Our Pseudoscientific Fervour
Sixty children dying in five days at a Gorakhpur hospital in Uttar Pradesh is a symptom of what ails science in India. Seventy years since Independence, such tragedies can’t only be called ‘administrative failures’. The bigger malaise lies in how science is seen and practiced in this country.
Other than atomic science and space technology — possibly due to their direct association with the nationalist pose — little else scientific is celebrated in this country. The hallmark of this neglect is the paltry sum that goes by the name of budget allocation for science and technology. It is a cruel joke in the name of giving impetus to research.
A couple of decades ago, agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan had said that “Indian science has lost its champions with the passing away of [Homi] Bhabha, [Meghnad] Saha and [PC] Mahalanobis”. In the1950s and 1960s, the big strides India took in the fields of science are largely due to these gentlemen and many of their colleagues. The politics of the day did allow a sympathetic ear to be lent to scientists, and researchers lobbied hard to create great institutions, laboratories and technology research hubs. Even private enterprise came forward to encourage science education and research.
Things began to change in the mid-1970s. The country’s first nuclear test in1974 at Pokhran had been showcased as the pinnacle of nuclear physics research in India. In 1975, Emergency was promulgated and science suffered collateral damage. While atomic science continued to enjoy ‘political patronage’, the rest of the scientific establishment had little support.
By the mid-1980s, there was a distinct lack of encouragement in the form of better opportunities, portrayal of science in society and funding. Simp- ly put, India is not proud of its researchers and scientists.
How is science viewed in India? Indian astronomers and astrophysicists led by Prof Joydeep Bagchi of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy an Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and Prof Somak Raychaudhury, director, IUCAA, recently announced the discovery of Saraswati, a large supercluster of galaxies located in the direction of the constellation Pisces, at a distance of 4,000 million light years from Earth.
While the report appeared on several media outlets, there seemed to be little excitement. Very few people noticed it, and the discovery ended up being just a research paper in a journal. Other countries — and their people — would have proudly shouted from the rooftops about such a find.
There is little enthusiasm, other than celebrating a National Science Day and marking the launch of Chandrayaan to champion science among future scientists. No wonder, despite having a sizeable number of research labs, quality output is few and far between.
There is no dearth of talent in this country, which has been proved time and again by the performance of Indians working abroad as scientists and technologists. But a scientific temper essential for nurturing young minds is sadly missing in India.
Reasons range from shortage of funding to the lack of modern scientific curricula. But it appears that Indians don’t view science as an essential part of development. The dependence on quacks and yogis to solve medical problems, relying on religious scriptures to explain regular phenomena such as eclipses, treating scientific advancement as a result of past yajnas are just a few things that colour our vision against scientific method.
There is no effort whatsoever to encourage rational thinking — pitting superstition against time-tested scientific truths, or discouraging people to accept facts without questioning them. So, when gomutra (cow urine) is touted as a panacea for all ailments, there is little resistance against its use or even testing its efficacy.
As more and more children die in UP and we celebrate another Independence Day, science in India braces to fight for another day. India will soon be the most-populous country in the world. With less than three researchers for every 10,000 people, we are not helping the cause of scientific development.
Making pious statements and flashing the latest gadgets do not give oxygen to the dying embers of scientific temper in India. It needs radical solutions in the form of funds, active political support and, above all, encouragement to ask questions before accepting ‘cures’ like gomutra.
Not a vet’s chart