The deafening silence of scientists

Few Indian scientists argue for the freedom of thought and are able to stand up against pseudoscience

In December 1954, Meghnad Saha, one of India’s foremost astrophysicists and an elected parliamentarian, wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal 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”. By referring to the characters in Shakespeare’s Othello, an aggrieved Saha was showing his displeasure at a situation that he perceived to be bad for Indian science wherein the courtship between the state and science was being ruined by the Machiavellian advisers of the then Prime Minister.

A glorious tradition forgotten

We have come a long way from Nehruvian times when scientists could afford to be directly critical of the Prime Minister and still expect to get a pat on their shoulder in return. Over the past few years, a pernicious political landscape that encourages intolerance and superstition has been developed. This has proved to be non-conducive for the time-tested scientific model and freedom of inquiry. For the creation of knowledge, one should be able to think and express themselves freely. One also needs to have a space for dissent, which is a fundamental requirement for democracies to thrive. Are our scientists vocal enough to argue for the freedom of thought and are they able to stand up against pseudoscience? Their silence has given rise to the perception that they too are complicit in creating an unhealthy atmosphere of ultra-nationalism and jingoism, where the glorious tradition followed by socially committed scientists like Saha is forgotten.

We have seen this lack of reactivity from Indian scientists and science academies on many occasions in the recent past, starting with the conduct of the 102nd Indian Science Congress in 2015. How did a session suffused with extreme nationalism and promoting junk science find its way into this prestigious meet? How was it vetted and approved by a high-profile committee containing the country’s front-ranking scientists? Completely sidelining the real scientific contributions made in ancient and medieval times, ridiculous claims were made in that forum about ancient ‘Bharat’ being a repository of all modern knowledge. Except a few, like the late Pushpa Bhargava, who always fretted about the lack of scientific temper among Indian scientists, most of our leaders in science chose to ignore something that was patently wrong.

Pseudo-scientific remarks by responsible political leaders have continued to hog the limelight ever since. Even when a former Union Minister insisted that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was scientifically wrong, leading scientists remained silent save a few. More recently, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief made a misinformed statement that the DNA of all the people in India has been the same for 40,000 years. His message clearly goes against the proven fact that Indians have mixed genetic lineages originating from Africa, the Mediterranean, and Eurasian steppes. As a part of revisionist history-writing, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur has now issued a 2022 calendar. The purpose of it is to argue for a Vedic cultural foundation for the Indus Valley Civilisation — a theory that goes against all the available evidence; morphing an Indus Valley single-horned bull seal into a horse will not solve the evidentiary lacuna. A retinue of junk science propagators and new-age ‘gurus’ have been flourishing in this anti-science environment, often marketing questionable concoctions including cow products to cure COVID-19 and even homosexuality, as though it is some sort of disease. Pseudoscience has provided a foundational base for a huge money-making industry that successfully peddles quackery by sustaining and exploiting the people’s ignorance.

Our social and political life resonates uncannily with the fascist era of the 1930s-40s when Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini argued that the “white race” was locked in a deadly demographic competition with races of “lesser purity” whose numbers were growing much faster. It can be instructive in our current political climate to reflect on how science failed as a bulwark against such regressive viewpoints. The science historian, Massimo Mazzotti, at the University of California, Berkeley, ably showed how the fascist regime in Italy, using various intimidation and surveillance tactics, made academic elites toe the official line. The faculties did so without making an actual anti-fascist choice. Instead, they entered the grey zone of cynical detachment. It was due to cynicism and careerism that the scientists of Italy derided racist policies as foolish in private but did not bother to question them publicly. Like Italy, racism and ‘othering’ was very much a part of the political landscape in Germany under the Nazi regime, which saw a big exodus of high-ranking scientists with Jewish tags.

Reasons for toeing the line

As discussed by Naresh Dadhich, an Indian theoretical physicist, in an article, one of the reasons for this acquiescence is that scientific research relies almost entirely on funding from the government. So, a fear of retribution acts against the idea of engagement with society. Another equally valid reason is that our contemporary science researchers remain entirely cut off from liberal intellectual discourse, unlike in the initial years after Independence. For most scientists today, the idea of science as a form of argument remains foreign. For many of them, exposure to the social sciences is minimal at university. They also don’t get trained in a broad range of social topics at the school level.

Globally, STEM students downplay altruism and arguably demonstrate less social concern than students from other streams. The blame squarely lies with the pedagogy followed in our science education system. The leading science and technology institutes recruit students right after school and largely host one or two perfunctory social science courses. Students, thus, mostly remain oblivious to the general liberal intellectual discourse. This issue is of major concern, as the 21st century is witnessing a new rise of illiberal democracy with fascist tendencies that generate intolerance and exclusion in various parts of the world, including India. We are also living at a time when scientific advice is marginalised in public policy debates ranging from natural resource use to environmental impacts.

In the early 20th century, many leading scientists were deeply engaged with philosophy and had developed a distinctive way of thinking about the implications of science on society. They were much more proactive about societal issues. The continuity of that legacy appears to have broken. A cowed-down scientific enterprise is not helpful in retaining the secular autonomy of academic pursuits. To regain this cultural space among younger practitioners, science education must include pedagogical inputs that help learners take a deliberative stand against false theories that could undermine civil society and democratic structures.

C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and an author of a forthcoming book, ‘Earthquakes of the Indian Subcontinent’. Views are personal

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