Science in the Cross Hairs

Have you ever asked yourself questions? Just that, questions. I don’t mean profound questions, such as, why are we here or what is life and what is this universe (the answer’s 42, if you’re wondering, as the great philosopher Douglas Adams so wonderfully pointed out). No, we don’t need to go that far. Even simple questions such as, why is the sky blue and grass green or why do those instant noodles taste so good? If yes, congratulations, you have just demonstrated that archaic concept, curiosity. What’s alarming is how seldom people do in fact show curiosity nowadays. I start with curiosity because that is the fundamental requirement for science: The ability, and more importantly, the will, to ask questions.

Someone has rightly said that the day we stop asking questions is the day we say goodbye to progress. Humanity’s defining feature is curiosity, of not sitting back on what we already know, but constantly pushing the boundaries of what we do know and can know. This has enabled us to evolve from being primitive hunter-gatherers to crossing vast gulfs of nothingness to alien worlds, to broadcast our footprint across the vast swathes of interstellar space. Closer to home, we have left behind our un-tampered aggressive natures, embraced conscience and have managed to erect a millennia old civilization (you might debate that last one). Though it is open to argument, humans today live fuller lives than ever before. All this has been possible only because of science.

Curiosity (striking two flints against each other) led to fire being created. But fire destructs. How did we control it? Trial and error. We must have carried out various experiments to suss out how fires can be grown and extinguished. What things do catch that wonderful warm glow and how it could be taken to various places and voila, we invented the first torch. Even more study and trial and error led us through the centuries to fire-powered electricity generating stations, which enable us to ignore our near ones and engage with complete strangers in QuizUp.

This process, of systematic study and numerous experimentations, is nothing but science. The process of conducting science and inculcating the habit of scientific thinking has been developed and honed over centuries, right from the times of the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and the Indians, through the heights of the Ottomans and the Renaissance, right up to the age of Enlightenment in Europe. The advancement in sciences has led to a situation today in which the vast majority of humans live surrounded by so much technology that we do not even have hopes of understanding in one lifetime. Paradoxical? Yes. Surprising? No.

It was to be a natural consequence of human progress. I suggest you watch the series Connections by the science historian James Burke. He has a fascinating way of showing how different inventions and discoveries are linked to something we use today. It gives an idea of the immense complexity of the technology we use today without a second thought. This is one of the primary reasons for the phenomena we see today, of science being in the cross hairs. That our own technology has become so difficult to understand, it alienates us.

Another reason is the ground science is gaining on theology in explaining phenomena which were once considered to be only under the purview of religious gurus, or just plain rendering the need for religion irrelevant. This I believe is one of the primary motivators of the fervor in which the theory of Creationism (that the universe was created by a Supreme Being who then went on to populate one planet with sentient beings) was, and in some cases still is, being pushed into school curricula in the West (the US, especially). This “theory” is at loggerheads with Darwinian Evolution, which is the accepted standard of how life as we see it today came to be.

Scientific method tells us that we should only accept a theory when we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it and it still manages to stay up. Evolution has managed that, and evidences abound that prove the theory time and again.

Creationism requires an initial Creator and we fall into an infinite loop of who created the Creator. Occam’s razor, that old standby, also tells us that the best theory is the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Assuming a Creator is definitely not the right way to go.

This brings us to why do we even have to bother about how life came to be any way? Can’t we just carry on from where we are now? The issue is that if we give up teaching a scientifically accurate theory we accept the defeat of the scientific method. We would be guilty of promoting subjective beliefs over objective facts. They are the reasons why we have achieved to build the world around us today, where, just to take an example, average human life expectancy at birth is triple what it was in ancient Rome and it is growing. It is estimated that a third of the people born after 2012 would live for at least a century.

Closer home, we have our own version of the War on Science. In January last year, at the prestigious Indian Science Congress, we had papers purporting to show that airplanes and radar systems existed in India 6000 years ago. This could be seen as an effort to retain the relevance of ancient teachings in a world that is moving further away from such texts at an ever increasing pace as scientific developments render them ineffectual. With government personnel themselves promoting such research, the future is uncertain. This could also be a result of the degrading environment for scientific research in India, where adequate facilities and funding are notoriously hard to find. It is not surprising, however, given the manner in which science is taught in our schools, where students are supposed to cram up factual information and experiments have an algorithm-like feel to them. With the country’s promising minds either having their inspiration extinguished or leaving for greener pastures, this problem requires a major overhaul of the science education structure. This disregard for scientific principles can also be seen in the fact that until recently, there was very little acceptance of the fact that global climate change was being caused by human activities, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Other examples, such as the green movement (the one against nuclear power, GMO foods, etc.), “All of science should be questioned” just help to show the growing distrust on science. The consequences are tangible. Budget cuts in the funding for science research in many countries are now showing their ill effects. NASA was once at the cutting edge of human technology. Its budget has been slashed so many times in the last few decades that private players are now catching up. Plans for many particle accelerators have been shelved for lack of funding. All this at a time when income levels and tax collections have been growing worldwide. Where is this money going? Mostly it’s towards the defense programs and public welfare projects. This is a classic example of the benefits now vs. benefits in the future paradox.

Science research is like groping around in the dark, trying to find the things we need (It’s not completely dark now. There’s a little light). Research rarely comes up with breakthrough innovations and discoveries. They are mostly incremental. Defense and public welfare projects give instant gratification. Budget cuts to the tune of 40% have been proposed in the UK while India’s premier research unit, the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research has been lacking strong leaders for a while now, a fact clearly pointed out by Nature magazine in May, 2015. India spends only 0.9% of its GDP on research, against the worldwide average of 2%. Countries such as South Korea and Israel spend upward of 4%. Our neighbor, China, spends 2.1%. From India’s perspective, if it really wants to be a global superpower, it cannot rely on foreign imports to prop up its economy. With its recent push towards the manufacturing and technology sectors, it should seek to turn itself into an innovation center of the world. This would ensure that our home-grown talent (we have a lot, no doubts there) elect to stay in the country. The first thing that has to change is the way we teach science in schools and colleges. We should seek to develop an environment where studies are pursued for the sake of knowledge and not for a job. Governments can promote this by increasing funding which would ensure that researchers do not have to worry about their daily needs. Similar efforts in all countries would ensure that the human race progresses. Nonjudicial use of science has indeed caused many of the world’s problems. But science has the ability to get us out of this mess we find ourselves in. We just have to ask the right questions to find the right answers. The worst thing we could do is stop asking questions altogether.

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