[Editorial] Scientists’ Role in Fighting Pseudoscience

Example of Meghnad Saha:

  • Meghnad Saha was one of the leading astrophysicists from India. He was also an elected parliamentarian.
  • In 1954, he wrote to the then PM Nehru, “My request to you is that you do not smother your Desdemonas on the report of men like this particular Iago. I sometimes believe there are too many Iagos about you, as there have been in history about every person of power and prestige.”
  • Here, Saha was referring to characters in Othello, a tragedy by Shakespeare. Saha was self-identifying with Desdemona- the faithful but misunderstood character of the play and was describing Nehru’s advisors as Iago- the main antagonist of the play.
  • By making allusions to characters from the well-known play, Saha was conveying his displeasure at how the PM’s treacherous advisors were ruining the relation between the state and science in post-Independent India.

What is the current situation in India?

  • India has come a long way since the times when scientists directly criticized the head of the government and expected a pat on the shoulder in return.
  • The Indian political landscape has developed into one that encourages superstition and intolerance. This has become unfavourable for freedom of inquiry.
  • This lack of response from the scientific community has been witnessed on several occasions recently-
    • During the 102nd Indian Science Congress in 2015, junk science and extreme nationalism made its way into the prestigious sessions. Questions have been raised about how such a high-profile committee composed of leading scientists approved such content.
    • The real scientific contributions made by scientists during the ancient and medieval period have been side-lined while ridiculous claims were made about ‘ancient Bharat’ being the repository of all modern knowledge.
    • Very few- like the late Pushpa Bhargava– raise concern about the lack of scientific temper among the scientists. Most of the leaders in science are choosing to ignore patently wrong claims.
    • When a former Union Minister claimed that the Darwinian Theory of Evolution was wrong, most of the leading scientists remained silent.
    • The recent claim by RSS chief that the DNA of Indian people has remained unchanged for 40,000 years was met with silence from the scientific community. This is despite evidence showing that the Indian people have mixed genetic lineages, with links to Africa, the Mediterranean region and the Eurasian Steppes.
    • Recently, IIT Kharagpur issued a 2022 calendar in a move widely seen as revisionist history writing. It argues that a Vedic cultural foundation for the ancient Indus Valley Civilization– which stands in contradiction to all available evidence.
    • Junk science propagators and new age ‘gurus’ have been marketing questionable products while the scientific community continue to keep its silence. Eg: cow products to ‘cure homosexuality’ and cure COVID-19.
  • Meanwhile, pseudo-scientific remarks by political leaders continue to hog the limelight.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

Why is this concerning?

  • Such prevalence of pseudoscience has created the base for a large money making industry that peddles quackery by exploiting the ignorance of the common people.
  • The silence of the scientists has created the perception that they are complicit in the creation of this unhealthy atmosphere, fraught with jingoism and ultra-nationalism.
  • Our political and social life strangely resonates with the 1930s-1940s when Hitler and Mussolini created the impression that the ‘white race’ was losing in a deadly demographic competition with the ‘less pure’ races, whose population was increasing at a much faster rate.
  • Science historians have shown that the fascist regime used intimidation and surveillance to keep the academic elites on a leash in Italy and ensure that they toe the official line.
    • The faculties chose the grey zone of cynical detachment. This careerism and cynicism meant that the scientists, back then, derided the racist policies of the state as foolish in private while keeping their silence in public.
    • Similarly, this racism and ‘othering’ were part of the German political landscape under the Nazi regime. The period saw a huge exodus of high-ranking scientists from the country.

Why is this happening?

  • According to Naresh Dadhich (a theoretical physicist), one of the reasons for this acquiescence is that research relies greatly on state funding. Hence, the fear of retribution restricts scientists’ tendency to engage with the society.
  • In contrast to the early post-Independence period, contemporary researchers in the scientific community aren’t involved in liberal intellectual discourses. For many, the idea of science as a type of argument is foreign and the exposure to social sciences at universities is minimal.
  • There isn’t much training in social topics at school level either.
  • STEM students across the world generally tend to downplay altruism and tend to demonstrate lesser social concern that other streams’ students. The blame lies with the pedagogy followed in the science education system.
  • Leading S&T institutes take in students right after school and host very few perfunctory social science courses. This leaves the students mostly oblivious to the general liberal discourse.
  • This is of concern as the 21st century is seeing a rise of illiberal democracies with dictatorial tendencies that fuel intolerance and exclusion in different parts of the world. This is also a time when scientific advice is being marginalized in public policy debates across a range of topics like use of natural resources and climate change.

What is the way ahead?

  • Freedom to think and express oneself is key to creation of knowledge. Having a space for dissent is fundamental for democracies to thrive.
  • In early 20th century, scientists were deeply engaged in philosophy and had cultivated a distinctive way of thinking about science’s implications for the society. They were proactive about social issues. The continuity of this legacy seems to have been broken.
  • To preserve this cultural space for the younger scientists, education must include pedagogical inputs that encourage learners take a stand against pseudoscientific theories that have the potential to endanger the democratic structure and the civil society.

Conclusion:

A cowed down scientific community is of no help to ensuring the secular autonomy of academic pursuits. In times endangered by fake news and pseudoscience, the scientific community needs to overcome cynicism and careerism to take a stand against such regressive and destructive ideas. This is needed for the society to progress.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x