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Saturday, June 19, 2021

The country is paying for the government’s unscientific attitudes

Lack of scientific temper – indeed, a definite anti-science attitude -- might sound funny, even innocuous. But this has disastrous consequences, some of which we are witnessing currently.

Written by Shobhit Mahajan |
Updated: May 19, 2021 8:56:22 am
Volunteers of a NGO distribute ration at Budhwarpeth in Pune on Monday. (Express Photo: Pavan Khengre)

The WhatsApp message from an old acquaintance was usual for the times we are in — friends enquiring about your family’s and your welfare. I had tested Covid-positive a few days ago and was in isolation, and replied with updates on my health. The person immediately called and after the usual enquiries, urged me to give up all medicines and start using Coronil instead.

Coronil, for the uninitiated, is the “wonder” anti-Covid drug, made by Patanjali, the pharma company of yoga guru Baba Ramdev. The fact that the drug had not gone through the standard procedure for the approval of drugs for human consumption, Phased Control Trials for Safety and Efficacy, does not seem to bother millions of the yoga guru’s devotees who have started imbibing it. The lies and half-truths being spread through sections of the media, in fact more effectively through social media portals, seem to have increased its popularity.

But why blame uninformed folks like my acquaintance for believing in an unproven and possibly harmful concoction? After all, we have been witnessing an astonishing lack of scientific temper among senior functionaries of the present dispensation. Ministers (even the PM) have claimed the use of in-vitro fertilisation techniques and plastic surgery in ancient times. Three years ago, a minister in charge of education had objected to the theory of evolution and said that we shouldn’t teach it in schools. Another minister, then holding the portfolio of science and technology, had claimed that the Vedas had better scientific theories than Einstein. Last year, the Department of Science and Technology reportedly offered to fund research to study the benefits of cow urine and cow dung, while a former CM has claimed that the cow is the only animal which exhales oxygen.

One can cite many such examples. Such lack of scientific temper — indeed, a definite anti-science attitude — might sound funny, even innocuous. But these are not statements on your family WhatsApp group; they are well-thought-out proclamations by people responsible for framing policies. That has disastrous consequences, some of which we are witnessing currently.

The fact that many of our politicians, bureaucrats and indeed scientists privately believe in things that are patently unscientific is not something unique to this dispensation. The famous incident of a prominent scientist discarding leftover food after a solar eclipse, believing it to be contaminated, is only indicative of the dichotomy between the private and public lives of several people. However, never before have we seen such denigration of scientific outlook as well as promotion of bogus theories at the official level. A minister may well consult astrologers or believe in rahu kaalam. But it’s dangerous and objectionable when the same minister promotes astrology as a science. It does not bode well for the nation —especially because we don’t tire of making grandiose claims of being the next superpower in science.

Over the last few years, while we have witnessed a sustained attack on science, an almost talismanic belief in the power of technology has gained currency. The promotion of technocratic solutions to all social problems as well as encouraging unbridled consumption based on “new and improved” technologies has proceeded apace with an antediluvian outlook towards science and rational thinking. The belief in the “T” in “S&T” while junking the “S” would possibly make an interesting sociological study.

The long-term effects on our society of the official sanction of an anti-scientific outlook would, of course, be visible in the coming few years. However, even in this current crisis, we are getting a preview of the kind of disaster such a worldview can bring about. As Azim Premji put it recently, “……[actions] must be based on good science. Actions that are not based on science in reality have a detrimental effect on the cause. At the core of the idea of good science is the matter of being willing to accept and confront the truth. So, we must confront this crisis, its scale, its spread and its depth truthfully. Science and truth are the foundation on which we can tackle this crisis and ensure that it is not repeated.”

What we are seeing instead is an amazing display of an unwillingness to acknowledge facts. Accurate data has to be the foundation on which all policy decisions need to be made to tackle the unprecedented crisis confronting us. But the data that is being put out is so obviously at odds with what one is witnessing that its veracity is questionable. The intolerance towards any fact (data) which runs contrary to one’s “belief” is widespread. When videos of mass cremations or people dying outside hospitals for lack of oxygen are circulated, the dispensation and its team of internet trolls term it as fake news. Even an appeal for oxygen on social media reportedly attracted an FIR.

Our scientific establishment, especially those in policymaking roles, have not covered themselves with glory either. Most of them have been either silent or echoed the official narrative about the crisis. A few brave souls, who have had the courage and integrity to stand up to the falsehoods and point out the lacunae in planning and execution, have been sidelined.

That this crisis is unprecedented is without doubt. That our historical neglect of health infrastructure has made the crisis worse is also obvious. However, it is the lack of a cogent, scientific and rational response to the crisis that has aggravated the crisis. The combination of an anti-scientific and authoritarian mindset is a lethal one, the cost of which might be bearing for years to come.

After 14 days of isolation, during my evening walk, I ran into my neighbour’s teenage son. On finding out about my illness he had the following to say: “The whole thing is due to the introduction of 5G in telecom. The radiation from this technology is depleting oxygen in the atmosphere and hence the disease is spreading.” My neighbour’s son is a final year BTech computer science student. When I told him that the theory is bogus, he looked at me disdainfully and said: “It is true. Haven’t you seen the news?” Clearly, our prospects of being the next global S&T superpower are very bright.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 19, 2021 under the title ‘Missing S in S&T’. The writer is professor of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi

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