Indian Journal of Science Communication (Volume 2/ Number 1/ January – June 2003)

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Scientific Temper : An Issue Above Ideologies

Rakesh Popli
Department of Applied Physics, Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi - 835 215 (Jharkhand)
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The glittering part of the scientific revolution, viz. the development of science-based technologies and the changes these have brought about in lifestyles, is all too apparent. Even the problems arising out of such technologies, and their appropriateness or otherwise in the Indian context, have been discussed at some length from the seventies onwards. Yet, little attention has been paid to the other part, viz. the impact of science on the people’s world-view, way of thinking and work-culture.

Jawaharlal Nehru had the vision of Indian people’s lives being rejuvenated by imbibing the scientific spirit or the ‘temper of science’. During his prime ministership, the basic infrastructure of science, technology and heavy industry was laid with a sense of mission. However, it appears that much attention was not paid specifically to the development of ‘the scientific temper’ (ST) among the people, nor to an understanding of whether and how this ‘temper’ could fit the Indian mind with its deep and ancient sanskaras.

True, an effort was made at the political and intellectual levels (a) to curb ‘revivalist’ forces looking for a national identity and inspiration in ancient traditions of the country. There was also the trend to deny importance to and pooh-pooh the Indian peoples’ ‘pre-scientific’ knowledge-systems and techniques (e.g. Ayurveda, traditional water-management). All this, however, could hardly be called propagation of ST.

ST implies thinking, behaving and making decisions on the basis of relevant objective information and logic. It also means a more positive outlook whereby an individual or community consciously shapes one’s destiny by asking relevant questions and making suitably designed efforts (as against giving in to fatalism or looking for magical solutions). Looking at present-day India, one cannot help feeling the dire need of such an orientation, whether in public life or in individual affairs.

We see that most far-reaching decisions are often made on the basis of whims or petty political or nepotistic considerations, and not on the basis of data, facts and logic. Even academic and intellectual discussions get bogged down in ego-clashes. Witchcraft is practiced in place of rational medical treatment. A majority of the population sulks in fatalism and helplessness in the face of oppressive social and political-bureaucratic structures. Innovative talents are neither looked for nor valued.

In this situation, ST can play a vital role. However, does ST mean a negation of all spontaneity, intuition and accumulated experience of generations? Is measurement and calculation always better than a ‘rough-and-ready’ estimate? Is ST opposed to all religion and faith? How do the ancient traditions and social structures of our Indian society help or hinder the inculcation of ST? And does ST imply accepting all that comes out of the world of science and technology, regardless of the ends being served?

Many of these questions, and more, are critically discussed, perhaps for the first time, in the book Science and Sensibility published by Manthan Publications, Rohtak, Haryana, in the year 1989. It is a compilation of articles and letters on ST, carried mainly by two magazines, "Mainstream" and "Secular Democracy", during 1981-82. Each article is reviewed by the compiler, Dr. K.V. Subbaram, who is a professor of Physics, prominent science activist and poet.

The book begins with "A Statement on the Scientific Temper" prepared and signed in 1980 by several dozen eminent public persons led by P.N. Haksar (former Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), Dr. Raja Ramanna (former Secretary, Atomic Energy Commission) and Dr. P.M. Bhargava (reputed microbiologist).

The signatories come from diverse backgrounds (within the English-speaking elite circle) – there are scientists, social scientists, policy-makers and social workers. Hardly any of them are experts in the methodology/philosophy of science. They have various individual concerns as reflected in their respective subsequent articles included in the book. Thus, whereas Drs. B.M. Udgaonkar and V.G. Kulkarni feel upset over the unscientific and irrational ways in which top decision-makers of the country do their job, others like Tara Ali Baig are moved by the plight of the weak and helpless.

Dr. P.M. Bhargava has a very fundamental (and doctrinaire) concern about the prevalence of non-scientific beliefs, which he feels should be countered by all educational, communicational and legal means. Whereas many (say, Drs. Raja Ramanna and M.G.K. Menon) do not see ST as being opposed to religious and spiritual values, others like P.N. Haksar regard the rise of religious ‘obscurantism’, belief in ‘god-men’ and astrology, etc. as the ultimate negation of ST. Again, there are ideologues like Mohit Sen and Dr. Bipin Chandra, who would apparently like to use ST for propagating their own (leftist) way of looking at history, as well as pragmatists like Dr. Dinesh Mohan, who emphasize the need to ‘catch up’ with the rest of the world.

All these varied concerns and ideological positions are reflected in the above-mentioned Statement (or the Manifesto, as we shall refer to it). It underlines the importance of propagating ST among the masses in making a resurgent India. It makes a strong plea for inculcating a spirit of enquiry and questioning of the existing order. It also points out that a systematic and planned utilization of our technological capabilities (and human faculties in general) to solve our national problems is not possible in the absence of ST. It explains that ST is not just knowledge of scientific facts nor rationalism but an outlook and process leading to an ordered understanding of man and his environment. However, when it lays down four attributes of ST, the above broad and universal approach to ST gives way to an exclusive emphasis on a particular knowledge-system, viz. the method of science.

In particular, it proclaims the doctrine that one must question whatever is incompatible with science-generated knowledge. Further, values like equality of human beings and distributive justice are somehow sought to be made parts of ST. Elements of western ideologies are also imported into the Manifesto when it sees the human being solely as the ‘maker of destiny’ (underplaying the ‘spectator’ aspect).

