Five reflections on science day

Science Day isn’t a very meaningful occasion in and of itself. It is the day C.V. Raman discovered the light-scattering effect named for him. Raman won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and – by commemorating February 28 as ‘Science Day’ – India has come to celebrate the Nobel Prize itself more than anything else.

Indeed, if we had to save one day each for all the significant contributions to our knowledge of the natural universe that Indian scientists have made, a year would have to be thousands of days long. And every day would be Science Day (as it should).

However, February 28 has been Science Day for over three decades, so even if not for Raman, it has become embellished in our history as a tradition. It ought to be dismantled, of course, but if it is not, it ought to be accorded an identity and purpose more suited to India’s aspirations in the 21st century.

It appears the theme for Science Day 2019 is ‘Science for the people, people for the science’. So let’s repurpose the opportunity to reflect on some things the people are doing vis-à-vis science in India.

1. Since 2014, the Narendra Modi government has ridden on multiple waves of fake news, superstitions and pseudoscientific beliefs. An unexpected number of writers and journalists have countered it – with varying degrees of success – and, in the process, have engaged more with science and research themselves. There are certainly more science writers in 2019 than there were in 2014, as well as more publishers aware of the importance of science journalism.

2. Scientists were slow to rise to the mic and express their protest as a community against the government’s bigotry, majoritarianism and alchemies – but rise they did. There is still a long way to go in terms of their collectivisation but now there is precedent. There is also a conversation among scientists, science writers and journalists and some government officials about the responsibilities of science academies and the importance of communication: either speaking truth to power or having a conversation with the people. (AWSAR is a good, if awkward, step in this direction.)

3. The rule of the BJP-RSS combine, together with various satellite organisations, has helped disrupt the idea of authority in India. Consider: some bhakt somewhere forwards a dubious claim; another finds an obscure paper and an obscure expert to back their beliefs up; a third staves off scrutiny by taking jabs at commentators’ lack of expertise. But if we’re to beat back this deleterious tide of make-believe, we must all ask questions of everything. Authority longs for exclusivity and secrecy but it must not be allowed to get there, even if it means the ivory towers of the ‘well-meaning’ are torn down.

4. Many, if not most, scientists still cling to the modernist view of their enterprise: that it is the pursuit of objective truths, and that only science can uncover these truths. But in the last five years, it is the social scientists and humanities scholars who have helped us really understand the times we live in, forging connections between biology, psychology, class, caste, gender, politics, economics and cultures. Reality isn’t science’s sole preserve, so thanks to the non-scientist-experts for helping us situate science in these fraught times as well.

5. Scientific illiteracy can be less ignored now than it ever has been because of the way the BJP, and members of the upper-castes to which it panders, have sought to exploit it. From gau mutra to “braid cutting”, from attempting to rewrite textbooks to formalising Vedic education, from failing to condemn the murders of rationalists to spending Rs 3,000 crore on a statue instead of improving higher education, the government has run roughshod over too many aspirations. So kudos to the teachers in classrooms, and the parents who place a premium on education.

The Wire
February 28, 2019

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