The Inter Academy Panel on Ethics in Science has recently issued a statement emphasising the need to protect rational thinking and scientific temper in the country. The statement is important on two counts. It is a rare expression of thought on an important issue coming from the panel which represents India's oldest and the best science academies - Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Sciences. Second, it reflects the collective wisdom of the cream of Indian scientists on the current debate about attacks on rationalists and voices of reason.
The statement serves as a reminder to the nation that one of the fundamental duties enlisted in the Constitution is scientific temper, which requires every citizen to uphold reason and rationality. Scientific temper encompasses rationality, rights and responsibility in equal measure. The provocation behind this statement, the academies point out, is "several statements and actions which run counter to this constitutional requirement of every citizen of India". The scientific community wants exemplary punishment to be given to "trespassers of reason and rights" and would like to see all sections of Indian society raise their voice against acts that violate the spirit of reason and scientific temper. The panel has quoted the iconic poem of Rabindranath Tagore - "Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls" - in support of this appeal.
Instead of rejecting this cryptic statement as motivated and political - as some politicians and fringe elements are doing - we need to sit back and mull over it. The concept of scientific temper has existed for a long time, with some scholars tracing it back to the time of Buddha, who preached tolerance and gave a message against superstition and dogma. Scientific temper does not amount to automatic rejection of empirically developed ancient concepts of mathematics and Indian medicine. Jawaharlal Nehru evoked scientific temper in the context of making science and technology a key input in national development.
For him, scientific temper was not an esoteric or elitist concept as critics are trying to make it out.
He saw it more as "a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with life, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen". The development of a scientific mind is more important than actual discovery, as it is out of this temper and method that many more discoveries will come. This thinking was reaffirmed in the Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958, which linked scientific approach and the use of scientific knowledge with the idea of a welfare state. Most important, "scientific temper is the temper of a free man," Nehru had stated.
Therefore, concerns expressed by science academies on scientific temper being under stress are valid. At the same time, it would be great to see academies widen the debate and also initiate a process of introspection within the scientific community because, of late, one can see some scientists too deviating from the path of reason and rationality.