What it means to be scientific

On April 1, a few days after India successfully completed its ‘Mission Shakti’ ASAT test, an editorial in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser read:

In the initial days, scientists had to fight hard to prove their mettle and significance of the research they were undertaking. … In the last few years, whether in space programme or in the case of defence modernisation, political leadership has given a free hand to the scientist to carry out their experiments and scientific fraternity has also responded explosively by giving us, in most cases, more than what was expected. …

As voters, we should also think about the future of Bharat and what is best for the future generations while voting. Instead of getting into rhetorics and sloganeering of yesteryears, who has the vision and constructive programme for the Bharat should be our primary consideration. Who can stand by the conviction of the masses is the key.

Clearly there’s lots to debunk here, and much else to ignore, but the author offers a peek inside a mind that suggests right-wingers as far afield as the RSS believe their government is facilitating the research enterprise more than standing in its way, and that the ASAT test is evidence that the government has allowed scientists a “free hand” to pursue blue-sky research. One cannot facedesk enough.

On April 3, the Indian Express carried a tidbit from this editorial in its ‘View from the right’ section with a surprisingly misguided title: “Scientific voting”. You can see what got my goat. What’s scientific about any of this?

It’s as if the Indian Express read the Organiser‘s drivel and walked away believing the mouthpiece had actually explained what it meant when it wrote, “We as voters should learn a lesson from the scientists which can become a guiding force for us while voting.” It didn’t; if it’s self-evident, it’s certainly not scientific. So I’m more disappointed that the Indian Express seems so clueless about what “scientific” actually means – ironically or otherwise – than with the Organiser, which – to be fair – hasn’t let anyone down.

In fact, if we’re looking for “a guiding force” from intellectual quarters, the Organiser will be pleased to know scientists issued a statement on April 3 that concluded thus:

We appeal to all citizens to vote wisely, weighing arguments and evidence critically. We appeal to all citizens to remember our constitutional commitment to scientific temper. We appeal to you to vote against inequality, intimidation, discrimination, and unreason.

(They haven’t said so in as many words but they’re asking the people to boot the BJP/RSS combine from the premises.)

Now, to be clear, nothing about this statement or its cohort of authors is ‘scientific’ either. In fact, it brings to mind a scene from the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, where Sylvia Tilly quips that adding “time” in front of anything makes it sound cooler, like “time bends”. Similarly, folks seem to believe prefixing the title of some activity with “scientific” makes it more… tenable? And such contentions of tenability then come with their own scientistic compulsions, such as to accuse those who have not voted a certain way of having been “unscientific”.

This is nonsensical. Claiming activity X has the optional attribute of being “scientific” is only as tenable as what people alreadyassociate with the scientific enterprise, and cultural, political and social forces influence this evaluation, not science or its method itself. So either you learn the historical/logical implications of what it means to be scientific (e.g. Mertonian norms) or you’re stigmatising the word to make a point you believe to be true but are too lazy to find out why.

In this context, it seems the two publications are sloughing scientists off as a discernibly separate section of society. That – ludicrous as it sounds – they have a way of voting that non-scientists don’t, or vice versa, and that according to both the Indian Express and the Organiser, the scientists have something to teach the non-scientists on this count. But these boundaries don’t exist: scientists vote like the rest of us because they’re one of us. And whoever is drawing these lines – whether out of malice or ignorance – should stop.