Fostering Scientific Temper Essay

 The role of reason is to apply scientific knowledge to problems, to grapple with them through the method of scientific inquiry and to work for social transformation inspired by Scientific Temper.

HAVING outlined the essential elements of Scientific Temper, let us survey our national scene. Despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s advocacy of Scientific Temper, we are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly. The modern tools of propaganda and communication are being used to give an impression that there exist instant and magical solutions for the problems that confront our people.

In an age when man has travelled to the moon and returned safely, astrological predictions based on the movements of planets or the lines of one’s palm or the number of alphabets in one’s name, are widely believed. Food fads, irrational health practices are on the increase. In a poor country where millions live below the poverty line, vast amount of wealth is consigned in havanas and yagnas.

Myths are created about our past. The origin and role of the caste system is explained in a way that would justify it and imply that some castes are inherently superior. The ancient period of our history is interpreted to inculcate chauvinism which is false pride; the medieval period is misinterpreted in a way that would fan communalism: and the struggle of our people for freedom is over-simplified as if it was the handiwork of a few great leaders and the masses of our people did not matter.

While it is important to understand the origin of these unscientific beliefs, the more immediate and pressing problem is to understand the remarkable phenomenon or their persistence and the resulting social consequences.

The sustenance of such beliefs and superstitions must be recognised primarily as a historical and social process. Such beliefs continue, because they have ready relevance to the personal situations of the majority of our people. Vast uncertainties of our daily lives, frustration of hopes and aspirations of millions, denial of any vision which would sustain the spirit drives millions to seek mental equilibrium in faith healing. Thus, when one believes that one’s miserable personal situation cannot be improved, acceptance of fatalism becomes natural. Beliefs then rationalise the status quo and breed fatalistic doctrines. In such a situation of social and cultural malaise, a major role of Scientific Temper is to revive confidence and hope and to dispel fatalistic outlook. The campaign to promote Scientific Temper must inculcate values like equality and dignity of all human beings, distributive justice, dignity of labour, and social accountability of one’s actions. All these are essential for bringing about social, economic and cultural transformation of our country.

The emphasis on the method of science does not imply that science and technology have solutions to all human problems at any given time. Indeed, Scientific Temper warns one against the simplistic view that through the introduction and pursuit of science and technology, most social problems and contradictions will automatically get resolved. The role of reason is to apply scientific knowledge to problems, to grapple with them through the method of scientific inquiry and to work for social transformation inspired by Scientific Temper.

We must equally combat the tendency to treat science and technology as a sort of magic. It should be explained that it is unscientific to believe that if scientific and technological solutions exist to a range of problems, these will be automatically adopted. The nature of social stratification and the power structure in a society prevents the acceptance of such solutions. Technologically, one may be able to grow enough food for everyone, but the pattern or income distribution prevents the benefits of increased food production reaching large segments of the population. When the social structure and stratification prevent the application of rational and scientifically proven solutions, the role of Scientific Temper is to lay bare the anatomy of such social barriers.

If we have to regain our place in the world and are not to be relegated once again to the dustbin of history; if we wish to offer a life of fulfilment to our destitute millions; indeed, if the light of our civilisation is not to be extinguished, we have to undertake, on a priority basis, the task of nurturing Scientific Temper. All of us scientists, technologists, social scientists, educationists, teachers, and media men have to join hands andundertake this task. We draw inspiration from the way our people in all walks of life joined hands and struggled against colonial domination of our land and of our minds. We believe, it can be done again if only we have the will. And it must be done without any loss of time. Our nation’s survival and its future depend on upholding Scientific Temper. Superstition shall not pass and darken our portals.

(This extract is part 3 of a 3 part series from the essay “A statement on scientific temper”. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Photo: calsidyrose

Tags: A Statement on Scientific Temper, Editor, Featured, India, Jawaharlal Nehru, reason, Scientific Temper, society

While modern science and technology is now accepted everywhere as an integral part of one’s everyday living, few ever stop to think, particularly in our country, about the obligations which rest on the users of the benefits of science and technology.

The most important of these obligations is the understanding of the scientific method and the development of a scientific outlook. In this article an attempt will be made to detail the need for such an outlook, to define some of the problems in its creation and to make some suggestions in regard to the responsibilities of the scientists in the development of a scientific outlook.

What are Scientific Method and Scientific Outlook?

The benefits of science with which humanity at large are familiar, are seldom recognized by the layman to be a result of a simple, systematic, well defined and objective approach: the application of scientific method to the solution of problems and discovering truth.

The scientific method stands in direct contradiction to the way of religion, dogma and faith which is based on the premise that truth can be revealed and which was the only approach available for solving problems and discovering truth till a few centuries back.

The scientific method rejects revelation as a means of discovering truth and substitutes it by the technique of observation followed by careful experimentation and logical deduction. Thus, in contrast to revelation which is highly personal, the scientific method is universal.

It is only logical that once science has permeated every level of human existence, the method of science must become a way of life and science must be conceived not as knowledge of facts but as a way of thinking. An unqualified acceptance of this role of science, defines ‘scientific outlook’; it is corollary of acceptance of the scientific method as the only way of discovering truth.

Need for a scientific Outlook

It may be perhaps argued that a scientific outlook is necessary only for those who practise science and that such an outlook is of little use to a person who is normally  concerned only with the utilization of the fruits of science and technology and not with science and technology perse. There is no greater fallacy than this.

