Importance and Relevance of Scientific Awareness in our society – Arun Jayachandran

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Author: Arun Jayachandran
Company: Allianz Managed Operations and Services, Leela Building

Importance and Relevance of Scientific Awareness in our society

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former. ― Albert Einstein

As a teenager I was brooded by the cumbersome sessions that science classes were all about. The math involved and the numerous postulates and their proofs made me mug them up or learn by heart so that I wouldn’t flunk my exams.  The prospect of an impending entrance exam and the Engineering saga that was to soon follow didn’t help my cause either. A career in science was the last thing in my mind when we happened to have a session with none other than Dr.Radhakrishnan, who was the then Director of ISRO. Many questions were asked that ranged from how costly the Chandrayan mission was or how placed were we as a nation when it comes to space research.  However what struck my mind was his reply to my classmates query on the prospect of science as a career option. Science doesn’t have much of a career growth in India especially if it is the lucrative side we are interested in, he said. My classmate however replied that she is adept into research and would surely pursue science in the future. Call it fate or the sheer herd mentality that we are so accustomed to, she ended up doing her Btech degree and is now “categorically” safe with a service sector job at a leading MNC.

While more than half my generation ended up going the same way, and my country debated issues from Manuel scavenging to beef lynching I set aside myself to think why such disturbing trends had taken place. Science has empowered us with better understanding of our universe, provided us with Smart devices and ultra-modern technologies that has enabled us to operate life seamlessly with the click of a button. It has helped us develop modern medicines and has increased life expectancy and had allowed us to cater to the worlds need to eliminate poverty to a huge extent, yet we as a civic society had failed to acknowledge its role and its effectiveness questioned. Superstitious and the religious dogmas rule when it comes to choosing scientific approaches over the commonly held beliefs. Why is it that in the age of E-Learning and high internet literacy that we still need to take up scientific approach as a very last placed resort. One major reason I have felt has been the fact that science directly contradicts religion.

Modern day science is all about analyzing, experimenting and innovating the existing theories, rolling out new hypothesis and most importantly making sure that its results are published to the people. Such is the volume of data that is virtually now available at your door step from scientific e journals to blogs and research documentaries. Had that been enough to enforce rational thinking on us? I believe no. It is strictly the social and cultural influences that shape a person and if you belong to a society that values the centuries old traditions over scientific approach, where rational and free thinking is an alien thought, you are more likely to fall back on the religious facades that it offers. And anything that has been a result of science and innovation would still be used and yet overlooked, utterly undervalued provided anything and everything that science offers is available at a very nominal fee. But in doing so it leaves us vulnerable to the very unscientific and superstitious practices which are deeply rooted in our conscience, something which we end up blindly following. It would restrict us from embracing the efforts and sacrifices put by the scientific fraternity in helping us build a better world. Scientists have termed this the Barnum effect, the tendency to approve something as true even with the vague information that it offers. Just because it is centuries old and hence wise, it need not be true. This is the precise reason why Astrology has flourished in our society. With absolutely no scientific backing to account for it, Astrology has made sure that people had been divided and discriminated against in the pretext of forecasting the events based on the initial position of stars and its movements. With specific set of character traits attributed to people born to each star constellation, zodiac signs and astrologers had since managed to thrive in a million dollar industry. And they all pounce upon the anxiety of the human mind to know what lies ahead of him or how successful he would be or what persons he needs to be associated with to be so. A black cat is still considered an omen especially if it crosses path with a person. Not many people would atleast Google and get to know that color combinations or skin pigmentation are purely based on the melanin content which is entirely genetic. To the vulnerable human, the cat is just another excuse for his days mishappenings. Whistling during dawn would invite snakes, a mentally ill patient could be cursed or demon confronted, grasshoppers/black ants, irritation inside your palms would invite money, the superstitions list is endless. Crows are considered to be our ancestors as per Hinduism and it is customary to feed them. A logical explanation that I could find on Quora about it was this: The reason for such a practice was that everyone wanted to know the reason on why life had so much of misfortunes and miseries. `Why’ was an integral thought to ponder ones existence. And this Why means `Ka’ in Sanskrit. And that is how the crows cry. Such a practice would encourage a person to think more in terms of `Why’ he has been put into such an experience in life and once he attains the answer for such a thought, he is equivalent to be a Brahmin, or a knowledgeable person. Spiritually this all sounds comforting. One could be deeply philosophical, spiritual as well without following any of these customary approaches. To the rational mind, this seems still a satisfactory answer although it sure takes a mind of reasoning to look into the philosophical side of it and not blindly practice it for the sake of doing it. While practices like these are not harmful, there are several others which are potentially life threatening.  Issues like exorcism and medieval health practices, human and animal sacrifices are still prevalent in many parts of India and the world. Menstruation is still considered a taboo and so is the discrimination that follows it. Woman are not allowed inside temples or religious gatherings and at some places not even allowed to sleep in the rooms or cook food. With improved sanitation and hygiene and better quality napkins that can be used for longer periods, it is a sham our society has to confront with. Homosexuality is still considered a crime while science has proved it beyond doubt that it is perfectly normal for all the animals including humans to portray it. As an alarming fact more number of Indians have access to a smart phone than a latrine. The unhygienic practice of open defecation is partly because of the primitive belief that constructing a latrine in the house doesn’t cater to their religious ideals of a clean home. This means that 60% of rural India and 10% of urban India still defecate in the open. A look at the everyday news paper would tell us the about the atrocities that has been going on. Casteism is very much a prevalent issue and so are the honor killings where it is customary to kill someone of a lower caste if at all they fall in love or marries someone of the superior caste. So much for the centuries old traditions and the effects it has had on our society. These are alarming facts and figures. On one side we boast the heritage of being the oldest civilization in the world while the dismal truth is to have ourselves looked upon as one of the most ill developed societies.

Scientific thinking enables us to look beyond the disciplines of caste, creed and religion and frees us from the superstitions. It means to have better control of our altruistic genes, act more humane and accept the fact that man is after all a social animal. Evolutionary studies have helped us trace our descend to a common ancestor, and has since proved to be the most reasonable proof in questioning the creationist view point of the world. The theory of evolution has helped us formulate the growth of life on earth, ever since Darwin came across this revolutionary idea as he observed how different species adapted to the life around them. And since then evolution by natural selection has empowered us with a mountain of data and has been the driving force in making us understand the life and family tree on earth. On a broader sense it has made us realize the fact that we all are distant cousins with each and every life form on this planet. It has perceived the way we look at our origins, provided us with accurate evidences and helped us to recreate and analyze the conditions that existed millions of years ago. Eminent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Carl Segan and many others have voiced their dissent against the role that religious organizations have played in subduing scientific education to the community. And this attack on science and evolution is a direct effect of the fact that it simply contradicts the creationist view point of how the world was made. In many schools in the west, syllabuses had been rewritten to ensure that evolution is still confined to a ‘theory’ in the minds of the children. Religious upbringings and its doctrines should not be questioned, such is the authoritarian principle that religious fundamentalists cater to. In some schools in the US, religion is taught in parallel alongside the science lessons embarking them upon the idea that evolution has been entirely Gods plan to create life on earth and it was as per his plan that humans came to know about it. Sadly 45% of the Americans still believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old. This is what almost half of one of the most developed economies believe in!! Such nexus would restrict an individual’s right to think freely, ponder his existence and understand the life around him. Such cynical approach would only result in a mindset where anything outside the doctrines of their religion looks unacceptable to them. It would be ridiculous to force such ideas at a time when we place our lives at everything that science has done for us. These aren’t just my views from textbooks or documentaries, but my personal experiences on interaction with over a dozen people. For some of my colleagues, their religious upbringing had done such damage that they actually believed in the book of Genesis. For some others, they didn’t care to think much as long as they are content with the world around them. For some life after death was such a priority that they preferred to do good and live as per the holy books. The sufferings in this world had to be endured in return for the pleasures in another world. And for some of these people, homosexuality was a terrible sin, Ebola and AIDS and other major diseases were Gods way of punishing people. There was another friend of mine who was a doctor and paid frequent visits to faith worship centers and when enquired about the logic behind it, he simply said it would be wrong on my part to question something which his family has deep faith in. Also evolution still seems a plausible theory for him despite some loopholes, thankfully for his medical stint. These weren’t the opinions coming from people who had less opportunities or exposures to learn  but from people who looked spoilt and confused enough as a result of their over exposure to religious ideas. My friend’s older relative believes that judgment day is bound to happen at some point in her life time.

