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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 12, March 18, 2023

Science as a way of life: the political apathy and the way out | Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan

Saturday 18 March 2023, by Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan


On the 28th of February, we celebrated National Science Day in India. This day commemorates Indian physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman’s discovery of light scattering by molecules of a medium in 1928 [1]. This discovery, famously known as ‘Raman Effect’, is used for analysing a wide range of materials. Fascinatingly, it also explains why the sky appears blue. CV Raman was awarded the Nobel prize in 1930. To date he is the only Indian to win a Nobel in science. What happened to science in India?

In his article “Probing India’s failure to produce Nobel Laureates in Science after CV Raman”, HS Virk has highlighted the orthodoxy of political leaders as one of the important causes of this failure. He wrote: “How can Science develop in India when our political leaders take pride in Indian mythology and call it the harbinger of Modern Western Science?” [2].

Soon after coming to power, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai in October 2014, claimed on the basis of mythology that genetic engineering and plastic surgery were well-established in India since time immemorial, by alluding to Karna’s birth outside his mother’s womb and Ganesh idol’s transplantation of elephant head, respectively. [3]. There are similar outlandish claims by different political leaders and groups; for instance, the promotion of cow dung and urine as a panacea to all diseases including COVID-19 [4].

These unscientific claims not only reveal ignorance of basic science on the part of the specific political leaders, but also depict the state of our society that plants, preserves, and propels these leaders. The term ‘leader’ is often a misnomer. Almost all our leaders are essentially followers. They follow the people. They view people as voters. So, they align and support what a large majority of the citizens believe in. They lack both the vision and courage to question age-old belief systems that are disrespectful of the reality. In disguise of culture and tradition they circle back to mythology even on scientific matters. They do not raise their voices against socio-religious prejudices such as deep-rooted casteism, patriarchy, and horrific honour killing.

Political leaders thrive in an ecosystem that downplays the role of science and is plagued with superstitions and religious dogmas. Business leaders too prefer the status quo. They view people as mere consumers and cash on their blind beliefs and religious rituals. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the intellectuals to trump myths and champion the cause of reason and sensibility, which is indispensable for the practice of science. However, many intellectuals practice science only within the confines of their education and professional careers, and remain superstitious in their personal lives (e.g., auspicious timing for marriage, pujas before entering a new home, etc.) and they adjust to the cultural setting of our society that does not allow us to freely question the irrationality of our religious festivals and rituals [5].

Sometimes, the lack of scientific temper or superstitious practices can take very tragic turns. The parents who killed their two grown-up daughters in their twenties using a dumbbell and trident in Andhra Pradesh in 2021 is a case in point [6]. The father was an associate professor in Chemistry. The mother was a gold medallist in MSc Mathematics and a coach for IIT aspirants. They strongly believed that they received divine signals that ‘Kali Yug’ (the current age of conflicts and sins governed by demons) would end that particular day; and that they could revive their murdered daughters through pujas and their reborn daughters would fully enjoy the beginning of ‘Satya Yug’ (the age of truth governed by gods). Another equally disturbing event is the mass suicide in Delhi in 2018 of 11 members of the Bhatia family as an act of ‘Road to God’ in a deadly ritual [7]. There are several such incidents of varying degrees of tragedy occurring all over of our country regularly.

Given the political apathy, it is not surprising that we don’t have any laws against superstitions at the all-India level. During a parliamentary discussion on the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Mr. Satya Pal Singh, a ruling party member and a former Minister of State for Human Resource Development (Higher Education), said on the floor of the House that Darwin’s theory of evolution is wrong, and human beings are descendants of sages, not monkeys [8]. He went on to say that ‘human rights’ is a western concept, and our culture does not recognize it, whereas ‘Justice to all’, ‘dignity of individual’, and ‘fundamental rights’ are all enshrined in the Constitution of India [9]. In any case, some of the states, after a considerable push by social reformers, lawyers, and rationalist organizations, have succeeded in upholding laws against witchcraft and some of the inhuman evil practices administered in the name of rituals. Maharashtra is one such state which passed this law in 2013 triggered by the cold-blooded murder of anti-superstition activist and social reformer Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, who had originally drafted the law [10].

