A message to Inculcate Scientific Temper in Society
By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has proclaimed 10th November as the day for celebrating science – The World Science Day for Peace and Development. The proclamation aims to promote science in the society creating public awareness to exploit its virtues. The theme this year is “science with and for society “- implying wider participation of citizens in scientific endeavors and strengthening the engagement of science for social advancement, particularly to highlight how science deals with the COVID-19 pandemic
What is science?
To most of us, science means technological gadgetries or happenings like going to the moon. Actually it is much more than a means of providing material comforts and glamorous technological feats.
Science is fathoming principles operating in nature by observation, experiment and reasoning leading to generalizations or theories continuously tested and corrected to explain things and make predictions.
The above thought process or scientific method find equal relevance in gaining knowledge, analysis of existing ideas, planning and innovative design, decision making at all levels and matters of everyday life. The grasping the essence of scientific method, enlighten people to abandon ideologies, occultism and fundamentalism as baseless maleficent trends.
Universality of Science
Unlike other human affairs – science stands unique – not having color, caste or divisions based on geography and inherently secular. We have Western music and Eastern music, Western cooking and Eastern cooking, but not Western Science and Eastern Science. There is no elitism in science or in its practitioners- science sits in harmony with art, literature, ethics and virtuous politics. The intrinsic nature of science make it the mightiest force to unite the world. Unfortunately, for no fault of science, findings of science have been used for destruction, widening differences. Inequalities in access to sciences leads social disparity and geopolitical divisions. Recognizing necessity of addressing these issues, is an aspiration of the World Science Day.
The readiness of citizens to adopt scientific method is scientific temper. This quality drives societies towards progress – creating conditions conducive to innovation and wellbeing. The term ‘scientific temper’ was coined by Pandith Jawaharlal Nehru who elaborated the idea in his inspiring statement. “What is needed is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet the critical temper of science, 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 facts and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind – all this is necessary, not merely for application of science but for life itself and solution of its problems”.
The Constitution of India adopted the Nehru’s concept of scientific temper in its 42nd amendment declaring “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”
Today, inoculation of scientific temper in society and compelling the policy maker to adopt it is an urgency ever than before. The adherence to scientific method in all decisions and actions remain the only option available for us to face the challenge of the COVID pandemic.
Achievements of Science
Apart from being the progenitor of modern technology, science provided answers many puzzles confronting humanity – including ones highlighted below.
The cause of many diseases have determined, enabling design of efficacious remedies. Here, a finding relevant in today’s context is the fundamental understanding how viruses infect human body, which paved way for producing the first successful drug to combat a viral disease. American Chemist Gertrude Elion who showed that the drug named Acyclovir is effective in curing herpes and chickenpox, shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology. Gertrude work is a solace for humanity- an earnest hope, a cure for COVID-19 will be found.
The age-old problem how animals and plants inherit their characters was explained by Watson and Crick in terms of DNA. So-called PCR test for detecting COVID and gene editing – alteration of DNA for advantage are two of the thousands of applications of this discovery. This year chemistry Nobel Prize was awarded to two women scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier for the latter discovery
The Structure of matter up to tinier and tinier bits have been elucidated. Here, the existence of an elementary particle now named Higgs boson was predicted by Peter Higgs and two other physicists. The gigantic machine – Large Hadron Collider built in Geneva at a cost of 5 billion dollars confirmed prediction in 2012 – huge cost but zero-dollar immediate economic return! Why the machine was built at such a huge cost? It proved the correctness of one of the deepest conclusions of human intellect grasped decades earlier – a confidence to use science to face gravest challenges and look forward. The worth of this result and the message it passes to the society far exceeds the monetary cost- a minuscule compared to the costs of weapons development.
Likewise, the universe in excessively large expanses of space and time has been explored, revealing perplexing mysteries – pointing to the conclusion that space, time and matter originated 14 billion years ago as an explosion.
Science facilitates understanding, provokes curiosity and endless exploration – raises questions seeking answers- identify the potentialities of innovations and tells how to implement them. Hidden secrets and problems are there for future generations to explore and solve. Science tells how we should proceed in solving problems.
Evidently, recommendations or remedies coming from sources other than science – rituals or quackery will not mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic
Technology means making things to ease living or gain more knowledge. Ancients knew how to make tools and build civil engineering structures- this is empherical technology acquired by experience and trial and error improvement. Advent of science transformed ancient technology. Scientific concepts opened the door for designing and planning – delivering superior products far more quickly compared to empherical methods.
All modern technological achievements are outcomes of science progressing in different directions. For example, the techniques behind your smartphone is a consequence of a paradigm shift in science – birth of the quantum theory in early nineteen hundreds. It is extremely unlikely that someone to have invented a smartphone previously.
