Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | Instilling scientific temper is both essential and very difficult

The draft NEP emphasizes scientific temper for students, but what if academia itself lacks it?

The draft New Education Policy (NEP) is out, and most of the discussion has been about the so-called imposition of Hindi in schools. But I was interested in something else. Many years ago, when I was writing a book on the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), I met many wildly successful IITians, and several of them said that the IIT curriculum should have more liberal arts courses. A more multi-disciplinary education would have helped them navigate their early work lives much better.

In fact, in Silicon Valley, over the past few years, companies have been hiring droves of liberal arts majors. As the internet and, increasingly, artificial intelligence impact our society in deeper and unforeseen ways, companies realize that they need a much more acute understanding of psychology, philosophy, sociology and ethics.

Happily, the NEP has a whole chapter titled Towards a More Liberal Education, which even refers to a survey of Nobel Prize-winning scientists that revealed they are three times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic hobby. It says: “Engineering schools such as the IITs must move towards a more liberal education integrating arts and humanities, while arts and humanities students must aim to learn more science." It proposes that specialization in chosen discipline(s) must be accompanied by a broad-based education. It suggests a common core curriculum for all students, which, among other things, should aim to develop “critical thinking (e.g. courses on statistics, data analysis or quantitative methods); communication skills (e.g. courses on writing and speaking); aesthetic sensibilities (e.g. courses in music, visual art, or theatre); scientific temper."

But while the NEP suggests courses for developing communication skills, aesthetic sensibilities, etc., it is silent on what courses to offer to develop a scientific temper, which (or lack of which) has a much greater impact on society than aesthetic sensibilities. A nation can thrive without producing any literature worth a mention (think Singapore), but will rarely do so in the long run if it puts superstition above reason.

We all know what scientific temper is—in simple terms, you don’t go by what you feel is correct, but by facts, being open to argument, and applying logic. And, it’s very important to realize that scientific temper is not an automatic product of studying science. Otherwise, highly qualified scientists would not be in denial about human-caused global warming. Or insist that Indians invented the nuclear bomb and flying machines thousands of years ago. In these cases, political ideology trumps scientific temper.

All of us humans suffer from cognitive bias. There are many reasons: Confirmation bias—favouring information that conforms to your existing beliefs; halo effect—your impression of a person influencing how you feel and think; attention bias—the tendency to pay attention to some things while ignoring others; identity-protective cognition—I support “my side", however preposterous what “my side" is saying, and so on. At a macro—and more dangerous—level, is the irrationality caused by ideological tribalism.

But how do you inculcate scientific temper in students when academia itself is filled with cognitive bias? A few years ago, when Harvard University professor Steven Pinker proposed at a curriculum review meeting that all students should learn about cognitive biases, it was summarily rejected. Free speech activist Greg Lukianoff and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt in their book, The Coddling Of The American Mind, cite studies to show how, over the decades, left-liberals have taken over the humanities departments of US universities. In 1996, the ratio of professors who self-identified themselves as being on the left, compared to those being on the right, was 2:1. In 2016, in Haidt’s field of social psychology, it was 17:1 and, in most other humanities and social sciences, it was more than 10:1. We have no such figures for India, but by all accounts, the story has played out along similar lines. So students have been subjected to institutionalized lack of viewpoint diversity. This would have almost certainly led to cognitive bias.

In 2017, two US scientists got a paper published in a peer-reviewed social sciences journal which claimed that penises are causing climate change. Encouraged by this, along with another scientist, they started “The grievance studies affair" (bit.ly/2XsovZc), a project to create bogus academic papers on cultural, queer, race, gender, fat and sexuality studies. The intent was to expose problems in “grievance studies", a term they apply to academic areas in which “poor science is undermining the real and important work being done elsewhere". The project was halted a year later when some journalists caught on. By that time, several nonsensical papers had been published, and several others accepted.

So, how do you begin to instil scientific temper in students and de-bias them when their teachers themselves suffer from the same ailments? My humble suggestion: Prescribe the ancient Indic Nyaya Sutras on logic. Discard your biases and read them as secular texts; in fact, they even have interesting arguments over whether God exists.

The draft NEP emphasizes scientific temper for students, but what if academia itself lacks it?

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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