Science has lifted the world’s living standards for two centuries and could now help us resist the ravages of climate change
It is the season for protest and counterprotest. Young people are rising up in universities around the country and agitating for their beliefs. There is much discussion about the Constitution of India, particularly Article 14, which states that “the state shall not deny any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India". As the recent Citizen (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and the yet-to-be-notified National Register of Citizens (NRC) come up for court hearings, there will be much debate about Article 14 and its nuances. Arguments may stretch to include not only fundamental rights under the Constitution, but also the obligations of citizens.
Not often discussed in the public domain is the relatively rare provision containing “fundamental duties". These are specified in the Constitution under Article 51A. These 11 duties include requiring citizens to abide by the Constitution, uphold the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India, and render national service if called upon to do so. There is one duty that is unique to India under Article 51A (h) that encourages the citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform".
Historians credit India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for coining the term “scientific temper". In The Discovery Of India, Nehru writes, “The scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind, all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems."
Nehru’s thought process, in turn, was fostered by that of many leading scientific thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, such as Charles Darwin, and even earlier by Copernicus and Galileo. Nehru was keenly aware that India’s development and emancipation from the scourge of blind faith, superstition and caste division would require constitutional strength and persistence.
We are now going through a rather confused phase in our society, where this requirement for scientific temper is simultaneously being broadcast with specious claims of India’s ancient scientific prowess and hoax “miracles" being performed by gurus and charlatans. Some of India’s so-called “rationalists" who fought for the scientific cause, such as Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi, have been assassinated. Science itself seems to have been usurped as an instrument of nationalism and as a required shastra of patriotism.
Science and the scientific temper are imperative if better lives are to be assured to a billion plus people in a country constrained by resources, particularly energy, and at a time when the world is beginning to feel the devastating impacts of climate change. Abnormal weather patterns and natural disasters, including bushfires in Australia, flooding in Indonesia and unseasonal frost in India, are likely to get more intense in the coming decades. Only science and the application of the mind can offer solutions at scale and in an affordable fashion if we are to pursue inclusive development. Science lifted the world and its living standards over the past two centuries, and it can do so again.
The advancement of science requires collaboration within and across nations, and increasingly across disciplines. Speaking recently in Bengaluru, Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan underscored the need for both a spirit of inquiry and for science to spread through large and small collaborations. “I think science flourishes when there is real freedom of thought and opinion and minimum ideological interference," he said. His advice for India is to separate the government from the science establishment, and to distance science funding from politics. Speaking at the 2019 Infosys Science Prize ceremony, another Noble Laureate of Indian origin, Amartya Sen, spoke about how “friendship begets science". He said that divisions between groups and sects and between countries act as barriers to scientific and intellectual progress within and across nations.
The future of science and the scientific temper mean more to underserved Indians than “pride in the past". It’s all very well to celebrate Aryabhatta, a great 5th century mathematician from ancient India’s Nalanda University, but the poor in the Gangetic plains today would rather have arsenic-free drinking water. Sushruta of the 6th century BCE was indeed a great physician of antiquity, but we should not rest on our laurels till kala-azar in Bihar or filariasis in south India are eliminated.
Far from mixing religion and science, we should accept scientists as modern-day sages and gurus. It is time for us to rediscover our fundamental duty towards “the scientific temper" and to foster ideology-free science in the true spirit of inquiry and reform. In this lies the most promising path ahead for India.
P.S: “A society with a scientific temper is always on the path of development," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day after Bharatiya Janata Party Bengal president Dilip Ghosh claimed that Indian cow milk contained gold.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand