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Going off balance

While we enjoy more and more the fruits of science, the respect for science is going down, writes Rajesh Kochhar.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2006 03:04 IST

There is an interesting scientific principle at work on the surface of the earth. Nature believes in counter-balance. Oceans are large bodies of water with low density. As if to compensate, the rocks beneath oceans are very dense. Similarly, mountains are masses of high density, but the soil below is of low density.

This principle seems to operate in human affairs also. In the Indian context, the rigidity of the age-old caste system has at long last found a counterweight in the demand for promotion by right in government service. The altruism inherent in the setting up of the world wide web and the ease in flow of information on the internet is sought to be balanced by insistence on intellectual property rights.

In the years immediately following World War II, people were acutely conscious of differences in ethnicity, culture, language, food habits, dress, etc. As a balancing exercise, commonalties were sought, leading to a general atmosphere of liberalism. Today, when homogenisation in areas such as entertainment, food and dress has become overwhelming, there are attempts the world over to accentuate differences.

The same phenomenon is visible within the domain of science and technology too. There was a time when differences in availability of technologies were glaring. Now that levels of accessible, everyday technologies are more or less uniform, science is being asked to supply differences. Since mainstream science is rather unglamorous and predictable, the task has been assigned to pseudo-science. That would explain why interest in science is going down and mumbo-jumbo is gaining currency.

Media coverage of events presents a good illustration. All television channels have the same technology, the same viewership and the same ground to cover. Yet, each channel wants an exclusive story. During the recent Kashmir earthquake, television journalists dug up a university professor, who declared that the earthquake was related to the appearance of spots on the surface of the sun. This was exclusive indeed. Because the standard view, at least at the current level of knowledge, is that it is not possible to predict earthquakes. There is no correlation of earthquakes with solar activity, planetary conjunctions or mating habits of snakes.

The lure of two minutes of prime-time immortality encourages people to come up with theories for consumption by the media, knowing fully well that scientific journals would dismiss them with the contempt they deserve.

In the past, the whole population utilised its mental faculties at more or less the same level. Now an increasingly smaller number of people are using their intellect and  skills to higher levels to devise a technological world where ever-increasing numbers of people do not have to use their brains at all. While we enjoy more and more the fruits of science, the respect for science is going down. Some counter-balancing this!