The Silence of Science

In the years immediately following Independence, the country was awash with the phrase “scientific temper”. Jawaharlal Nehru had used it in The Discovery of India, making it the bedrock of his vision for a newly born, forward looking nation. Now that the people were free of their erstwhile masters they would also want to be free in mind and spirit. They would search for truth and new knowledge, refuse to accept ideas on hearsay, test and try them out, be willing to change previous certainties in the face of new evidence. A scientific temper, he wrote, “is the temper of a free man.”

How disconnected his vision was from the reality of his countrymen’s rock-solid beliefs was proved in his lifetime itself, when none of our leading scientists were prepared to sign a statement that would make them eligible for membership of the Society for Scientific Temper formed in 1964. The statement said, “I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers.” And so, a fervently hopeful clause to an amendment was introduced in the Constitution that said, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.” Unsurprisingly, 40 years on from the time the clause appeared in the Constitution, nobody even talks about it.

Science is clearly not our strength, although it was in ancient India. Our strength is ritualistic religion. Newspapers confirm this all the time. Most recently, a senior woman engineer in a multinational IT company in Bengaluru, jumped to her death from the fourth floor cafeteria of her office building. Full of dread, her colleagues refused to enter the cafeteria till the company had performed a Shanthi Homa. Presumably this helped exorcise the cafeteria’s resident evil spirit which had driven the woman to commit suicide. These fearful creatures were techies, mind you, not illiterate villagers whom we think of, often unfairly, as socially backward. So what had education done for them? Obviously it had neither opened nor strengthened their minds. It had given them certain mental skills to earn good money, without equipping them with the means to overcome their confirmation bias, explained by psychologists as the impulse to act in accordance with pre-existing beliefs rather than on the basis of investigation into a given situation in a neutral and scientific manner.

Confirmation bias is at work in every sphere of modern India. A companion report to the suicide case, also from Bengaluru, was of three pujas performed by a police inspector and his wife to help resolve recent problems. The first problem was two consecutive assaults on young women that had occurred in the precinct. The second and more frustrating one was the saturation media coverage given to them. It was patently unfair that, in a city rife with assaults against women, only these two seemed to be making the news. The good inspector thought in all honesty that doing Vaastu Puja, Sudarshana Homa and Shatru Samhara Yaga was the way to stop men from thinking of women as their natural prey while simultaneously jamming media’s focus on his beat.

A scientific temper would demand that the police inspector studied the outcome of the pujas. Had assault cases fallen after they were done? Did men suddenly become highly respectful of women as fellow human beings? If so the inspector could sell the story to the press and proudly take the applause that followed. But there is a happy side to confirmation bias that renders scientific inquiry totally redundant. The bias allows people to interpret all kinds of iffy evidence in a way that helps them support their existing position, rejecting all evidence that militates against it.

In Mumbai we are told, astrologers have directed clients to feed milk to dogs in order to prosper. If prosperity follows as it might with effort, skill or plain luck, feeding milk to dogs will become a highly recommended ritual for doing well in life. If it doesn’t, it will be because you fed the wrong dogs or gave them the wrong kind or quantity of milk. The astrologer will prescribe the antidote to your mistake.

Published On : 16-03-2017