Our science debate resembles a confederation of illiteracies
One of the critical controversies hovering about the Modi regime centres around the construction of ‘science’. The debate so far appears like a cantankerous set of arguments, where each group states its expected position, never clear about what kind of science it is talking about. A friend of mine called it a ‘confederation of illiteracies’, a form of ‘jingoism around science, nation and civilisation’. These machismo styles all have one quality. All are aggressive, and no one group listens to the voice and arguments of another. A historian of science reading the spectacle called it a ‘circus of debates, with too many clowns and too few acrobats’. Like everything in India today, it begins with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi claimed that plastic surgery was first invented in India and adduced as evidence the body of Lord Ganesha. This small observation turned many in the media apoplectic, and many political philosophers felt it was safe to attack Modi’s science rather than his politics. Yet, what they presented under a façade of political correctness was textbook ideology of science masquerading as method. It invoked the odd scientific temper debates that fizzled out over 20 years ago. Scientists like Pushpa Bhargava and Amulya Reddy had earlier signed a manifesto demanding the introduction of the scientific temper to the Indian Constitution. Unfortunately, that scientific temper document was a piece of rhetorical illiteracy. Bhargava revealed that while he was an outstanding scientist, he had little understanding of science as method or history. He used his authority in one domain to push arguments in another, and realised he had boxed himself in. The psychologist Ashis Nandy had a glorious time ripping the document apart, showing that while Bhargava displayed a wonderful enthusiasm for science, he had little sense of history and philosophy. I remember the great energy expert Amulya Reddy confessing his regret over signing the manifesto. Science, he felt, was more complex and the document had little to recommend it beyond enthusiasm. As a wag commented, it was as if scientists had damaged the scientific temper—it had almost become a ‘puritan temper’ in the act of constitutionalising it. There is nothing ‘official’ about science. It has to be a way of life and a style of thinking. Method often does not capture it because method becomes a litany of catechism, protocol and verification procedures, while science is a cognitive frame, a state of mind different in its sense of creativity. The scientific temper was treated as a vaccine to be injected into people to immunise them from superstitions. A segment of science treated religion as ana- thema, as superstition, but had no sense of the religious roots of science. Yet the humourlessness of the two sides in confrontation adds a whimsical and satirical quality to the debate. As the Indian Science Congress debates how we Indians invented the aircraft in ancient times, wags on social media have a cartoon of an ancient aircraft with a one-word caption: ‘Kingfisher’.
The battle between the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’ is a debate about history and science. In India, the battle between myth and history acts as a substitute for an artificial battle between religion and science in the West. Religion in the form Protestantism did create or provide a framework for the scientific worldview. This centred around the famous Weberian problem of why science did not develop in other cultures. It was an extension of a more famous question: of why Capitalism developed in the West alone. The works of Joseph Needham and Martin Bernal have modified this question. Needham showed that China had advanced in many domains of science; and Bernal, even more controversially, argued that what we attribute to the Greeks as their originality is often historically African. While initially original, the Weberian question in State hands has become a deficit problem, a question of how to inculcate science into a culture. It often distracted attention from the history-of-science debates, leading to what has been called the ‘conscriptive pedagogies of science’. For the State, science becomes a new missionary enterprise, and the State becomes a site for injecting science into our lives.
Interestingly, states tend not only to assume responsibility for science but also claim that science is part of the modernism of society. Scientific achievements appear to add to the halo of the State, adding to its power and glamour. For a nation-state, achievements in science add to its index of governance.
The battle between the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’ has to be seen in this context. The Right generally feels its new science policy will build on the achievements of a civilisation. Its claims to primacy in aircraft or plastic surgery are a part of this project of science-as-nation-building. The Left is as addicted to science, but the science it refers to is modern Western science— science as part of the modernisation imperative. The Right has a similar strategy but emphasises continuities in culture. The Mars flight, let us not forget, is celebrated by the Modi regime. Modi literally dined out on his contention that the Indian space research mission travelled to Mars at Rs 7 per kilometre, which is less than what an auto costs per kilometre in Ahmedabad. Here is a man more than just a little savvy about the role of technology in boosting his reputation.
