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Importance and Relevance of Scientific Awareness in our society
“But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.” ~ Carl Sagan
Scientific awareness – What is it?
If we honestly examine the history of humanity, we cannot help noticing that science was the propelling force that enabled us to evolve as a civilization and become who we are today. Human beings are endowed with the unique talent to inquire deep into the mysteries of this universe, uncover knowledge and use it to enhance the way they live.
But we need to note that the people who made these discoveries or inventions were always a handful. Majority always resisted new knowledge, as they found safety and comfort in their dogmatic beliefs. Many advocates of Science has been persecuted at the hands of these people, to name a few – Hypatia, Galileo and Bruno.
So what differentiates the first group who literally continue to change the world, and the second group who cling on to their dogmas, intuitions and superstitions? That is scientific awareness. We can consider that scientific awareness has two components. Scientific knowledge and scientific temper.
Scientific knowledge Vs Scientific temper
When we talk about scientific awareness, we have to consider these two elements.
Scientific knowledge, as name suggests is the knowledge of facts which are gained by scientific inquiry. This helps us gain more insights to improve our health, administration, transportation, architecture, farming and generally the way we live.
Scientific temper is a different attribute. It is a commitment to stick to scientific method.
For example, if you know about the scientific phenomena of magnetism you have scientific knowledge. But, when somebody claims that they can sell you a magnet which has therapeutic powers, and if you stand up to him and question him based on your knowledge, then you have scientific temper.
Endorsement by the constitution of India
Article 51A on ‘Fundamental Duties’ begins by saying: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India…” In the enumeration of such duties, sub-clause (h) says: “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
Why is scientific awareness the need of the hour?
We are living in a time when quackery, pseudo sciences and religious fundamentalism are flexing their muscles, irrespective of the great progress made by science and technology. In addition to this, people’s lack of scientific awareness is being exploited by marketing groups to sell products and ideas which come with claims that lacks any scientific basis.
Let us examine a few of these unscientific trends.
Pseudo-science is something that is being presented as authoritative science, but in reality lacks the basic qualifications – Falsifiability (The claim should be testable), Verifiability (There should be a criteria to verify the claim) and Reproducibility (The purported phenomena should be repeatable under same conditions).
In the west, there are a lot of conspiracy theories which are presented as if they are speaking based on scientific evidence. Only a close examination based on scientific principle will be able to debunk them. A few examples are the flat earth conspiracy theory which says the earth is flat and there is a massive cover up and propaganda by world governments and space agencies to make people believe that earth is round, ancient alien theory which proposes that aliens contacted our ancient civilizations to teach them advanced technology and several UFO sighting claims which keeps on circulating even after being debunked by scientists.
Taking a look at the situation in India, we have a large number of “sciences” which actually do not satisfy the criteria of falsifiability, verifiability and reproducibility. Some proponents of these disciplines claim that these are subtle and science has not yet grown up enough to verify them. Even if that is distantly true, a person with scientific temper has to be bold enough to refuse to call these “science” and their claims “scientific” until science validates them.
We Indians had a glorious past rich with scientific inquiry. We contributed tremendously in Astronomy, Mathematics and Architecture. Yoga, Pranayama and Meditation are accepted worldwide by mainstream science for their efficacy in enhancing our overall well-being. But nowadays, there are attempts to attribute baseless claims to our scientific heritage, though there is no true historic records or scientific reasoning behind these claims.
There are a large number of products and services in the market which intends to exploit the fear and superstition of individuals. There are objects sold in the market, which would bring you luck as per the advertisers. A lot of astrologers, vaastu consultants and quacks harvest money, simply by telling some feel good news to their customers.
There is only one remedy to this – We need to wake up, and as Article 51A recommends we should uphold scientific thinking whenever we have to deal with the situations mentioned above.
What can we do?
Change the way we teach Science in schools and colleges
Our entire education system is intended to impart scientific knowledge, but not scientific temper. Children are not taught what is scientific method and critical thinking. Including this in our curriculum is a necessity for the coming generations.
Maintain scientific awareness in your personal lives
There will be situations in which we encounter someone who would try to sell us some product or some belief system which does not have scientific basis. Stand up to them and apply critical thinking. Do not buy anything or believe anything unless you are convinced that the claim is scientifically accurate.
Promote scientific awareness in others, without hurting sentiments
Challenge superstitious behaviors in your relatives, friends and colleagues. This is a tricky thing to do. We cannot do this too much, as it might hurt the religious beliefs, or other sentimental beliefs of a person. In our secular and pluralistic Indian society, it is very important to give people freedom to follow their belief systems as far as it does not create any problems to themselves or to the society. So, we need to find a balance here.
Be aware of logical fallacies
Any fraudulent argument is created based on a “logical fallacy”. A logical fallacy is an erroneous logic. It is really worth investing some effort to understand these fallacies. If you do, next time someone makes a strange claim you will know which fallacy is he using on you.
The full list of logical fallacies is available in the internet. A few of the major fallacies are listed below, just to give the reader a taste of them.
- Anecdotal fallacy – Forming wrong conclusions from anecdotes or isolated observations. Example: “My uncle was a regular smoker, but he lived up to 102 years with no major health problems. So, smoking is harmless.”
- Appeal to authority – Claiming that something is true just because an expert said so. Here, even if the person may be an expert, blindly accepting what that person says is against scientific temper. Those who make the claim should provide more supporting arguments instead of simply saying “Einstein said so.” Or “Gandhi said so.”
- Appeal to emotion – Most religious fundamentalist groups and political parties use this fallacy to mislead the masses.
- Ad hominem attack – This fallacy is used to disprove a claim by attacking the credibility or the qualifications of the proponent. Instead, in the scientific method it deserves to be examined and validated scientifically.
Ask the powerful question – “How do you know that?”
When somebody is trying to sell you a superstitious idea, there is a simple weapon that would be handy. Just ask the question – “How do you know this is true?” Then he or she will be forced to give you supporting arguments for the claim. If the argument is fake, you will eventually notice that the arguments fall under one or more logical fallacies.
Let us take a look at a sample conversation.
Person A: “Wearing a ruby crystal will definitely bring you luck!”
Person B: “That would be amazing if it was true. But, how do you know that wearing it will bring luck?”
Person A: “My business started prospering since the very first day I started wearing it.”
Person B: “You have become victim to a logical fallacy known as anecdotal fallacy.”
Person A: “I don’t understand what you mean. But there is one more thing. The god-man Mr.X predicted that my business would improve if I wear it. What he predicts will definitely happen.”
Person B: “This fallacy is known appeal to authority.”
Scientific awareness is a necessity in any civilized society. It makes us more human, and enables us to work towards a better future. It is the responsibility of each one of us to uphold scientific knowledge and scientific temper. No pseudo-scientist should be allowed free reign without having to provide scientifical evidences for his or her claims. We should never let fraudulent products and ideas to be sold in the market exploiting superstition of the masses.
Let us conclude by remembering the famous quote from Lady Hypatia of Alexandria, the renowned mathematician who ended up being a martyr of science in the hands of religious fundamentalists.
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”