For those of us who believe in the primacy of science, the recent Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai was remarkable not for its contribution to the progress of human knowledge, but its disconnection from the true meaning of science. Alongside legitimate lectures on antibiotic resistance and the origins of life, a former pilot trainer spoke of how an ancient Hindu sage, not the Wright Brothers, invented the first airplane – and this one could fly in all directions, backwards, forwards and sideways, and even travel between planets. At the Congress, Indian Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan claimed Indians, not the Greeks, discovered the Pythagorean theorem, and another minister remarked that a helmet from the Mahbharata was delivered to Mars.
It’s one thing when regular folks mix mythology with science, and it’s quite another when it’s done by the government of the second most populous nation on Earth. If those in charge of setting national policy for India do not understand how human development has been bolstered by science – which places reality above human bias – then how will that policy address the true needs of the people?
Science isn’t perfect, to be sure. But when it comes to the advancement of the human race, it’s the best thing we have going. It’s the reason we have space travel and motor bikes and a polio vaccine and iPads. The essence of science is the discovery of reality, which frees us from the biases and delusions that emerged from the fact that our brains evolved from our animal ancestors, who were more concerned about avoiding predators than understanding the nature of the universe.
The reason humans have advanced so much more in the past 300 years than we did in the previous 50,000 is because of the advent of the scientific method. All scientists understand that evidence must be followed regardless of where it leads. That one must attempt to prove theories wrong as much as trying to show they’re right. That the ultimate judge of truth is experimentation, not pre-conceived notions of how we’d like things to be.
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks of Lord Ganesha as a feat of ancient Hindu plastic surgery, or when his ministers seek to introduce outlandish, unproved claims in the national education curriculum, the bastardization of science is not the only reason for concern. To further the cause of development, to compete in the 21st century, to claim India’s rightful place in the world of research and development, India needs a clear scientific vision emanating from the top.
Before the latest Indian Science Congress, Dr. Ram Prasad Gandhirman, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California, organized an online petition – signed by more than 220 scientists and academicians worldwide – demanding the cancellation of the lecture on “Ancient Indian Aviation Technology” as an affront to the “integrity of the scientific progress.”
“We as scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with backing of influential political parties. Giving a scientific platform for a pseudo-science talk is worse than a systematic attack that has been carried out by politically powerful pseudo-science propagandists in the recent past. If we scientists remain passive, we are betraying not only the science, but also our children,” the petition says.
Modern science is the most significant human adventure in history, responsible for unprecedented progress. Debasing it by confusing it with mythology is the exactly the wrong approach for a government that won its mandate on promises of development.
Steven Gutkin, who has reported from some two dozen countries around the world, runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt.