National Scientific Temper Day: Remembering our 'duty' to develop a spirit of inquiry

A major contributor to the disdain for analytical thinking is the way science is taught in schools.

A ping on my phone told me that I had been added to the NSTD Mumbai Whatsapp group. NSTD? National Scientific Temper Day, 20 August, as I soon figured out. I’d never heard of it before, so I thought I’d do a quick check: 20 August is Sadhbhavana Divas (connected to Rajiv Gandhi) and Akshay Urja Divas (for renewable energy), and even World Mosquito Day (not a joke!) commemorating the work of Ronald Ross on the deadliest animal in the world, the mosquito.

And of course, I noted a new addition to the list, National Scientific Temper Day in India.

Before I could even think about the need for a special occasion to celebrate scientific temper, a look at the daily dose of randomly forwarded messages provided the immediate answer. From someone taking the lack of dead birds on the ground to imply that birds don’t die but float up beyond the atmosphere, to people recirculating an oft-seen video clip suggesting that the Hindi word for geography bhugol is evidence that ancient Indians knew the world was round "many thousands" of years ago, it was amply clear that even supposedly well-educated adults had simply lost the ability to think critically. A reminder was indeed called for.

The author doing an ice-cream demo at the

The author doing an ice-cream demo at a "science of ice-cream" public outreach session at Mumbai's Prithvi Cafe, with curious kids watching. Image sourced from the author.

India is perhaps the only nation where the constitution mandates — through Article 51A (h) — that citizens have a fundamental duty "to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform".

The phrase “scientific temper” is a legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, who used this succinct term to describe rational thinking and reasoning based on evidence rather than pre-conceived notions. He was convinced this was important not just for things that dealt explicitly with science but in various aspects of life. Developing such a scientific temper would have no doubt been a challenge in a young nation. But even after 71 years of independence, we still seem to be unwilling to adopt an attitude of critical thinking, and live in a world steeped in superstition, unable to disentangle mythology and science, and unfortunately susceptible to rumours that modern technology allows one to spread with remarkable ease.

A major contributor to the disdain for reasoning and analytical thinking is the way science is taught in most schools, right from the primary level.

Rather than encourage children to question and seek out evidence that would guide them to an answer, we compel them to memorise and reproduce what is in a textbook. In fact, any attempt to write something that is not the “standard answer” would, even if correct, be penalised! The whole purpose of laboratories is for experimentation, however, this is rarely ever the case. From my daughter’s personal experience (in a supposedly “good” school) the summer vacation was spent “finishing the journal” – ie writing up the observations and conclusions before doing any experiments, with the data to be filled in later. If at all, we motivate students not to think for themselves!

In science especially, this is dangerous and leads to many misconceptions in basic understanding.

For example, take the rather straightforward question of why a candle flame goes off when one blows it out. I’ve asked this question to hundreds of students and teachers in multiple schools in metros, smaller cities and even in rural settings. The most common answer seems to be “due to the carbon dioxide in the air we exhale”.

Students at Mahar Harnaimata Vidyalay, Holichagaon in Maharashtra during the experiment on blowing out a candle flame. Image courtesy: TIFR Public Outreach

Students at Mahar Harnaimata Vidyalay, Holichagaon, during the experiment on blowing out a candle flame. Image courtesy: TIFR Public Outreach

However, respiration is not 100 percent efficient in converting all the oxygen in the air we inhale into carbon dioxide. Even exhaled air has about 16 percent oxygen, enough to allow a candle to burn, which can be shown by a very simple experiment. The danger from such misconceptions is that it allows people to believe statements without being careful enough to critically think about them.

In 2017, the education minister of an Indian state went on record claiming that the “cow is the only animal that inhales and exhales oxygen”. Clearly, this statement is not false by itself. All animals exhale the oxygen that was not used in respiration. But the way the statement was made, the unfortunate impression that was conveyed to most people (that perhaps the minister himself believes in), is that the cow was some special creature that somehow generated more oxygen than it breathed in.

Having any kind of belief by itself is not a problem; we are all entitled to hold our personal beliefs. It gets problematic when someone claims that a belief is “scientific”. In that case, it must be subject to scrutiny using the scientific method.

Further, given the strong hierarchical structures in society, be it in education or politics, and our reverence to authority, we tend to trust what is said by our leaders too easily, without asking questions. This makes it easy, for people in positions of authority to spread misinformation, often unintentionally, since even they may have never questioned things themselves.

It hence behooves people in positions of responsibility, especially those connected to science and technology or education to be careful with their statements, and ensure that their beliefs do not get in the way of their official duties. Alas, many of the statements made in the recent past by our leaders have been not just disheartening, but at times laughable.

From the existence of the Internet or genetic engineering in ancient India to the denial of Darwinian evolution, several indefensible statements have been made. Some of the statements were so outrightly ludicrous that they led to widespread protests in the scientific community, and even had to be corrected by the Science Academies, which have traditionally not engaged readily in such circumstances.

The root of the problem is not in the isolated and thoughtless statements made by a minister. It lies in the overall ethos of our society — of the public at large ready to accept what they read or hear without questioning. From herbal shampoos with “all-natural” ingredients to the lucky colour of the week in the astrology column, and from magnetic soles that promote healthy circulation to oxyrich water (with 300 percent more oxygen!), we are happy to take things at face value. While it is always good to have dedicated a day to allow such topics to be brought up, debated and discussed, more than a National Science Temper Day, India needs science temper nationally every day.

Arnab Bhattacharya is the chair of science popularisation and public outreach at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The views expressed here are personal.

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