Faith worship is today a million dollar lucrative business all around the world. Faith for instance when used in the right sense work drastic changes on someone suffering from a disease. It could be a mental booster which could supplement the treatments which are been given to the person. These worship centers attract tens of thousands of people all around the world with a promise to cure life threatening diseases at a very nominal fee/donations in the name of the God. Such placebo practices would do little good as it would only delay the time for the patient to get proper medical attention. While a very minute fraction of people may get some or other form of improvement, several others are likely to suffer some multiple complications due to delayed treatment. These new age pastors and God men put in such a drama at their worship centers that a nominal, weak hearted and irrational human being is an easy prey.

There had been several proclaimed saints in the past as well. Miracles in the past were mostly spread by word of mouth as there was very little technological know how to substantiate the truth behind it. Even the recent saint hood of Mother Theresa proclaim her of miraculously curing two patients from a life threatening cause while it has been well documented that she left thousands to die a peaceful death and had little knowledge of proper scientific and medical practices at her care homes. Mother Theresa in her Nobel peace prize winning speech had said that abortion was the destroyer of world peace and asked humanity to abstain from the usage of condoms. While there was absolutely no reason to believe that abortion had anything to do with world peace, her proposal to abstain from condom usage were influenced by the Church’s decision to enforce such a way of life. While the benevolent acts of charity has helped many people throughout the world, the hidden propaganda to spread religious ideas and thus hindering scientific progress has had serious consequences on our mankind. Proper scientific education free from the clutches of all these vexed interests is hence a gargantuan task. No wonder we brood over our Physics lessons. There has to be an education system where we could get to know the application of all these scientific concepts in the simplest manner, one which stresses the value of these in our day to day life, one which makes us fascinate the macroscopic and microscopic life around earth. Staring at the night sky full of stars should make you ponder the fact that the light from the nearest star probably came to us from the time of dinosaurs and make you feel astounded that you could be staring into a huge time machine. Perhaps that could only inspire us ease the concept of light years and help solve the math behind it.

Recent national and international news range from beef killings to cross border terrorism, all influenced by the inferior feelings and misinterpreted ideologies. Unhygienic practice of manual scavenging is a prevalent practice in many parts of India and is one of the everlasting scars that casteism has presented us with. To an ardent Hindu, the cow is a holy animal, and is worshipped throughout India while the strange irony is that India is among the top exporter of beef in world market. Any restrictions imposed upon the killing of an animal has to be made on its endangered or not status. And there should ideally be no preference for the cow, on religious or social causes. Proper scientific awareness would have ensured us to think in terms of these. This would have ensured quality checks to try prevent disease out breaks, isolate infected animals as well as ensure good meat testing centers. All these would also ensure better food processing industries and generate employment. Such an environment would encourage healthy studies in areas of animal husbandry and help drive entrepreneurship in the field. It would have a huge boost on our economy not to mention its social impact. Money spent on combatting cross border terrorism could be spent on educating the poor, ensuring good quality food and better investments in agriculture. How peaceful this all might sound. Instead we have been forced to become part of a chaos that has bred hatred and enforced us to view the world within the cynical ideologies that had been passed on as we take unwarranted pride in the fake nationalism that is been promoted. History has shown us that the East vs West fight for supremacy is backed by their conflicting view points on religious grounds. Only scientific awareness and the need for a better world would help proper technological utilization and make us choose between nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons.

