to elite, Sanskrit-speaking teachers of Vedanta - all eager to take on the prestige of modern science for an essentially spirit-based cosmology derived from the Vedas. On the other hand, India has literally an army of PhDs, many with advanced training in the most cutting-edge fields of natural sciences who, rare exceptions aside, refuse to stand up and draw a principled distinction between natural science and spiritualism. If the scientific community has not stood up for scientific reason, neither has the intelligentsia. Indeed, leading public intellectuals in India have generally taken a postmodernist stance of suspicion towards modern science. They have been more concerned with revealing the Orientalist and capitalist prejudices in science, than with using it to demystify the many dangerous and irrational beliefs that make up the commonsense of many of our fellow citizens.

My conversations with my old scientist friends confirmed my worries. When I brought up my misgivings about the continuing hold of astrology, I discovered that I had touched a raw nerve: some of my friends had been consulting soothsayers. Then there were those who defended the right of Vedic astrologers to carry on their "research", as if there were legitimate puzzles still left to be solved after so many centuries of falsification of each and every tenet of astrology.

In another conversation, I happened to bring up the issue of space scientists praying over a satellite launch vehicle. My colleagues treated the news as the routine business of running a laboratory and recounted similar instances. I learnt of yagnas being done in the laboratories of a major university to ward off ghosts; I learnt of jagrans being held on university campuses, presided over by the members of the science faculty. My friends saw nothing particularly objectionable to such compartmentalisation between the work you do as a scientist and what you do in the rest of your life outside the laboratory. But what happens when what you do outside directly contradicts and negates all that you know as a scientist, I asked. How do you live with the contradictions of praying to supernatural forces for the safety of a rocket that you have fashioned out of your own hands without invoking anything but natural forces? Where, in modern physics and astronomy, is there room for a supernatural power that listens to our prayers? Or for that matter, where in modern biology is there any evidence whatsoever for immaterial spiritual energy, prana, that is routinely treated as an actual force of nature in the discourses of our yogis and gurus?

Forget about their personal faith in God, I argued with my friends, but should Indian scientists not strive to apply scientific methodology to at least those aspects of traditional spiritual-medical practices that step directly into the turf of modern science and medicine? Should Indian scientists not at least challenge the unsubstantiated and misleading health claims that are being made for yoga and Ayurveda? Should they not insist upon stringent double-blind tests of the concoctions Ramdev sells through his Divya Yoga business empire, for example?

Yes, that would be good, my friends responded, but I am demanding too much. We are already too busy writing research papers, running the laboratories, training students and publishing papers, they said.

And then, perhaps irritated by my rationalist prodding, my friends threw down the gauntlet. All societies have their superstitions, they told me. Look at America, they admonished me. If America, a country awash in superstition, can claim the mantle of a science superpower, why cannot India?

A fair question. It is true that nearly 40 per cent of Americans believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Under the current administration of George W. Bush, regrettably, conservative evangelical Christians have been given a free rein to inject Christian ideas of God and morality into science education, medical research and health policy - a situation not very different from how the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to Hinduise science education and research when it was in power. It is also true that New Age irrationalities, from astrology, crystals, auras, Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra, reincarnation and past birth regressions are all gaining new adherents in America and Europe.

But this dismal state of affairs in America hides a more complex reality. Polling data show a far lower level of belief in God among American scientists than the levels that prevail among the general public. Indeed, the 1998 poll of the members of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that only 5.5 per cent of biologists and only 7.5 per cent of physicists believed in God. The numbers believing in immortality of the soul were also in single digits for most scientists. Indeed, the very idea of NASA scientists holding prayer services before space shuttle launches is inconceivable in America. What is more, American scientists remain far more actively engaged in public debates about religion, ethics and the standards of evidence and truth. Well respected scientist-scholars like (the late) Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins (from Britain, but read widely in America), Edward O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, William Provine, Robert Pennock, Paul Gross and a host of others are giving the Christian creationists a run for their money. Well-respected scientists including Steven Weinberg (a Nobel Laureate), Noam Chomsky, Alan Sokal, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt have intervened in the academic debates about the nature of scientific evidence and how it differs from other ways of knowing. Likewise, vigilant voices from within the medical profession have consistently demanded rigorous experimental checks on the claims of corporate and complementary medicine.

So, yes, there is pseudo-science in the United States, and plenty of it. But there are well-respected, serious, engaged voices from within the scientific community in significant numbers who are fighting pseudo-sciences and religious obscurantism every step of the way.

If India wants to become a genuine "science superpower", Indian scientists will have to do much more than just get integrated into the global pecking order of corporate research and development. They will have to develop a genuine culture of open, fearless questioning and experimentation within their laboratories and in the larger culture outside the walls of the laboratory.

This will require an overhaul of science education so that science is not treated as merely a matter of rote learning of technical formulas, but is integrated into a new secular understanding of nature and life. It is not enough for the institutions of higher learning in India to produce doctors and engineers who can perform well in the West, or in the IT/BT jobs imported from the West. They must produce critical thinkers who are engaged with larger issues that affect the cultural climate of their societies.

Until then, India will remain the "pseudo-science superpower" of the world.

Meera Nanda obtained a Ph.D. in biotechnology from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, before moving on to the field of philosophy of science. She is currently a research fellow of the Templeton Foundation.

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