The most significant cause for revolutionary advancement in both science and technology has been use of technology purely for propose of gaining new knowledge. Galileo made telescopes and turned them to sky – beginning of observational astronomy. Since then the state-of –art technologies has been used make more powerful telescopes to unravel secrets of the cosmos. The Dutch lens maker and scientist Antoine Leeuwenhoek was first to see microbes by magnification. The subsequent adoption of newer technologies to design microscopes to see smaller entities; transformed medicine, biology and science of materials.
Science in developing nations
A major cause of weaknesses in developing countries owes much to the comparative deficiency of the scientific temper or readiness to grasp scientific method and adopt it freely and wisely.
Developing nations apparently support science considering it an essentiality for technological advancement and maintain a workforce of technicians and specialists. They pay less attention to educational, research and knowledge dissemination activities that engender scientific temper into the society. Generally a blind overemphasize of technological aspects of science expecting immediate economic returns – a counterproductive policy generally advocated by mediocrity among scientific community who misguide the politician.
Pandith Nehru, delivering a speech at the foundation ceremony of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Studies in 1954 has said “Lot of people may not know, why an emphasis is being put on science. Why so much money is spent? The big countries have more power while our country has remained poor. If we wish to empower our country, which is now independent, we have to create a strong base- so we can learn the basics. This may not show immediate results but finally result in uplift of the country”.
The present status of science and technology in India speaks volumes of the well-foundedness of Nehru’s prophecy
A primary reason why the nations continuing to be poor and failing to reap fruits of science is neglect of basics and essential foundations of technology. They entertain any fashion ending with the term ‘technology’- biotechnology, nanotechnology, communication technology etc., forgetting to cure deficiencies in older but essential disciplines. Sri Lanka is weak in chemical industry – raw materials exported without value addition. Yet there is a tendency to believe that nanotechnology would be the biggest hope for our industry. Science is a prerequisite to technology and establishing older a technology, is a prerequisite to newer technologies.
Example of Rwanda
Until late 1900s Rwanda was one of the most unfortunate nations in the world. Civil war killed nearly one million people, destroying the entire infrastructure. As Rwanda owes not much natural resources, the new government realized that the only path to wake-up would be to exploit science and technology. Rwandan President Paul Kagame invited the mathematical physicist Professor Romain Murenzi, a national of his country working in United States to serve as the Minister of Science. Murenzi drew up the policy on science, technology and innovation emphasizing both basic and applied aspects and the necessity of evidence based decision making in all affairs. Although Rwanda didn’t inherit a grandeur of an ancient culture to boast, the effectives of right policies are now visible – earning the credential “Africa’s Science and Tech Powerhouse “in a timeline of just two decades.
Useful and useless disciplines
All over the world, especially in developing countries there is a tendency to demarcate academic discipline into two categories – useful and useless. Arts, humanities and fundamental science in the latter category and technological and business studies in the former. Amanda Ruggeri an editor of BBC, in her essay titled “.Why worthless humanities degree may set you for life? ” state , education policies echoed around the world implicate – forget the liberal arts – non vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages”. Science and arts enrich each other, they are not contrasting and every nation need takers of both and everybody benefits from acquaintance and appreciation these two cultures.
Science Curricula and Teaching: A Prevalent Trend
Today science curricula and teaching emphasize learning techniques, neglecting explanations as to how the techniques came to being. Syllabi are revised omitting thought provoking basics to accommodate technological stuff- believing these lead to technical competence necessary for generating innovations. It is pointless to introduce workings of an electron microscope into a school science curriculum without providing cheap ordinary optical microscopes to rural schools. Sometimes the optical microscope available in schools are locked-up in a cupboards. Rather than introducing complicated intricacies into a syllabus a child should be provided with an opportunity to see a bacterium through an ordinary microscope. Such an activity would turn him or her to a productive scientist or an innovator.
Diverting science towards technology is absolutely important. However every country needs to have universities and few institutions engaging in frontier areas of fundamental science. Unfortunately, these intuition grab technological themes in disguise of relevance, avoiding curiosity driven original investigation. Universities have academic freedom to choose their research themes but duty bound to absorb themselves in highest level intellectual pursuits for the shake of knowledge. Those few institutions should necessarily follow the mandated theme with gross deviations.
One of the most effective ways of introducing scientific attitude to a society would be to arouse curiosity. Developing countries need to strengthen research and education in fundamental science and highlight world’s achievements to motivate general public – particularly the younger who are more curious.
The benefit of science is not only finding ways to provide material needs to improve the quality of living but also the enrichment of the way of our thinking. The latter facilitates building the capacity to solve problems. Questions also arise as result of imagination and curiosity. Puzzles of this natures have paved the way towards ground breaking discoveries.
The most effective way to inculcate science into the society would be to highlight and popularize the intrinsic value of science as a thought process so powerful enough to resolve many issues, confronting the society. Such an approach will naturally drive the minds towards technological innovations.
The inculcation of scientific attitude into a society does not mean converting every citizen to a scientist. A society needs persons dedicated to their profession and varying individual interests, whether it farming, carpentry or stamp collecting. Yet exposing all of them to scientific method and motivation of its usage in appropriate occasions will pay the dividend.