The debate then is about sibling differences between two kinds of state policies with two different visions of science. In recent years, the Left has been Bernalian in its approach to science, and the work of Sokhey, A Rahman and Hussain Zaheer left a major mark on scientific policy. In recent decades, the Right, which was then civilisational in its claim, became more nation-statist in its advocacy of science and scientific policy. Central to this perspective was the work of a remarkable movement with an unaesthetic acronym and un-appetising title. The group was called PPST, the Patriotic and People Oriented Science and Technology Foundation, an assortment of scientists from engineering colleges such as Anna University and IIT.
The work of PPST was fundamental in nature, and the historian Dharampal provided the scholarship that inspired it. Dharampal had argued that science was alive and well before the British arrived in India, and that what the Raj destroyed through its revenue system was not just the political economy of agriculture but its frames as an epistemology. The PPST was central in linking colonialism to the destruction of the knowledge system, not merely natural systems. The work of Dharampal was soon complemented by that of Ashis Nandy, Claude Alvares, Ziauddin Sardar, Sushanto and Goonatileke, all of whom focused not on the Weberian question of deficit but the colonial destruction of the ecologies of science. This led to three different questions, discussions which were more fruitful than the Weberian bandwagon of modernity.
First, it led a re-reading of 1492. For the West, 1492 led to the discovery of America, the defeat of Moorish Spain and the colonial modernisms beginning with the Crusades and the Inquisition. This led to a re-reading of 1492 as a different kind of turning point. The existence of Grenada as a culture showed the pluralistic possibilities of an era when Jewish, Islamic and Christian scholars debated one another’s theologies, medicine and sciences. Moorish Grenada showed that Islam, Christianity and Judaism could coexist. Rather than a battle of monotheisms, there could be—and indeed was—a dialogue of cultures, something the colonial West was dismissive of.
Second, this re-reading of the West showed the role of Muslim scholars in preserving the work of Greek scholars through translations and interpretations. The West could not have re-invented science without the creative role of Islamic scholars. Let us be clear: without Islam, there would have been no Western science.
Third, the scholars showed the possibility of Islamic and other alternative sciences. The pluralism of the medical systems was an outstanding example of such a dialogic science. The Indian work of linguistics foregrounding Panini showed advances in science beyond astronomy and medicine. There was also a sense that alternative cosmologies could provide the seed of different epistemologies, which could in turn infuse science with a different hypothesis. Western scholars engaged in this became sensitive to the other ‘Wests’ that had been suppressed within. The debates on Theosophy in India used the idea of ancient sciences, the stories of lost libraries, and the employment of the occult as a site for the replay of magic, science and religion, playing out new possibilities in the sciences. Theosophy in its perspectives was at odds with the Orientalism that Edward Said criticised.
One wants to emphasise the richness of these debates to show that there is a powerful tradition of scholarship to back the assumption of a civilisational science. Modi, and many on the Right, appeal to this tradition without a full sense of scholarship, but their claims to Indian achievements in medicine, linguistics and astronomy are not as illiterate or exaggerated as critics make them out to be.
The question, then, is of a different order. It is not, as the media seems to suggest, a debate between leftist secular science and rightist civilisational science. The dialogue and debate have to be between the Bernahans, the Needheimians with the Dharampal inspired PPST, and the alternative sciences arguments led by scholars like Alvarez, Sardar and MD Sreenivas. There is more scholarship, more politics and more hope here. Sardar’s attempt to explore an Islamic science, CV Seshadri’s attempt to create an alternative epistemology for energy, and the feminist attempt to rework the culture and paradigm of the body are creative examples of new paradigm building.