A look at this weeks Science and Technology column in the Hindu newspaper tells me that scientific studies have revealed the possibility of water in Jupiters moon. Indian scientists recently developed an underwater ROV that could maneuver up to 1000 feet below the ocean and study coral reefs. Recent DNA studies confirmed that it is the disruption in DNA regulation that causes aging. IIT-M has come up with a new device that can be used for instant diagnosis of several diseases at an affordable cost. The concept of extra-terrestrial life has always fascinated us and by the pace at which research is progressing today, that day is not far away. Such is the fast progressing world. A wise man once said that everything that you find on the internet is not true. With increasing quantum of data that is now being generated, we need to be sure on its authenticity before we come to premature conclusions. Rumors and speculations must be tackled in the right ways to see that the results of scientific advancements are not manipulated. New age fundamentalists and pseudo-science activists have made a mockery of existing scientific theories and has spread the propaganda to meet their ulterior motives. Several alternate medical therapies backed by pseudo-scientific practitioners had been able to deliberately fool people by combining scientifically accepted terms and thrive their businesses while the treatments they offer are more or less a placebo. A significant controversy in recent times was the attribution of MMR vaccines to autism and as a result many parents chose not to vaccinate their children from measles and mumps thereby putting them at severe risk. It was later found that fraudulent information published in a research paper called ‘The Lancet’ generated the controversy and in turn caused heavy outbreaks and deaths due to measles after several generations. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who published the paper was later accused of having multiple undeclared conflicts of interest and was proved to have manipulated evidence. To quote eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins “Reason has built the modern day world. We must favor verifiable evidence over our private feelings or leave ourselves vulnerable to those who obscure the truth.”

Today scientists have a huge role in policy making to help public in finding and implementing solutions to issues that are both local and world-wide. Maintaining the balance between present competitive profit motive and the common good is a very difficult task. Science must benefit the marginalized elements of society and must be able to counter the New age problems. Our Indian society is on a slow path of transformation from a service economy to knowledge economy. It was our knowledge driven quest that helped power a nation with just 12% literacy in 1947 to one of the biggest economies in the world. The need of the hour is to integrate high quality research based undergraduate education in our country. But the current scenario isn’t entirely bleak. With several internationally recognized institutes such as IISERs, IITs,NISER there is a generous room for curiosity driven research. In our bid for a more sustainable future, critical thinking and enhanced risk analysis oriented methods must be included in our education system. Better infrastructure and funding compatible with world class standards and an environment that facilitates rational thinking and academic freedom should help bolster our technological outcomes. The perception of Science as the poor cousin of Engineering must be revoked. Research and Development grants and stipends for research scholars must be increased to reverse the general trend. The thought of scientific awareness as the answer to several relevant local problems would help drive entrepreneurship in the field. In all, science as a career should sound exciting. It must be fallible and open enough to criticism and must look to contradict its own theories to seek further answers. Regional organizations outside the academic disciplines have an important role to play in empowering the common masses. Organizations like Indian Rational Association and Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad have all been instrumental in its fight against the superstitious beliefs and practices.

Every scientific experiment and innovation is a result of several years of hard work and clinically controlled experiments. Science has taken giant leaps in areas such as Genetics, Biotechnology, Astrophysics, Space and defense technologies etc. Today we have recreated the conditions that existed at the time of Big Bang, chanced upon the God particle/Higgs Boson and have taken particle physics to a new level. Scientific medicine has helped us eradicate several life threatening diseases and has ensured our well-being. Science has propelled us to unparalleled heights and it would be ignorant to have not acknowledged it least played a part in it. As a rational and free thinking man, I have accepted that the bigger question is not to ponder the existence of a God but to not turn a blind eye to the evils that has been propagated in his name. I am largely at peace with a dozen documentaries to help me validate my view points and these below words strike goose bumps to me every single time.

“The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth – the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”  ― Neil deGrasse Tyson