Fighting 'half-baked' knowledge: 2018 March for Science to be louder

March for Science The 2017 March for Science in Delhi | Breakthrough Science Society

The scientific community is raising its voice, again. This time, it is louder than the previous year, when it held its first 'March for Science' event on August 9. In its second instalment, the March for Science will be organised on April 14, and Breakthrough Science, the organisation spearheading the movement, says that at least 150 rallies have been planned nationwide.

So what is it that the scientific community is demanding? Actually, it is something rather basic, and therefore rather difficult, too. It wants the government to develop a scientific temper and not peddle half-baked knowledge and a host of 'mumbo-jumbo' under the name of 'ancient Indian science'.

The organisers are quick to point out that they have no issue recognising the contributions of ancient India, provided that work has been validated by the established scientific process.

“We do recognise Aryabhatta was the first to guess that the earth tilts on its axis. We also believe that India solved the first quadrilateral equation. But to say that cow urine has a host of beneficial properties without evidence is not acceptable. Or to say that ancient Indians were expert 'spacefarers', without backing that claim with evidence,'' said Soumitro Banerjee, from the physics department at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata. He was speaking at a press conference in New Delhi on April 5.

Members of several organisations that work in promoting science and a scientific temper, as well as rational thought, have allied under the March for Science movement, which was started in the US after President Donald Trump denied the existence of climate change, stopped funding for research in the area and, in fact, even deleted the term from White House documents.

In India, while the government doesn't deny climate change, and—on the contrary—it promises to do more for its mitigation, reclaiming the scientific temper is a bit different. It has to be taken out of the clutches of a brigade that believes ancient India was the repository of all knowledge, said D. Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum.

“Ancient India did not develop its knowledge in isolation. There was interaction with other civilisations of the time, a lot of sharing knowledge and taking ideas forward,'' he pointed out, adding that an even scarier trend was that a lot of ideas that were being peddled as ancient Indian knowledge were not even that. “Vedic mathematics, for instance, is not the Vedic mathematics being marketed today. Let's not forget, in the Vedic age, there was no zero.''

The organisers pointed out that though the government claims its spending on science is increasing every year, the added funds only take care of inflation. As a percentage of the GDP, funding is actually going down. And some institutes have even been told they will get 50 per cent of the funding, with the rest having to be raised by themselves.

The scientific community has been pained by repeated announcements by ministers, such as “India pioneered cosmetic surgery, with Ganesh being the example” (Prime Minister Narendra Modi said this, soon after becoming PM). Recently, Satyapal Singh said Darwin's Theory on Evolution was bunkum and Dr Harshavardhan, the science and technology minister, said Stephen Hawking had said a particular Vedic theory was superior to Einstein's Theory of Relativity (no one could find that statement Hawking had purportedly made).

The organisers pointed out that even when investment in science was dipping, there were several “researchers” getting good government backing. For instance,last year, IIT-Delhi had a conference on Panchgavya. after which the organisers announced there were over 40 proposals for research on the benefits of cow urine.

“The entire approach is wrong. You do not approach science with a pre-assumption that it is beneficial. Science is approached through evidence, on which a hypothesis is made, which is then tested and proved,'' Raghunandan said. He rues other moves, such as making Vaastushastra compulsory for architecture courses, or an institute as reputed as the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, organising a conference on astrology.

The organisers said that a result of this push—to make everything ancient Indian seem the best—was that those who raised their voices against it were branded anti-nationals or 'Macaulayputras'. They pointed to the killings of people like M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, who promoted rational thinking, as examples of the intolerance.

The group said they had approached the government at the Centre and also several state governments seeking not just added funds for better science, but also creating a scientific temper where unverified claims are not peddled off as the truth. There was no response.

Interestingly, Harshavardhan has always maintained his government lays great stress on developing science and looking for solutions to the country's problems through scientific interventions.