Scientists and supporters at a March for Science rally in Washington, DC. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The scientific community must train a new generation of communicators who are trained properly in science but also know how to resonate with the public.

The history of science is replete with thousands of examples of the way modern or empirical science was opposed by well-entrenched forces in society at any given time. Some of the oldest cultures have also resisted scientific ideas based on their own interpretation of the physical world. For example, Hindus have claimed that Hinduism has contributed some of the most seminal ideas to science and mathematics and engineering and aviation. Many scientific concepts and engineering ideas in these cultures were merely ideas or concepts or mostly flights of imagination. For example, the Pushpak Viman.

There have been innumerable debates and controversies about the power of scientific inventions and concepts since the Vedic times. At the Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai in 2015, there was a separate session on “ancient sciences through Sanskrit” that drew a lot of fire from rationalists and modern scientists. It was alleged that the session was organised just to please the new political dispensation in Delhi as the Prime Minister usually inaugurates the Science Congress every year. Many of the speakers on the Vedic sciences drew ridicule for not being able to provide any rational explanation of the phenomena they were trying to demonstrate. Subsequent Science Congresses have disbanded the ancient sciences session.

India was home to ancient universities or seats of higher learning of Nalanda and Takshashila that were either destroyed or decayed a long time ago. However, the government of India resurrected Nalanda, but the project is now mired in political infighting. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the first head appointed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and no friend of the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, has resigned. No one really knows what goes on at this university.

In the early part of the Christian era, science was strongly opposed. In the middle ages, western Europe was in scientific darkness. The Roman empire had no interest in science, and after its fall there was scientific barrenness. However, later, the universities in England and other European countries emerged as leaders in scientific research. By early twentieth century, North American centres of science, engineering and technology developed at the speed of light; the rest of the world has been struggling to catch up with the West in science even to this day.

The ancient church was vehemently opposed to modern science and even persecuted scientists like Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Hubble and Bertrand Russell. The church has also opposed modern social sciences by promoting and silently supporting slavery, anti-Semitism, witch hunts, sexual repression, censorship and the inquisition. The church has strongly promoted wars and capital punishment for even small misdemeanours. This kind of opposition to sciences in the church is called apologetics. Even today, fundamentalist Christians in the United States believe in the theory of special creation which states that Earth was created 7,000 years ago.

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They completely disbelieve in evolution and support the theory of intelligent design. Many modern-day Quran-thumping Islamic preachers also do not believe in evolution and preach the same with all fervour in their speeches around the world. There are many extreme right-wing Republican congressmen who strive hard to cut funding to science agencies. Luckily, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing politician, has great faith in science and technology for development and has even increased funding for the scientific agencies.

What has happened in the present era of scientific dissonance is the emergence of highly organised and orchestrated anti-science movements aided and abetted by modern information and communication technology and so much funding that these movements have become a multi-million-dollar protest industry. The role of non-governmental organisations and the so-called civic society organisations keep a selective anti-science movement boiling. Some of the science and technology they seek to ban or be kept under wraps are nuclear technology, modern biotechnology and vaccines. They fight against some modern sciences so vehemently that polarisation is on the rise and even reasonable people have started to doubt scientific reason.

One branch of science called eugenics, which deals with the study of human genetics, came to earn a really bad name for good reason at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. The Nazi doctor Josef Mengele conducted experiments on human beings at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The eugenic movement started in California long before the Nazis adopted it as state policy with the intention of creating a race of superior people in Germany. The Rockefellers even funded the German eugenic movement. It is these kinds of misuse of science by wicked people that really heightened the anti-science movement in Europe, which is alive and kicking even to this day. The California eugenic movement died out, and today it is a state with some of the finest institutions for scientific research and development.