No attempt is made to reconcile ST with Indian traditions and social structures; instead, ST is seen as "beleaguered and besieged" by these. Moreover, science is pitted against religion: " ..... While science is universal, established religions and religious dogmas are divisive". It ends by not only condemning superstitions and irrational ways of making decisions, but also lamenting havans and yajnas, ‘irrational health practices’ and ‘food fads’.

The ensuing discussion, in the form of articles and letters in response to the Manifesto, soon turns into a largely adversarial debate in the book. There are several ‘protagonists’ of the Manifesto. The ‘antagonists’ include two distinct categories. On the one hand, there are Drs. Ashis Nandy and Vandana Shiva, who question the superiority of the method of science as against the ‘collective wisdom’ of Indian people. On the other hand, we find leftists like Deepak Dhawan who see the Manifesto as an alibi on part of the highly-placed signatories to escape responsibility for perpetuating an inegalitarian order, and who would like ST to explicitly include a commitment to a socialist revolution.

Then there is H.K. Chaturvedi calling upon scientists to set their own house in order first. The pitch of the argument is raised so high that Sethi and Mohan are constrained to observe, "Assertions, counter-assertions and hysterical accusations become more important than the issues involved."

At one point, Nandy’s sharp criticism of the Manifesto itself becomes the centre of the debate. He examines each line of the Manifesto (and reads between the lines) and brings out hidden connotations rather loudly (and uncharitably). He appears reasonable when he asserts that, in social matters and even in material ones, the scientist’s decision may not be unquestionable. But then he goes further and associates science with war and destruction. He even charges that the Manifesto’s plea "for the fullest use of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human behaviour from ethics to politics and economics ....." is a call for the destruction of all spontaneity, rebellion and wisdom. This may appear like "crying wolf", as it does to Dr. Boudhayan Chattopadhyay and others.

However, the subsequent injunctions issued by Subbaram and several others, to worship science like a god that can never be questioned except by the method of science itself, appear to justify Nandy’s skepticism to an extent.

The problem with most articles, starting with parts of the Manifesto itself, is a kind of fundamentalism, particularly a generous use of blanket statements. If the scientific spirit and curiosity is one wonderful human faculty, the Manifesto appears to belittle, even deride, other faculties. To many supporters of ST, including Subbaram, the reviewer, any knowledge-system other than science is no more than witchcraft. To the Nandys and Shivas, on the other hand, science and technology can cause only war, destruction and misery.

It is interesting how historical and other facts are either blissfully ignored or seen through coloured glasses of ideologies. Thus, the Manifesto wishfully sees the scientific spirit as the moving force behind the national struggle for freedom, dismissing any inspiration drawn from the glory of ancient India as an "unfortunate compromise".

The debate is not without its use, though: many partial truths and mutually conflicting viewpoints are thrown about, which the reader can try to join together and make a wholesome picture.

Most debaters throw a good deal of mud at religion, rituals, ‘obscurantism’ and ‘god-men’. Significantly, the issue is not joined on behalf of religion and faith by anyone except by the much-criticized Nandy. Interestingly, the attack on religion comes with reference to the good old Galileo episode. The relevance for us of Galileo’s tiff with the fundamentalist Christian church of medieval Europe is not clear, considering that there was never any such persecution or inquisition in Hindu India. Nevertheless, the Manifesto appears to hold the "deep-rooted structures of (our) ancient society" as the chief obstacle to the propagation of ST in India. This is repeated by other luminaries like Purushottam Agarwal et al., Subbaram, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Gautam Adhikari. This prompts one to wonder whether the debate is not being made a vehicle for ideologies that have little to do with science.

It is also hard to accept at face value the Manifesto signatories’ claim to fight on behalf of common people against the establishment. Many of them have been in the top rungs of the establishment. They are worried about ‘wasteful’ havans and yajnas of commoners, but not about whole arrays of useless and destructive items (e.g. soft drinks, racing cars, armaments) being produced by the world of science and technology.

Dr. P.M. Bhargava, who, in a separate article, proposes a large number of measures for propagation of ST, is strangely silent about the disastrous role of English medium in children’s early education in stifling all inquiry, discussion and creativity. He does advocate many steps to propagate the "conceptual framework (of science)", but none to encourage, recognize and nurture down-to-earth innovation and creativity among common people. This gives a chance to skeptics to wonder whether ST is not being made another instrument for perpetuating the hegemony of the westernized elite and technocrats over common people.

The review of each article by Subbaram is a mixed bag. He is quite sharp, hilarious at times and virulent at others. His baseline for criticism is his unshakable faith in science, the scientific method and western liberal human values, coupled with a compulsive scorn for religion, particularly of the Hindu variety. He sharply attacks virtually all Indian scientists for having "spirit (spirituality) in their veins instead of science" and bemoans "the tragic fact" that Bhabha chose such scientists as his associates. He ends by calling for a purge of all such scientists from the ranks of the ST movement.

There are many vital questions concerning ST not touched upon in the book. First, what is the method by which pre-scientific communities gain knowledge of nature, and how is it to be interfaced with the method of science? In particular, what situations in the contemporary day-to-day life in India demand the use of the method of science and other methods respectively? Second, if science education in India is not succeeding in inculcating ST among students at large (and even among scientists), why not? Is it the fault of functionaries alone, or are there basic flaws in the education policy? Third, can ST become an instrument for criticizing and checking the reckless onslaught of the science-technology-industry-commerce-advertisement complex on our individual and collective lives? How?


The author is grateful to Prof. Dharmendra Kumar and Dr. K. L. Mehra for reading the manuscript and offering critical comments.

This piece could have easily passed as a book review but the subject has enough substance and relevance to be offered to the readers for their views in this new column ‘Debate’. - Editor

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