The (un)scientific temper of India | Opinion

Updated on Mar 29, 2020 08:39 PM IST
Despite embracing advanced technologies, Indians are unable to think scientifically
The absence of a scientific understanding of the virus and the need for physical distancing could accentuate the crisis(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
The absence of a scientific understanding of the virus and the need for physical distancing could accentuate the crisis(Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)
ByPrajval Shastri & Sharachchandra Lele

One billion Indians “curfewed” themselves on March 22 to heed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call and demonstrate unity in the fight against Covid-19. The day’s finale, which had the whole populace resonating in a metallic harmony of gratitude towards our medical workers, was touching. However, the moment was vitiated by claims, even by educated citizens, that the cumulative reverberations “boosted blood circulation in the body” and “rendered the virus ineffective”. Some super-obedient ones, including the Pilibhit district magistrate, led clanging and conch-blowing processions while being dangerously undistanced. A story snowballed on social media that the virus had indeed “receded” as per satellite data gathered by NASA, prompting this government to ask social media companies to control the spread of misinformation.

This was just the latest in a series of such superstitious acts. The minister of state for social justice and empowerment thought it appropriate to lead a tight cluster of people to chant “Go Corona Go”. This inspired replication by even larger gatherings in the unlikeliest of places such as “IT-city” Bengaluru’s airport. People drank cow urine as a preventive against the virus (even as they held their noses), egged on and applauded by people holding public office. Needless to say, such actions get an indirect boost when the department of science and technology earmarks funding for research on “Products from Indigenous Cows: SUTRA-PIC India Program.”

To make matters worse, reports of stigmatisation, ostracisation and eviction of not just those suspected of infection, but of airline staff who ferried them, and worse, of medical workers, are trickling in daily. Coming right after the public applause for medical doctors, this is a sad reflection on our values. But it also shows a basic lack of understanding of how flu-like infections work. Are we then the modern and forward-looking, knowledge-based society we claim to be?

This is hardly the first time that the science deficit in our society has raised its ugly head and highlighted the paradox embedded in us.

On the one hand, Indians have embraced modern technologies in daily living, with mobile phones and foetal diagnosis equipment penetrating deep into the rural hinterland. Chandrayaan-2 caught the public imagination. On the other hand, among the same people, there appears to be little recognition of the science that underlies these technologies. Indeed, the use of scientific thinking to understand even simple natural phenomena is absent. Solar and lunar eclipses witness countrywide shut-downs, with pregnant women caged in, food thrown away, and science graduates, engineers and even PhDs watching eclipses on TV instead of experiencing, learning from, and teaching about the beauty of the real spectacle. Claiming cow urine to be a treatment for Covid-19 is part and parcel of a deep-rooted deficit of scientific temper even in our educated populace.

While reinventing India as a Republic, our leaders had actually articulated the cultivation of scientific thinking as a priority for its people. As early as 1958, the Science Policy Resolution adopted by Parliament acknowledged that “….the intense cultivation of science on a large scale… has… radically altered man’s material environment,… provided new tools of thought and has extended man’s mental horizon… influenced the basic values of life, and given… civilisation a new vitality and … dynamism… The Government decided… to foster, promote and sustain… the cultivation of science and scientific research…pure, applied and educational.”

Indeed scientific temper as a fundamental duty is enshrined in the Constitution. These have not been mere words. Large funding agencies were created specifically for science. The country was dotted with generously-funded science institutes of excellence that now claim to be on par with global standards. Science courses are funded in almost all universities. Moreover, science has been a mandatory subject in school education.

Why then this wide and deep-rooted presence of unscientific mindsets?

Clearly our early science education is hugely culpable. It values information load over understanding, has sidelined learning-by-doing, and built a culture of unquestioning obedience. There is also a lack of clarity as to why we are teaching science and not just how. Science is thought of as a subject and not as a way of life.

We also need to look at the culture within scientific institutions. Science research in laboratories is driven a bit by curiosity, but mostly for personal livelihood and glory. There is no demand to subscribe to the scientific method as a way of life. Furthermore, scientists are typically quite disengaged from early science education, and appear to be content to skim the cream that willy-nilly floats to the top, with no regard to the scientifically illiterate sea below. Finally, surprisingly few scientists engage with lay audiences, mass media or the government. And the State, while not demanding that public engagement be an imperative in our taxpayer-funded science institutions, is not even, for example, enforcing the Cable Television Networks law which prohibits content that encourages superstition or blind belief.

While some may argue that huddling at home during an eclipse does not hurt anybody, a lack of scientific understanding as to how the Covid-19 virus behaves and propagates, why physical distancing is needed, and that public poojas and the like could actually be harmful are only accentuating the crisis.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Prajval Shastri is an astrophysicist from Bengaluru, and Sharachchandra Lele is an environmental scientist from Bengaluru
The views expressed are personal
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