Do we Indians lack scientific literacy?

Satyakam Ray

In the past, one Union education minister said that astrology was above science in a parliament debate in 2014. In hindsight, the statement was a precursor to what’s coming our way regarding policy decision-making. The idea to promote the selling of Bhabhiji Papad as an immunity booster for Corona has gone well, with many persons possessing non-scientific temperaments. But the real scientist community looks perplexed as India stands now at the crossroads between scientific temper and blind belief in pseudo-science.

Why blame the current politicians for the disgruntled state of Indian science? As citizens of India, we should also blame our unfair, unscientific practices.

  • Before even reading the main headlines in the newspaper, many people search for the astrology column. The situation is also worse on TV channels as there’s a separate section on daily astrology and live session predicting anybody’s future by a “reputed” astrologer.
  • Before construction, the Vaastu experts are contacted to determine what angle/direction the house door should be made or other similar stuff. It defies any scientific logic.
  • Instead of going to the doctor or fertility clinic, gullible women and their families visit some ‘Baba’ for magical prasad – the panacea for all infertility.

The list may go on, and on if we add every activity we do unscientifically.

Indians lack the very essence of scientific principles- the scientific temper. Scientific temper refers to the way of life in which discussion, argument, and analysis form the bedrock of information before arriving at any definitive conclusion. It can be applied in daily lives also, not only in the scientific arena. Scientific temper is the way of thinking critically, the capability to ask questions to the authority without bowing down, and not to blindly trust anybody or any argument for its sake. Persons possessing such a scientific temper are said to be scientifically literate. The scientific literacy rate is meager among educated working professionals also. That’s a bizarre phenomenon considering the amount of time one spends learning scientific facts and not applying those in their life upon requirement.

Apart from intellectual scientific debacles, the ordinary person is always a victim of scientific illiteracy. Standard religious practices and widespread blind belief play an essential role. Organized religions don’t permit re-examination or scrutiny- at least not for the spiritual leaders of almost all religions. As envisioned by Karl Marx, “religion is the opium of the people.” It tends to close the mind and the way to free thinking. Few progressive thinkers like Swami Vivekananda could bring scientific temper to religious aspects. The approach not to believe in anything unless one realizes that truth or at least wait for a better explanation to come up – is the basis of how science and religion can co-exist.

Reasons for scientific illiteracy:

  • From school days onwards, the inclination to question everything from any superior person is often suppressed, or free speech is halted somehow.
  • Religious authority doesn’t permit questioning and examining. What’s written should be followed at any cost – is the main mantra of these spiritually intolerant fundamentalist thinking processes.
  • The inability to accept change in the thought process often results in scientific illiteracy. Change is inevitable, and one must adhere to it.

Cons of Scientific illiteracy:

  • Following and believing unscientific pseudo-sciences like astrology and horoscope can severely affect any person’s mental well-being and confidence.
  • It can lead to the rise of hardliners and extreme ideologists who push their belief systems upon others forcibly. It can lead to the increase of an authoritarian religious state and anarchy. 
  • Various con men cheat ordinary people and harass them in the name of religion and tradition.
  • India can lose all its international reputation as the powerhouse of knowledge and soft power as the scientifically illiterate people destroy the very fabric of democracy we live in.

How to curb scientific illiteracy?

  • Free speech and liberalism should be promoted as it enhances the base for different points of view. The media should be neutral and promote only scientific facts, not pseudo-science.
  • The scientific community should be more vocal and try to make science popular among the mass. Scientific temper should be made compulsory as it’s listed as one of the constitutional duties.
  • The Indian youth and the general public should question the authority on every aspect of policy changes. Scientific methods to do the job should be promoted and adored by the public. Young minds can play an essential role in spreading awareness.

Recently NASA landed its rover on the Mars surface and examined any life existing. UGC wants students to write the ‘cow science’ exam at the university level in India in India. Before becoming any further laughing stock in front of International scientists and leaders, every Indian should try to become scientifically literate, at least now. 

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