Today scientific answers are either available, or there are reasons to believe (from the trend of modern researches in chemistry, biology and physics) that such answers will be found in the future to virtually all the major questions which humanity has been asking itself since man came to be endowed with intelligence.

In fact, by providing answers (or opening avenues for the acquisition of such answers) to common questions such as those pertaining to atmospheric or cosmological phenomenon (e.g., rain, thunder, day and night, and eclipses), or to the more sophisticated questions such as the nature of the universe, the origin of life,  the mechanism of heredity, the cause of disease, and the basis of the various physiological processes (including those which control behavior and brain function), science has established the validity of its method and has thus given a new technique to humanity for solving its problems.

Attempts to provide answers to these questions in the past were based on the teachings of religions, dogma, faith, custom, convention and tradition. Science has ultimately proved to be right in every case where its results and conclusions have differed from the teachings of religions, etc. Darwin’s theory of evolution propounded a little over a hundred years ago was vehemently contested by the Church as it went its teachings but is today fully accepted even by the Church.

In view of such astounding successes of science, particularly where its results come in conflict with religion, dogma or the life, it can be assumed with confidence that a scientific outlook,  which is based on an understanding of the method of science, can help arrive at a rational solution, in terms of human resources and knowledge ( and without invoking any supernatural power) of various problems which face man as an individual or as a part of the social community. In fact, a scientific outlook is today a prerequisite for proper appreciation and pursuance of the ideals of liberty, freedom and self-reliance and, in a modern setting, it can be a strong pro-secular force.

Even if one should like to be concerned only with the benefits that science brings to humanity, one would immediately see that a scientific outlook could lead to a better appreciation of the impact of science and technology on society and thereby provide the right kind of atmosphere in which science and technology can flourish and their importance, recognized.

Moreover, such an outlook is essential to ensure application of science and technology exclusively for the benefit (and none for the destruction) of mankind. The presence of a scientific outlook amongst the masses is necessary for developing in the people the desire to understand natural phenomenon and thus to encourage acquisition of fundamentally new knowledge on a large scale. There could be no two opinions about the fact that the whole history of the progress of mankind  is a history of the acquisition of such knowledge.

Problems in the creation of Scientific Outlook

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in developing a scientific climate is the widespread belief in superstition and in the supernatural as a result of uncritical acceptance of the dictates of religion, dogma, faith, customs, convention and tradition. Scientists and intellectuals are no exception to this, particularly in our country.

This dichotomy amongst them is of much greater concern than the belief in superstition or supernatural on the part of a person who has had no access to the fund of modern scientific knowledge. Illiteracy and lack of proper education amongst the masses accentuate the problem. Emphasis should be laid on the word ‘proper’; a large number of existing text books in this country, instead of propagating rational, scientific thinking, do just the opposite.

For example, the bulk of our what is legend and what is history. It is not uncommon to find a highly educated person, even a Ph.D in science, telling you the exact date of the rule of Rama in the country! Lastly one faces the lack of a policy and of adequate media for dissemination of scientific information.

Steps which should be taken for the creation of a scientific outlook and the responsibility of scientific workers in this respect

It is of the utmost importance to make the teaching of science compulsory through schools, and to stress its principles and methods while teaching it. Science teaching must also emphasise the role of science in everyday life, for example in an Indian village. This would involve a complete revision of the syllabus (which should take into consideration the recent developments of science), the development of proper textbooks with adequate provision of frequent revisions, a programme of training of teachers to teach science, and creations of adequate facilities in schools for such teaching. It is clear that this cannot be achieved except though the State and Central departments of education, but the direction for this could and should be provided by a suitably organized body of scientists.

Efforts to improve science teaching should be supplemented by efforts to popularize science. Competent scientists should devote time to write articles in newspapers and help set up a system which would ensure that science reporting in newspapers is true and interesting instead of sensational and prosaic as it mostly is at present. As many popular science journals as possible should be started, for example, there can be one in every institution of the level of a high school or above.

Scientists in positions of influence could see that greater time is devoted on the radio and television to popularize science. At the moment, these two media are doing virtually nothing in this respect.

State Governments should be persuaded to establish at least one science museum  and one museum of natural history in every state. If such museums are established, all school and college students must visit these museums at periodic intervals, and facilitates for such visits, which should be made compulsory, should be provided by their respective institutions. The museums should stress the principles of science, the joy of scientific discovery,  the substitution of irrational with rational thought, and the importance of deductive thinking.

Another way in which scientists could help in the creation of scientific outlook is through the establishment of science associations formed with the express objectives of (a) spreading consciousness of the aim, method and values of science; (b) removing belief in the supernatural and in superstitions; and (c) removing dichotomy amongst scientists themselves.

Lastly, we think the time has come when every scientific  worker – and we include students of science and technology in this category – must do a little bit of introspective thinking with the objective of emancipating himself from all that is anti-science. The basic methodology one learns when one studies science and technology can lead him to only one logical conclusion: the decision to renounce faith in revelation and to apply the scientific method to his everyday living. There cannot be any substitute to the exemplary behavior of scientists themselves as an aid to the propagation of a scientific outlook.

Courtesy :  Angels, Devil and Science
- A Collection of articles on scientific temper

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