What should scientific temper mean in our times in India

Act for Bharat, a group of multidisciplinary practitioners, deeply concerned about the shape and direction of India’s future, particularly concerning the capacity of its democratic, economic and environmental resource fundamentals to ensure the health, happiness, prosperity and freedoms that our nation’s Constitution promises to its citizens, initiated an online briefing on Scientific Temper on June 23. Concept note:

Scientific Temper: Sparking off an Indian Renaissance

The vast devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is directly linked, among other factors, to the lack of appropriate Covid-19 behavior due to lack of scientific temper.

What is the essence of scientific temper?

Scientific temper consistently uses the principles embodied in the scientific method. Discussion, argument, and analysis are vital parts of scientific temper. Elements of fairness, equality, and democracy are integrally built into it.

Scientific temper in independent India

Nehru first coined the term ‘scientific temper in 1946, and it soon found its way in India’s 1958 Science Policy Resolution. In 1976, Fifth Parliament, by the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, inserted Article 51A(h), which said, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry.” India was unique in assigning scientific temper as a duty to its citizens.

Assertions about scientific temper have continued to find a place in every policy, the most recent being Scientific Social Responsibility Policy (2019).

It made a specific statement on scientific temperament, “an approach to human and social existence that rejects dogma or assertion that contradicts empirical evidence or lacks a scientific basis, that habit surely questions everything, that privileges logic and rationality and is consistently self-critical.”

But what we saw during the pandemic was precisely the opposite. We saw not ‘rejection’ but the return of dogmas. We saw claims on magical cures of COVID-19, which had no scientific basis. We saw the rampant promotion of pseudoscience.

But India in ancient times did have a scientific temper. Vedas advocated three khands. Upasana (discipline), Aranyakas (process), and Upanishads (knowledge). That was the epitome of scientific temper. Amartya Sen’s 2005 book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ dives deep into the ancient Indian traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism – calling them a core part of its identity.

How can we bring back the essence of our glorious traditions of scientific temper to spark off the Indian renaissance?

We suggest ten transformational tenets to achieve it. And we start from where it all begins, from childhood.

  1. From Obedience to Openness

Children are often exposed to dogma, superstition, and religious bigotry at home, and when they go to school, they are taught the opposite from the textbooks. They carry this discord between personal beliefs and professional training straight into adulthood.

Real education entails not only answering questions but also questioning the answers: fundamental to scientific temper.

Both teachers and parents must teach children – and themselves learn – the difference between disrespect and a ‘healthy irreverence.’ While the former is undesirable, the latter encourages children to think for themselves and honestly think independently, a prerequisite for scientific temper.

  1. From Science as a Subject to Science as a Way of Life

Science is already mandatory in school education across India. The school textbooks also carry lessons on scientific spirit. However, we need to transition from ‘science as a subject to ‘science as a way of life. The primary scientific method and its application should be integrated into primary school curriculums.

We must redesign our curriculum and pedagogies in a way that lays a strong foundation or scientific temperament by promoting curiosity, skepticism, critical thinking, and reasoning as opposed to learning by rote.

  1. From Students of Science to Ambassadors of Science

Students should become active participants in promoting science and scientific temper in society as a part of their formal education, research, and training.

There are successful models where the Ph.D. students are mandated to undertake up to a 6–8 weeks project concerned with creating scientific solutions for the rural society and are given course credits.

Students can act as ‘Science Ambassadors’ by carrying the message of science and science temperament in society, for which they will not just get certificates to bur formal credits.

  1. From citizens as consumers to citizens as scientists

Traditional science is primarily seen as the privilege of a few formally trained scientists. In citizen science initiatives, even non-scientists can experience the test of the scientific way of thinking as they make their voluntary contributions to the progress of science working from home.

The possibilities of what citizen science can do using the benefits of technology are opening up new doors for public engagement in science. For instance, today, citizen scientists are exploring deep space images from telescopes to locate new galaxies, tracking climate changes, connecting online to design, and use new low-cost technologies to monitor the environment to answer local community questions.

Government should formally incorporate Citizen Science in all possible forms as an integral part of the democratization of science and scientific temper.

5.From STEM to STEAM plus SHAPE

There is a need for a solid coupling of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and maths) with humanities and social sciences. Why? Science gave us vaccines, but human behavioral science is behind vaccine hesitancy. SHAPE (social sciences, humanities, and the arts for people and the economy) disciplines help us anticipate and act on such social realities.

We must couple STEM and SHAPE together in endeavors connected with conceptualization to delivery to development to disaster management.

At a policy level, the involvement of sociologists, greater emphasis on social-data insights with the participation of think -tanks and civil society organizations, review of the social impact by using SHAPE disciplines will bring rich dividends.

  1. Civil Society: From delivering services to spreading scientific temper

Civil Society Institutions (CSIs) can play an essential role in helping to spread scientific temper across the country, as they did in the 1970s and 80s, and created a significant impact.

CSI should go beyond local activities and vastly expand its reach by using the hyper-connectivity that technology offers. At least a few of them should move beyond service delivery – improving health, education, or other services – to spreading scientific temper.

The role of science-focused Civil Society Institutions should be recognized and promoted by the Government.

  1. From Sensationalism to Sensible Science Journalism

The media must monitor the content to discourage and limit superstition and blind belief.

Science communicators do the critical job of bridging the gap between science, society, and policymakers. Science journalism should be promoted at the university level. Science agencies should fund science communication activities in their domains.

The quality of public policy-making has to be improved by using science-based evidence rather than resorting to policy-based evidence.

  1. From Digital Deficit to Digitally Hyperconnected World

We see the emergence of the hyperconnected world. Connectivity enables people-to-people, machine-to-people, and machine-to-machine exchange of voice, text, data, files, pictures, and videos.

Knowledge deficit leads to ignorance, and that leads to blind faith, superstition. There is no knowledge deficit in a hyper-connected world, and therefore one can conceivably enhance scientific temper. The Government should make digital access to all a fundamental human right and make investments in making it happen.

  1. From Exclusive to Inclusive Science

Inequitable participation concerning gender and social diversity must be eliminated. The ‘open source science’ or ‘open science’ movement includes, at the core, open access, open data, open-source, and available standards that offer unfettered dissemination of scientific discourse. Government has a significant role in facilitating open science and promoting and preserving a free-thinking, open-minded society.

  1. From censorship to freedom of expression

Science can serve humankind mainly because of freedom of expression – a fundamental in any enlightened society. There must be the protection of academic open debate and contrarianism. We must create resilient structures, systems, and processes to run with genuine autonomy and no political interference whatsoever. The leading voice in science has to be that of scientists alone.

* Act for Bharat active members include: Sam Pitroda, Ashok Khosla, Arun Maira, S. Ramadorai, Dr. R. Mashelkar, Kiran Karnik, Kiran Mazumdar, R Gopalakrishnan, Kumar Ketkar, Sujatha Ramdorai, Shyam Sunder, Vikram Mehta, Vijay Mahajan, Nitin Pandit, Rajeev Dubey, Hemant Luthra, Dilip Chenoy, Rajesh Tandon, Shekhar Kapur, Pushkar Chauhan, Rakesh Patel, Mitakshara Kumari, Vikas Bagri

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