In Stanley Kubrick’s comic masterpiece Dr Strangelove, Jack Ripper, an American general who orders a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, had his own paranoid worldview; he believed that fluoridation of water was a monstrous communist plot. Anti-fluoridation conspiracy theories are now stuff of comedy. Some Americans don’t like the idea of government adding chemicals to water, forgetting that water is also a chemical – dihydrogen monoxide. The scientific and medical consensus is that fluoride, a natural mineral, at low concentrations protects dental enamel, prevents tooth decay and promotes public dental health. But the citizens of Portland town have banned fluoridation of water in their community because they don’t believe the scientific consensus.

Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove (Paolo Attivissimo/Flickr) Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove (Paolo Attivissimo/Flickr)

In today’s world, modern sciences like the safety of fluoridation, vaccines, climate change and GMOs are furiously opposed, much against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Using their own sources of information, which is called parallel science, and the interpretations of their “scientific experts”, activists deny the mainstream expert scientific consensus. Doubting science has become pop culture. There is a whole bunch people who don’t believe that Apollo moon landing was real. A Hindu priest in Varanasi those days even said Americans don’t know our Chandrama, and they have landed somewhere else, calling it moon. There are some farmers in Uttar Pradesh who believe that water supplied from hydro-electric dams is useless for agriculture as the dam has sucked all its power to create electricity and then sent down to them for use. Similarly, many NGOs started an aggressive anti-nuclear power movement in Kudankulam that was put down by the UPA government. That movement is not totally dead; it will raise its head again when other nuclear power plants are to be commissioned. A farmer leader, the late Professor Nanjundaswamy, used to say young girls working in the Bt cotton fields attain puberty much earlier than normal. Three NGOs in then Andhra Pradesh – ANTHRA, CSD, and DDS – started propagating a false story that hundreds and thousands of sheep died in the state for eating Bt cotton leaves, the only approved GM crop in India. None of these stories gained much currency in those years but did sufficient damage to stall further approvals of GM crops in India.

When the BJP came to power at the centre, there was hope that it would approve GM crops as Prime Minister Modi himself is an admirer of modern biotechnology and is fully aware of the good that Bt cotton has done to farmers in Gujarat. However, his hands are tied in the matter due to protests from his own flock like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. Many disbelievers are naïve and are harmless to society. However, the ones who are causing actual harm for development in the developing world are modern-day NGOs who are very difficult to fight because they are educated, techno-savvy and have the organisational skills to connive based on their political leanings.

If these opponents of science and technology are not aware, they should know that science is what is running this world and it is all-pervasive. Even the opponents are beneficiaries of modern science and technology, but they militate to keep it away from the most deserving and the needy. They create non-existent and imaginary hazards and risks. The Ebola virus is known not to mutate to change its way of transmission in human beings, but a new type of “airborne Ebola” was created on the internet just to scare people. The irony is that opponents of science use information technology to attack biotechnology, both of which are cutting-edge technologies. Those who oppose GM crops for want of, in their view, sufficient scientific proof, wholeheartedly accept the scientific proof of global warming.

This duplicitousness of the opponents of science is what creates needless anxiety and fear in the minds of the public. Science is a series of methods to demonstrate natural reality by way of providing evidence that behaves according to the laws of nature. People have a challenging time understanding this methodology, and therefore get swayed easily by mischief makers. Whenever science goes up against human feelings and emotions, science always loses.

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That’s how it has become difficult to convince people of science even though they all benefit from it in their day-to-day lives. Scientific truths are not self-evident, but they have been deduced from experimentation and critical observation which calls for people to exercise their brains. That’s where people give up and take the easy route and fall prey to the machinations of the anti-activists. People sub-consciously cling on to their intuitions. Even educated people have reservations about science. A bunch of masters degree students in the Fergusson College in Pune, when asked if they eat DNA when they have their food, were unable to answer with any confidence. When such is the plight of students of modern biology and biotechnology, it is no surprise that anti-science activists exploit this kind of weakness to press their case. That’s how public opinion is created. These anti-science activists have done such a terrific job of creating doubt about science that even politicians have fallen for it all over the developing world. It is these ill-informed politicians who come in the way of making regulatory policies that affect the implementation of modern technologies. Unfortunately, scientists have done precious little to influence the minds of the same politicians. The result is that many progressive technologies are in a limbo.