Simultaneously, there is recognition, still partial, among states and even scientists that the nature of science has changed. It is no longer a positivist exercise committed to certainty, but a discipline which has begun to digest the implications of four ‘revolutions’. These include the quantum, the genetic, the meta-knowledge and the linguistic revolutions. Along with the new ideas about Risk (Ulrich Beck’s term), panarchy and complexity, this has created a new excitement and openness about science.
The battle in India, however, is a period piece fought between the Left and the Right as if new breakthroughs in science, the history of science and epistemology, have not taken place. It is more of an ideological tussle between two sections of the elite, both working with outdated ideas of science and the nation-state. In caricaturing each other, they provide predictable scripts which carry stereotypes and prejudices about science and knowledge. First, the debate does not differentiate between history and myth, and equating myth either with science or superstition mucks them up. Second, it appeals to the ‘idea of scientific temper’ debate without any sense of the history or philosophy of science. Quick-fix-scholars usually refer to Narlikar’s book on science without realising that his astronomy is preferable to his articles on the scientific method.
A critical view of science, beyond ideas of popularisation, is essential, as the idea of Risk, which disallows predictability, asks new questions in biotechnology and nanotechnology that science is unable to answer. The problems of climate change, large development projects and obsolescence demand an ethic that science is incapable of providing. The current ideas of the innovation chain show little understanding of the long range questions of science and technology.
There is a deeper critique of rationality which now shows that systems of coping, survival and ‘make do’ work better than science in some stages, such as in the aftermath of disasters. Large scale rationalisation did lead to the Nazi genocide, which began with scientific experiments. This debate between different scenarios of science has to be a search for alternative rationalities.
Many participants deeply committed to this debate might ask whether such a precedent or an exemplar exists, someone whose sense of science is both modern and civilisational. The Indian response to Western science has offered many examples, but one of the most innovative of this genre of individuals was Captain Srinivasa Murthy, who is among the most amazing characters in the history of science. A trained allopath and medalist at Madras Medical College, Srinivasa Murthy was appointed by Justice Usman as the secretary of a committee tasked with reporting on the future of indigenous medicine. His report on indigenous systems is a classic case of the dialogue of the medicines.
Captain Srinivasa Murthy is a doctor of medicine who served in the Afghan war. A devout orthodox Brahmin, he insisted on wearing his kudmi to war, offering to resign from service rather than change his beliefs. A theosophist and a Sanskrit scholar, he was head of the Adyar library. He translated The Merchant of Venice into Telugu, and was John Barrymore’s doctor when the actor became an alcoholic.
Srinivasa Murthy insisted on babies being breastfed and warned against the dangers of nuclear energy as early as 1920. His understanding of method allowed for traditional notions of proof and authority as well as new ideas of standardisation. He understood civilisation, believed in his orthodoxy, and could discuss the defects of Western medicine. Indeed, he incorporated many sciences in his career. As a theosophist, an orthodox Brahmin and a philosopher of medicine, he understood the dialogue of sciences and their practical possibilities.
Another such figure is the much-maligned Madan Mohan Malaviya, who has been charged and dubbed a ‘communalist’ for being a founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha. Critics seem to forget that he founded the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) with Annie Besant as well. Also, most critically, he was the hero as an interlocutor of the Industrial Commission report of the times.
Malaviya could hold his own against scientists like Cyril Stanley Smith and Thomas Henry Holland in understanding the nature of science and technology. This aspect of Malaviya’s life needs to be respected. He was one of the pioneers of science and technology policies—a futurist in that sense. He deserved the Bharat Ratna for his performance during the Industrial Commission investigations. His sense of orthodoxy and of Western science were equally acute.
The Malaviyas and the Dharampals, the Murthys and the Sardars, the Bernals and the Patrick Geddes have to be summoned to this debate. It will then be a dialogue of knowledge, not the slapstick of stereotypical views of science and religion that mars the current debate. It can bring about a knowledge revolution undreamt of before.