‘It’s a battle for the survival of scientific research’
Darwinian theory is as fundamental to biology as Newton’s laws are to physics or the structure of benzene is to organic chemistry, says Ankit Sule
Mumbai: Aniket Sule, 39, is a scientist. He is also a science activist—in the footsteps of scientists such as Professor Yash Pal, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava or Jayant Narlikar, who spread the spirit of reason and science in a country where superstition based on emotion and tradition can still pass off as truth.
Sule is reader at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and earlier this year, he spearheaded a protest by around 5,000 Indian scientists after minister of state for human resource development (HRD)-Higher Education Satya Pal Singh said Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was “scientifically wrong” and should be removed from school and college curricula. Following the scientists’ protest, HRD minister Prakash Javadekar said, “We are not going to fund any event or don’t have any plan for a national seminar to prove Darwin wrong. It is the domain of scientists and we should let them free to continue their efforts for progress of the country.”
It was a milestone for rationalist thinking in India.
Five years after the assassination of rationalist, physician and author Narendra Dabholkar, a campaigner against superstition, scientists this year have been holding a series of lectures and events since 15 August—leading to the National Scientific Temper Day to be observed on 20 August at schools and colleges in Mumbai. Dabholkar was shot dead by unnamed assassins on 20 August 2013.
Sule, besides teaching at TIFR, is also academic coordinator of the Indian Astronomy Olympiad Programme, and general secretary of the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA). He specializes in computer simulations of the sun’s interior to study the origins of its magnetic field.
Sule will deliver a lecture to commemorate the importance of scientific thinking in India at the TIFR auditorium on 20 August. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What prompted you and other scientists to send that letter against Satya Pal Singh’s statement?
The statement by Dr Singh touched a nerve for many of us for two reasons. First, Darwinian evolution is one of the more fundamental theories that shaped modern science. It is as fundamental to biology as Newton’s laws are to physics or the structure of benzene is to organic chemistry. Stating such theory is wrong shows a poor understanding of science. Second, the school and college curricula should not depend on whims and fancies of people in power. For scientists, it is not just a philosophical battle. If you teach bad science in schools and colleges, it directly has an effect on the quality of people who will become the next-generation scientists. So it’s a battle for the survival of scientific research.
Is any political ideology anti-rationalism, anti-scientific temper?
If you look at the history of the world, you will see a few examples of some regimes being steadfastly anti-scientific temper. The crux of scientific temper is the tenet that every person should think on his/her own feet. One should not accept any propaganda/claim by authority figures without personally scrutinizing the evidence. Regimes which rely on personality cults would be scared of scientific temper. Funnily enough, most such regimes are pro-technology. They wants fruits of the progress of science and technology but they don’t want people to question the leaders. Even outside such regimes, you will sometimes see that people in power are anti-rationalism not because of any malice, but plainly because of their ignorance.
What is the idea behind this National Scientific Temper Day? How will science activism benefit us?
The fact that we need to mark one day as National Scientific Temper Day is itself a sad commentary on our education system. Our youth are memorizing scientific facts in the name of learning science and becoming users of modern technology, but a vast majority of them lack scientific temper. So we need to remind people what is scientific temper. Science communicators chose this particular day as 20 August marks the fifth anniversary of the cowardly murder of Dr Narendra Dabholkar.
If you want India to progress and become part of the First World, then as a society we need to improve on our rationalist thinking. A creative mind can be productively innovative only if it is rigourous in its approach. If formal education fails to inculcate scientific temper, then science communicators need to step in and take over this responsibility. Many organizations are ably doing this job—for several decades now.
Is the scientific community up-to-date with what is happening in the Dabholkar case?
Even after five years, the perpetrators of this crime have not been brought to justice. We have seen Karnataka police identify, capture and prosecute the (alleged) murderers of Gauri Lankesh, which makes us wonder why the same has not happened here in the so-called progressive state of Maharashtra.
India is a country of engineers and doctors. But superstitions still kill people. Why this discrepancy?
Who gets to be an engineer or doctor is mostly decided by your ability to memorize and not by your understanding of the process of science. Intuitively, one may think that an educated society would have done away with all superstitions. But in reality, we see exactly the opposite. Who reads astrology columns in newspapers? And do we see any newspapers taking a stand and not publish astrology columns?
You spearhead the Indian National Astronomy Olympiad Programme at HBCSE. What are the latest developments?
The Astronomy Olympiad programme in India is now in its 20th year. It is part of the Science and Mathematics Olympiad effort at HBCSE. The Astronomy Olympiad is aimed at students from Class X-XII. The selection of the Indian team for Astronomy Olympiad happens through a multi-stage process. Fifty students are invited to HBCSE in April-May every year for a residential camp. Here they are taught a range of astrophysical concepts and tested on their understanding of it. The final Indian team consists of five students who represent the country at International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA).
India has always been one of the top performing teams in IOAA. Our students always come back with a rich haul of medals.
Many students in schools are intimidated by mathematics and science. Why is that so?
Getting intimidated by mathematics is an effect caused by imperfect nurturing. If we start investigating the history of each such case, you will be able to trace their reasons to some factors in their upbringing. In some cases, the parents themselves are not comfortable with mathematics, so they do not provide the right stimulus to the child in the early years. In some cases students meet mathematics teachers whose teaching may not be compatible with the learning style of the child. In some other cases, the learning style of the child may not be compatible with abstract thinking style and symbolic representations in mathematics. By the time the children come to high school, we see them getting sorted in “math-loving” and “math-hating” camps.
How can we change this? There is no “one shoe fits all” solution. During the initial schooling years, teachers can encourage mathematical thinking in kids by encouraging them to think freely and build their own understanding instead of just giving prescriptions to solve different types of problems. At the high-school level, we, as curriculum developers, should realize that not every child is aiming for a career in science and technology, and there is no harm in having a more application-oriented mathematics curriculum for children aiming for non-science careers.
Nowadays we hear science terms a lot from the wellness market. Does that help the cause of science?
Almost all the examples I have seen so far lead me to believe that appropriation of scientific words by the wellness industry does a disservice to science.
During eclipses people spread superstitions like “uncontrolled growth of bacteria during the eclipse due to absence of UV radiation from moon”. Jaggi Vasudev talks about how “11th latitude is scientifically the most perfect place to have an Ashram to receive most positive effects from the earth”.
These kind of sentences justify completely anti-science things.