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Cirque de la Science: Treat the disease, not the symptoms

Indian-born Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had once called the Indian Science Congress a “circus”. There aren’t many grounds to dispute the label following the most recent events. Several people have come up with different explanations and diagnoses followed by prescriptions to prevent such.

The Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister has written up an elaborate apologetic blog post for the farce. Under the guise of touching upon pertinent issues, several tangential points were raised, needlessly muddying the waters.

On the other hand, there is another point of view that seems to imply that people making these claims are doing so to ingratiate themselves to the Prime Minister and other Union Ministers who made similar claims at previous Indian Science Congresses. Hence, one argument ss that doing away with political participation in such meetings can tackle the menace of pseudoscience.

While this may be true, it begs the question of what ministers hope to achieve by making such claims. Clearly, subjecting themselves to popular ridicule is not their intent. Secondly, these ministers are fully aware that what they say is going to be reported and widely disseminated, so it is only reasonable to assume that they want it reported.

It can be argued that the media seems to focus undue attention on such outbreaks of pseudoscience, but do not cover developments in science and technology. This again may be true, but one has to ask why? The media covers something either because lots of people are going to read it or because the powers that be want something to be publicised. Ideally, the media would like both. It could be argued, albeit by the credulous, that the media in India is “free” and the powers that be have no role in what is written, but besides coercion, of which there is plenty, compliance is easily ensured through patronage in terms of access and government ads which increasingly play a major role in sustaining media outlets.

The media reporting on the events around the Indian Science Congress has a two-faced character, in that it conveys different messages to different audiences. On the one hand, the claims appear outlandish and ridiculous to the sophisticated, elite, English-speaking, secular audience. But on the other hand, it plays to the carefully cultivated prejudices of the rest of the population. The fact that the reporters may themselves be “secular intellectuals” who accompany their reports with a lot of hand wringing, adds even more value.

Firstly, Indians have long been fed a steady diet of how great their country is. It is important to recognise that there are both Hindu nationalist and secular versions of this diet, the former playing to themes of glorious past, rich heritage etc., and the latter to diversity, democracy, freedom, etc.

But this narrative does not withstand even minimal contact with reality, either when people just go and see things elsewhere, or the myriad other ways that unfiltered information from overseas can now penetrate. Similarly, when people hear of major scientific advances - be it dark energy, the Higgs boson, the discovery of the oldest animal, they are happening elsewhere with minimal Indian contribution, if that.

Although incongruous with reality, the narrative faces very little systematic opposition. Hence, the gap is filled by tales about aeroplanes in ancient India, test tube babies in ancient India etc. Recall that the outlandish claims in this year’s edition was in the Children’s Science Congress directed at young, impressionable minds, and not papers or research presentations directed at peers.

Even when it comes to serious, factually accurate, science reporting, very little reporting about Indian science places it in the context of other developments around the world. There is a tendency to systematically exaggerate the nature of the advancement on the one hand, and the extent of the Indian contribution on the other, if it is an international collaboration. For example, when the Nobel Prize for gravitational waves was announced, one prominent Indian media outlet chose to beat the nationalist drum, running a story about the Indian contribution to gravitational waves, choosing not to sully readers minds with mundane details like what gravitational waves are. One may well regard this as harmless, or even beneficial in terms of encouraging people to take up science by presenting positive success stories of people from backgrounds similar to theirs, but nevertheless the fact is that it exists.

Additionally, there is a serious lack of scientific temper i.e. credibility of information is gauged by authority, not reason. Most people trace their information and opinions to authority - of teachers, doctors, maybe eminent scientists, other kinds of intellectuals, politicians, swamijis etc. It is a short step from this to whatsapp forwards, facebook messages, twitter messages etc, especially when they come with pictures or videos that look real.

To some extent, this is traceable to highly specialised division of labour which leaves people with limited exposure to fields outside that of their own expertise. In India, there are several interrelated specific factors that reinforce and expand the scope of this tendency. Firstly, religious-philosophical teachings about doing one’s duty and not worrying about other things, which discourage people from thinking deeply about “other” issues, or even dismiss it as idle speculation. Secondly, the caste ideology that promotes and normalises very strict division of labour and the formation of hierarchies and sub-cultures. Thirdly, decolonisation in India has been the process of natives taking over positions from which colonial authority was exercised without much structural change, and therefore similar habits and culture continue which were really the product of the institutions needing to function rather than the subjective will of the individual operatives.

All of this has resulted in over-specialisation and formation of intellectual silos. For example, doctors opinions are sometimes regarded as the truth. It is accepted that doctors may well have other considerations besides patients’ welfare, but at the same time, the matter is regarded as too complex to reason out for themselves. Additionally, ordinary people are likely to be intimidated by doctors behaving like their social superiors, and other intellectuals too are likely to be intimidated by a stream of technical jargon.

So finally, what is to be done? It’s true that we are not about to abolish division of labour, for the simple reason that labour productivity is not high enough to enable it. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Children must be taught to question, criticise, even actively disrespect authority and “elders”. This must be part of a wider campaign against feudal customs and medieval superstition. The habit of carrying out experiments and drawing their own conclusions too needs to play a greater role in school education compared to digesting received information. Similar sorts of prescriptions should apply to peasants in need of scientific inputs, and other social classes who have not been formally educated to a high level. A narrow focus on merely communicating scientific results will be of interest and utility principally to the elites, but of limited utility to the broad masses who are often distrustful of science for various social reasons.

The views expressed by the author are his own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Research Matters.