Friday, August 19th, 2022 17:00:29

Scientific Temper

Updated: October 25, 2014 1:03 pm

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the heady post-independence years, when our leaders were giving shape to our emerging nation, science was given a predominant role. Nehru’s vision for India included the ‘scientific temper’, which would lead to the unlearning of biases and untested beliefs and it was hoped that people would be prompted to at least question—if not give up—superstitious practices altogether. Nehru wanted that scientific temper should characterise all Indians. It called for objectivity, open-mindedness, empiricism, respect for accuracy, a logical bent of mind and so on. It did not necessitate the formal study of any branch of science.

Many scientists are capable of speaking competently on literature, paintings and music but many artists, musicians and writers are generally incapable of holding a discussion on even the basic topics of science. A physicist friend was lamenting that people were practically unaware of Tagore the scientist. “They only associate sangeet and nrityanatya with Tagore—why is Tagore’s Visva-Parichay not read or engaged with?” he asked indignantly. Here we are reminded of C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ but Snow blamed the ‘literary‘ types for the split between the scientists and literary scholars. According to him, these literary intellectuals were quite unembarrassed about not understanding scientific principles which would be the scientific equivalent of admitting ignorance of Shakespeare’s plays. Why does this gulf between the art and the science exist in our country today, if we have all been dedicated to the imparting of a holistic education?

But are we fostering a scientific outlook or ‘science-mindedness’ even while we are teaching the sciences? Usually, the teacher is so busy delivering content and carrying out fixed procedures of experimentation that the aim of fostering the spirit of discovery remains unfulfilled. Besides, we are so obsessed with ‘right answers’ that even in practical classes students are preoccupied with the task of ‘getting the expected reading or result’ instead of observing changes with an open mind. In any case, the sense of wonder with which children enter school has by now been irretrievably lost. The worst example of perpetrating an unscientific outlook is seen in the teaching of history. Our children are not given an opportunity to examine different viewpoints and arrive at their own interpretations. We brainwash them with what we want them to think in the interest of patriotism or national integration or worse, the ideology of a political party or religious sect. Moreover, we carefully sanitise our history textbooks so that various ‘sentiments are not hurt’. In other words, the brain-deadening process is well under way.

We successfully and progressively destroy the questioning minds of children as they navigate their journey through primary, middle and high schools. In fact, it was in connection with this kind of killing that Einstein had remarked, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives a formal education.” Little children are naturally blessed with a scientific temper. When they first enter the portals of school, they are bright, spontaneous and delightfully uninhibited as well as unselfconsciously transparent. They are full of whys and hows and are ever ready with their comments and answers.

Knowing this well, one young mother decided to pin a note on her little daughter’s dress on her first day in school. The note said, “This child’s opinions are not necessarily those of her parents.” How refreshing to come across independent thought. Little children are also accurate and truthful as parents find out to their embarrassment when their offspring quote, with disconcerting accuracy, what they shouldn’t have said in their presence. We teachers have umpteen stories of children coming to school and telling us in graphic detail, how their family had enjoyed a holiday at the sea-side when, for example, the note from the child’s parents clearly mentioned that her absence was on account of an unfortunate viral attack that struck on a Friday and left only the following Tuesday.

As for skepticism, another important ingredient of a scientific temper, it is sacrificed at the altar of the textbook or the teacher’s prescription. Passive acceptance (or received wisdom) is not only dull and undesirable but downright dangerous because it conditions people to believe and obey blindly. It is tragic that the same children who earlier needed to be convinced before they finally accepted a principle or viewpoint have been tamed into ‘model students’ who don’t interrupt lessons with ‘unnecessary’ questions or ‘insolent’ contradictions. I shall never forget the little child who asked me why she had been punished for her misdeed when it was god, the creator of all, who had made her do what she did. Incidentally, in higher classes it is most invigorating to get young people’s views on whether science and religion can co-exist. You can expect an earful of conflicting opinions and comments on the right of any government to spend public funds on ritualistic prayers for rain. But then who has the time or inclination to hold such ‘out-of-the-syllabus’ and potentially dangerous discussions?

Yet, according to our Constitution, (42nd Amendment), one of our fundamental duties is to promote the scientific temper. A few years ago, Dr. Manmohan Singh (our last Prime Minister), called for the promotion of scientific temper “to become a national movement and not a prisoner of bureaucracy or ideology”. But like most other things he has asked for, this too was unheeded. Open-mindedness is a mark of scientific outlook. Do we see any evidence of mature and dignified debating in our public arenas? Every evening the television screen subjects us to the cacophony of several voices speaking at once and getting louder or shriller, depending on the gender. It is quite a circus out there, with dogmatic and opinionated individuals refusing to listen to a different point of view. And the less said about the quality of our parliamentary debates the better. They all demonstrate the validity of the new argumentative theory of reasoning (Sperber and Mercier). This theory says that we reason not to get at the truth but to corroborate our own beliefs and convictions.

So can we safely conclude that we as a nation are not carrying out our fundamental duty of spreading a scientific outlook?

By Shailendra Chauhan

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