In a scientifically advanced country like the United States, some of the far-right politicians of the Republican Party don’t want to fund research on embryonic stem cells and studies in reproductive biology and many of them don’t believe in global warming, and they sit on committees that decide funding for such researches. Indian parliamentarians during the UPA regime also produced a scientifically retarded report on GM crops, heavily influenced by the virulent anti-GMO NGO Greenpeace, and submitted it to parliament and not one member of the committee had any inkling of the science or technology. The net result is, for the past seven years, approvals of GM crops have been completely suspended.

In addition to anti-science activists, some industries are also involved in peddling their faulty technology just to sell and make money. The well-known example is the more than 60-year-old stand that tobacco is harmless. The tobacco industry was lying for too long. Such blatant misrepresentations by the industry also erodes confidence in science and technology. The fossil fuel industry is also campaigning against climate change and that does not help the case of good science.

Arctic regional sea ice is expected to decline significantly before 2050. (NOAA) Arctic regional sea ice is expected to decline significantly before 2050. (NOAA)

The news media also plays a key role by giving space and time, in the name of objectivity or neutrality, to mavericks, naysayers, soothsayers, professional demagogues and table thumpers.

Scientific enterprise has its own faults in its so-called peer review system. Many faulty and incorrect scientific results fall through the cracks of the peer review system. However, there is no better alternative to this system that by and large catches faulty science up to 95 to 98 per cent. In fact, if one were to critically examine the progress of science in the last 200 years, the peer review system has done a commendable job of advancing credible scientific progress, the benefits of which we all enjoy today.

The boring truth is, scientific progress, most of the time, takes place incrementally, which is why according to a Pew poll, only 40 per cent of Americans accept that global warming is due to human activity. A third of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form since time began. These are members of the anti-evolution league.

The polarisation on science is such that there does not seem to be any kind of middle ground because both groups live in their echo chambers, reinforcing their own beliefs. But the scientific facts are that GMOs are safe, climate is warming, vaccines prevent unwanted deaths. The scientific enterprise also causes confusion in the minds of people by publishing faulty papers like vaccines are linked to autism and GM crops cause terrible cancers, both of which were published the British medical journal Lancet. The vaccines and autism study was retracted by the journal and the report has been definitively debunked by scientists, but some of the most influential people in America are spearheading the anti-vaccine movement, and have even gone to the extent of bombing laboratories and issuing death threats to vaccine scientists who had to be provided protection.

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In case of the safety of GM crops, Lancet published the paper by Seralini et al that had been debunked by the mainstream scientific community after it was published in a journal of toxicology and then retracted by it. Thus, even editors of scientific journals sometimes try to please the anti-science crowd in the name of objectivity. A scientific journal in biological sciences, then published by the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, injected itself into the great Indian GM debate and invited both proponents and opponents to write articles to make their case. Scientists did not respond to the call, but the anti-scientist-in-chief Dr Pushpa Bhargava did, and the result was that his scientific nonsense prevailed just because it got published in the journal without any peer review.

The editor escaped his responsibility by saying that scientists had an opportunity to rebut and they chose not to. But, why would a journal publish something on GM crops, an issue that is hotly debated, without the benefit of sound peer review? It is due to this kind of naïve attitude to please all that scientists themselves do disservice to science.

The last word is about science teaching that starts in schools. It is taught as a set of facts and not as a set of constantly evolving methods of reasoning. Unless schools and colleges inculcate the scientific spirit, the chances of the public learning about science looks dim. Science is progressing rapidly and technological advances are breathtaking, so the challenge of communicating science becomes even more onerous and daunting.

The scientific community must train a new generation of communicators who are trained properly in science, but also know how to resonate with the public. Until such change happens, scientists will have to contend with the anti-science lobby and fight them as vigorously as possible on all fronts.

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