Why a second look at science is needed to understand politics

Many scientists do not equate scientific concern with national interest.

 |  4-minute read |   08-12-2019
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One of the missingness about the current situation is the real absence of critique. After the Congress became an absentee party playing second fiddle to the Shiv Sena, the notion of dissent among the parties seems remote. An official Opposition seems a remote possibility; only civil society remains to sustain some spirit and creativity around dissenting imaginations. One saw interesting evidence of this last week as I walked around Bengaluru talking with scientists.

Creating knowledge

Many of the scientists I talked to did not equate scientific concern with national interest. The bandwagon model of science does not dominate all groups. Many of them pointed out that science generally worked in small groups, that scientists despite governmentalisation were an anarchic group with a quilt patch of opinions. I sensed this as I spent the day listening and gossiping.

The first thing I realised was the great confusion of the regime was the confusion of science with technology.

Many older scientists pointed out that Bengaluru was the home of science, where science was seen as part play, part dream, a dream of an autonomous culture embodied by CV Raman, who once proclaimed that he would rather pursue one more property of a diamond than worry about its industrial uses.

This confusion of science with technologies is one of the great mistakes of the regime. The consequences are devastating.

It affects everything from the nation to children. As a result of seeing science as technology, one has made science into something instrumental, as something for profit. The sense of play is completely lost as science becomes subject to big missions. By characterising science as project-oriented science, the regime creates and enables gargantuan projects like space research but adds little to science as knowledge.

Money suddenly seem scarce as little projects, groups following little problems are ignored. One of the biggest casualties of such a policy is the PhD student following little pockets of research. A scientist I met recently picked up an article and asked me, "How many authors do you think this article has?" I guessed about 30. He smiled and said, "4,000".

Political posturing

This is what happens when science as a pursuit gets hypothecated to technology. He called it the 'sexification of science', observing that the Chinese were obsessed with such gargantuan projects.

India, he claimed, was so far the place for an anarchically creative science. Indian science, for all the attacks made on it, was creative and autonomous. "There was some sense of pluralism and freedom, which we are quickly losing." He added that once we stop thinking of science as a culture, we lose a sense of metaphysic about it. He said society becomes a trifle dreary when science becomes workmanlike and instrumental. Both science and society lose their sense of dreamtime.

Some of the other scientists I met told me that there are other, more devastating but indirect consequences.

This policy preoccupation with science as relevant only in a technological and economic sense, devastates childhood. Children are taught science as if it is a vocational exercise.

But there is more to science than employment. Science is a source for alternative imagination, for dissenting theories, for new imaginaries. All this gets lost or becomes mute when all of science is subsumed under policy.

Original thinking

Indian science then becomes dismal. An Indian landing on the Moon becomes the end point of science. We lose even our ability to dream alternative dreams. As a scientist added, "The minute we think of Chandrayaan as good science, we lose the legacy of a Bose or Raman. When science becomes a mere applied science, India loses out civilisationally."

I was talking to an astronomer who was worried about the way we teach children. She said, "We tell the child that she has to find one correct answer when she has to think first of the correct question. This idea of science as a mere form of problem-solving has to stop. It is an act of philosophising, where discovery and invention surprise and mysteries combine."

She added that a badly taught science can ravage childhood. This regime, by technologising science and turning it bureaucratic, can mutilate childhood. I suddenly realised the wisdom of these words as I saw children learning science by rote. These scientists were hinting that politics is not about ideologies, about left or right. We need to go back to culture, to civilisation, to criticise the short-sightedness of this regime. A more autonomous science and a freer university could be the beginning of that possibility.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How to fix the Indian economy which is in a free fall

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Shiv Visvanathan Shiv Visvanathan @shivvisvanathan

The writer is a social nomad

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