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March for Science: Muddying research with myths and beliefs will raise an irrational, confused generation

Recently, thousands of people gathered from 25 cities across India for marches in defence of science. Participants in these marches, comprising distinguished scientists, educationists and people from other professions, were seeking better funding for research infrastructure.

While these marches look to bolster the importance of science, there have also been counter-arguments questioning its value neutrality, its bias and the very premise of science to be a distinguished knowledge system of humans that requires a special treatment.

This all comes in the background of a new-found clamour to glorify our past beyond what would be termed as reasonable extrapolation. Those opposed to these trends have, implicitly and explicitly, been called anti-national and tools of western thinkers hell-bent on belittling India's past achievements and its golden period.

Against this backdrop, it is worth looking at the beast called science, its demand for special protection against the nationalist agenda and additional resources. As far as the human quest to understand the working of nature and our ability to manipulate it for our comfort – the technological offshoot – science remains far superior to other knowledge systems that claim to understand and interpret the working of nature.

Thousands of people across 25 cities in India joined scientists on 9 April as a part of 'India March for Science' to demand funds for research and to enact policies based on evidence-based science. Cyrus Khan

Thousands of people across 25 cities in India joined scientists on 9 April as a part of 'India March for Science' to demand funds for research and to enact policies based on evidence-based science. Cyrus Khan

Other systems prevalent in all parts of the world freely mix observations with myths and beliefs. Unlike science, they have little to show in terms of new technology or new ideas about the working of nature. Science, with its unwillingness to accept authority, validation through experimentation and falsifiability remains the most powerful window to our understanding of nature. This fact alone is enough to ensure that the importance of conventional falsifiable should be emphasised.

It is true that all cultures have contributed to this growth even though, for the past four centuries, the West has dominated. Even so, the contributions of earlier cultures on which the Western science was built had its intrinsic limits derived from the cultures from which they arose.

In trying to underline the glory of India's past, the very nature of sciences and their logical simplicity are being undermined and destroyed by those who wish to claim that ancient Indians knew of a lot of modern science, even though they had no culture of experiments or the capabilities of performing such experiments in their time.

The most extreme examples of such claims include claims that two Indian kings fought their wars on Mars. This for a culture with no capability of building rockets nor an idea about the Earth-Mars distance and the heliocentric solar system makes no sense at all.

While one would treat such statements in the same way as one treats the claims of the 'flat-Earth society', they have a dangerous consequence when the educational system is contaminated. It is important and essential that the coming generation must understand and appreciate the power of this knowledge system and its ability to create new technologies. To muddy these waters, claiming that all the modern science could have been anticipated by ancient seers by meditation is just not viable.

People who advocate such ideas and encourage teachers to highlight this in the classroom without a shred of evidence are driving younger generation to a state of confusion and irrationality. If this perspective is allowed to prevail, we will end up with a generation completely confused about science as a knowledge system, its technological potential. Such a generation would begin to believe, to take a random example, that you do not need lead-lined, heavily shielded nuclear bunkers as a pile of cow dung could serve the same purpose.

If a student was to ask even the most basic questions about the nuclear bomb and its power and compare it with the properties of cow dung, he or she can easily see the absurdity of this. But if such statements were made by teachers and others in authority, a student can only lose his or her confidence in understanding science.

Under such conditions, technologies will appear irrational and magical. Once such a perspective enters a young mind, one can assume that his or her contribution to building a rational society and taking the nation to future glories will be one of drag and not enhancement. That is reason enough to not get young minds muddled between science and non-science.

While a strong case can be made to expose young minds to other great human creations like literature, art, music as well as deeply religious and spiritual experiences, each discipline must stand alone to make better citizenry and none of these disciplines need to seek justification in another.

Then there is a case for funding raised by scientists. Whatever opinion one may have about the governance of post-Independence India, there is no denying that affordable education has been a major leveller of playing field and has pulled countless millions out of poverty through innovation and better job opportunity.

Over the past few years, governments at the state and national level have been reducing their contribution and inviting private, profit driven organisations to take their place. This can only accentuate the difference between the haves and the have nots – people who can afford private education and those who cannot.

Even many of those who can afford it will need to significantly cut back on life's necessities to be able to send their children to institutions of learning. Such a severe reversal of education can only devastate the middle class and significantly increase the conflict situations with disastrous consequences.

Similarly, India has been losing some of the best scientific minds due to a dearth of good research opportunities in India. If India is to truly benefit from all the scientifically excellent man power it is generating to create new technologies, we need to provide them with opportunities in India itself. The saying, 'stone age did not come to an end because we ran out of tools but that better technologies took its place', makes the point that we need to continuously update our ability to create and absorb new ideas and technologies.

A failure to do so will forever bind us to importing technologies from other nations and for ever make us dependant on them. This issue goes to the core of what is independence. Pure science, with its apparently abstract approach to nature and technology, gives us the power to manipulate nature and one cannot thrive without the other. There is no applied science way to go from stones to bow and arrows. It requires a change in perspective and experimentation on elasticity and string strength to master the new technology.

The country and the government, therefore, needs to ponder on the issues raised by scientists.

The author is a faculty member in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2017 13:45 PM

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