Hubris of science

It has become an ideology of the powerful. Democratic societies need a plurality of knowledge systems

Written by Avijit Pathak | Published:August 12, 2017 12:01 am
Scientific, Education, religious intolerance, obstruction, research, science, Indian Express Education, Education news Scientists and students take part in ‘March for Science’ in Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

“Scientists march against unscientific, obscurantist ideas”. News of this kind attracts our attention, primarily for two reasons. First, the cognitive power that modern science is endowed with makes us believe that it is always progressive and emancipatory. Second, in these troubled times when all manner of falsehood is projected as “truth” in the name of faith, science is seen as a saviour — a “true consciousness” of sorts. No wonder, when marches were held in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune and other cities, and scientists from top institutions raised their voice against religious intolerance and the paucity of adequate funds for scientific research, it is regarded as a progressive venture. Even though science plays an important role in our quest for knowledge, and scientists have reasons to articulate their voices of concern, I want to interrogate the taken-for-granted/simplistic notion of science as something sacrosanct, its self-image as a body of superior knowledge, not to be doubted by anybody.
There is a heroic notion of modern science that evolved through Baconian empiricism and Cartesian rationality, Newtonian physics and Darwinian theory of evolution, causal explanation and determinism, Industrial Revolution and technological progress.

As sociologist Robert Merton has argued, the four “institutional imperatives” of science — universalism, communism (or shared knowledge),disinterestedness and organised scepticism — made it into a cherished doctrine of liberal/democratic/secular values. Science, we are led to believe, fights dogmas and practices, it gives us clarity of understanding, and the power to demystify and objectify nature for establishing human control over it, and hence, no modern nation in its quest for material wealth and secular reasoning can escape science. Possibly Jawaharlal Nehru’s celebration of “scientific temper” was based on this grand optimism centered on the ability of science to emancipate mankind from what Auguste Comte — the early champion of positivism — would have regarded as “theological” and “metaphysical” fixations. In fact, in all modern nation-states, science has been heavily pampered; science is close to the centre of power.

The achievements of science are remarkable. Yet, its very success is its tragedy. Science has been reduced to scientism: It has become hegemonic, an ideology of the powerful, be it the militaristic state or the glitz of corporate capitalism. Scientists, as Paul Feyerabend revealed with extraordinary insight, are like “determined conquerors” who seem to have destroyed all other traditions of knowledge. The orthodoxy of old-fashioned priests, astrologers and practitioners of witchcraft is nothing compared to the damage caused by the official priests of heavily-pampered techno science — emissions from nuclear reactors, or, for that matter, bombardment of human body and soul by the technologies of, to use Ivan Illich’s words, “diagnostic imperialism”.

Yes, the non-critical adherents of science would always argue that science is pure — free from “interests” — and it is the political system that has to be blamed for the aberrations. This logic is superficial because science is never practiced in a state of social vacuum: Research priorities are often dependent on the interests of donor agencies. Moreover, despite tremendous progress in the philosophy of science, the majority of the practitioners remain reductionist and deterministic in their approach. They fail to understand the nuanced meanings of reality — the entire domain of symbolism, human longing and creative exploration. Man is not just “rational” and “logical”; man is also a visionary, a mystic, a poet, a wanderer and civilisation progresses because there are multiple ways through which we make sense of the world. Science is just one way, it has no right to silence the other perspectives — say, the way Walt Whitman saw “miracle” in every inch of space, William Blake saw the entire world in a “grain of sand”, the Vedic sage saw man’s quest for the transcendental in the upward flame of agni or fire, and M.K. Gandhi saw Kurukshetra as the turbulent inner space torn between good and evil. Are all these articulations merely pieces of “fiction” without hard evidence? Is it not a fact that science too is a fiction, a modern mythology of “progress” that, despite the devastating wars, holocaust, environmental disaster, we continue to regard as “solid”, “objective” and “foundational”?

Superstitions have to be fought. However, it is wrong to believe that science alone can fight it. The sages with immense spiritual sensitivity have been fighting it. Where is the scope for fear mongering priestcraft, greedy astrologers and market-savvy, TV friendly babas and gurus in Chaitanya’s bhakti rasa, Kabir’s sublime prayers, and Ramakrishna’s ecstasy? In fact, at times we notice a strange case of compartmentalisation — from 9 am to 5 pm, I am a “scientist” in my lab and the rest of the day I think of the gold I have to offer to Tirupati temple for the marriage of my daughter.

A truly democratic society needs plurality of knowledge traditions, not just science. It needs a poet’s metaphor, an artist’s play of imagination, a prophet’s vision, a sage’s intuition; it also needs the language of folly. We need to be mad because, as Pascal said, not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. Scientists demand more grants for the promotion of science education. Have they ever thought that the other seekers of truth — poets, philosophers, historians and anthropologists — too need a solid support system? Have they ever thought that what goes on in the name of science education at our schools and colleges has got nothing to do with the spirit of critical enquiry? Possibly our scientists need to learn the art of self-criticism.

The writer is professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU

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