Nevertheless, the seed of ‘science as a way of life’ is ingrained in Indian constitution. Article 51A(h) of the Constitution of India states that ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’ [9]. If all of us as citizens of India do this duty, then we can overcome the problem of political apathy towards science from its roots. But the paramount question here is: ‘How do we ensure that we do our duty?’

A suggestion from Bertrand Russell, one of the founding fathers of analytical philosophy, aids in answering this. In 1959, at the age of 86, he was asked in an interview for a piece of advice for the future generations [11]. He said,

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.” 

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we should learn the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.” 

The intellectual and moral points of Russell’s advice for citizenry correspond to the quest for truth and pursuit of tolerance, respectively. These two are fundamental characteristics of science. ‘Scientific temper’, as put by Jawaharlal Nehru, who is credited with the coinage of this term, is the temper of a ‘free man’ that manifests in questioning the status quo and backing our thoughts with credible evidence and ‘factfulness’ [12]. Unlike religion or other philosophies, in science, there is nothing which cannot be challenged. There is no absolute book, no absolute person, or no absolute authority in the realm of science. In science, the views and theories are considered tentative — when disproved the same are revised. This is the ‘falsifiability’ condition in the practice of science [13]. All the scientists are humble enough to adhere to this unsaid agreement of falsifiability.

Science as a way of life fosters peace and comradeship. A dialogue between MK Gandhi and CV Raman is worthy of recollecting in this context [14]. In May 1936, during a conversation, C.V. Raman told Gandhi, “Mahatmaji, religions cannot unite. Science offers the best opportunity for a complete fellowship. All men of science are brothers.” Gandhi responded, “What about the converse — all who are not men of science are not brothers?” Raman replied, “But all can become men of science.”

Indeed, science has that universal character. It is foundational while nurturing lives. It starts with curiosity: asking a basic question like “Why?”; and this inquisitiveness, logic, and reasoning are fundamental human traits that enable the evolution of knowledge [12]. Science is a great equalizer. The humble backgrounds of scientists like Ramanujan and CV Raman, who reached the pinnacle of Mathematics and Physics, respectively, are a testimony to this. Science is borderless too. Scientists may belong to any particular country, but the theories these scientists have developed are for all. Science as a way of life embraces this universality: across space and time; in thoughts and actions.


[1] Raman effect, Britannica,
[2] Virk, H.S. Probing India’s Failure to Produce Nobel Laureates in Science after CV Raman. Omniscience: A Multidisciplinary Journal. 2016; 6(2): pp.8—11
[3] Myths made reality, bizarre claims made for ancient India’s achievements, Hindustan Times, December 05, 2014.
[4] Daria S, Islam MR. The use of cow dung and urine to cure COVID-19 in India: A public health concern. Int J Health Plann Manage. 2021 Sep; 36(5):1950-1952. doi: 10.1002/hpm.3257.
[5] Nathan, H.S.K. Science and Non-science, Science Reporter, October 2013, Vol. 50, No. 10, p.41.
[6] AP couple killed their daughters for rebirth the next day in ‘Satya Yug’, Times of India, Jan 26, 2021.
[7] Burari deaths: 11 bright people with one dark secret, The Hindu, July 16, 2018.
[8] Suresh, A. When Myths Trump Scientific Temper - Revisiting ’Scopes Monkey Trial’ Live Law, July 22, 2019.
[9] Basu, D.D. Introduction to the Constitution of India (15th ed.). New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India. p. 131. ISBN 81-203-0839-5, 1993
[10] Anti-superstition Ordinance brought, Daily Pioneer, August 28, 2013.
[11] Annunziato, M., Truth & Tolerance: Bertrand Russell’s advice in the modern world, The Daily Campus, October 13, 2020
[12] Sinha, R. All‌ ‌about‌ ‌Public,‌ ‌Policy‌ ‌and‌ ‌(Un)science, Public Policy India, July 8, 2021
[13] Criterion of falsifiability, Philosophy of science, Britanica,
[14] Rajendran, C.P. The Shrinking Space for Scientific Temper in India Is Worrying, The Wire, November 04, 2019.

(Author: Dr. Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan is an Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management Anand. Views are personal)

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