G N Rao, Vice Chancellor at Andhra University, speaking at the Indian Science Congress. (screengrab)
Snapshot
  • The science congress reflects India’s aspirations and the commitment of successive governments to science.

    The #pseudoscience bin is an important element, and the gorillas, who deserve to be in the bin, are huge, several and freely roaming around.

The principal goals of the 106th Indian Science Congress held in Jalandhar (3 to 7 January) were “to advance and promote the cause of science in India and to hold an annual congress at a suitable place in India”.

The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) does get some support from the Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology. The ISCA raises funds for its activities, such as for the holding of the congress, from other sources. Yet (like the Indian National Science Academy, for example) the ISCA decides the agenda, the venue and selects the speakers. The government has no role whatsoever in these matters.

We can look at the science congress from three perspectives: The government and what it says, the audience and what they get and the speakers in the scientific sessions and what they say,

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First, the government does have an important presence in the science congress, though it is not a government event. This is the only major annual national science event the Prime Minister of India attends, and perhaps no other head of government attends such a function each year. What the Prime Minister says at the science congress is important and matters.

The Science Minister is present and speaks at the inauguration. Other ministers, science secretaries, and government officials may be invited to speak. Our science agencies are also invited to put up stalls. The talks by science secretaries give a view of where science and technology are headed in the country. These are followed by questions and answers. The exhibitions by science institutions and science agencies attract big crowds, particularly school and college students.

Do look through the PM’s speech this year and previous years, and, all speeches over the past several decades. They reflect our aspirations. Very importantly, and unusually among post-colonial countries, they reflect the commitment of successive governments to science.

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We must be critical, always, about how governments act. We should also celebrate this commitment, which has been there during very difficult times. India has supported small and big science, basic and applied in a manner that is exemplary and quite extraordinary.

Most important, our support in creating institutions that allow ideas to flourish freely has been foundational. We have continued on this path too through the many new central universities, IISERs, IITS etc that have been created more recently. Yet, these barely touch our needs.

This year, the PM’s speech has asked that we attend to research in the state university system. This will get much attention in practice. Similarly, the point made about getting the analysis of data from the soil, water, seed, market, fertilizers, pesticides, into the farmer’s decision- making using artificial intelligence and other approaches.

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As the footprint of science grows, more resources are needed, young researchers should be remunerated better and processes need to improve. We are all together in getting these things done too. As our economy grows, support all-around for science will grow. Old problems will go and new ones will surface. The Jai Anusandhan slogan, therefore, aims to get support for science as a popular demand as distinct from only the fruits of science being a popular demand.

Second, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of school and college students attend the congress. They come from all over the state, and from all over the country. The science congress, with all the attendant vibrant-chaos, is a great melting pot for students from all over India to meet each other, bond and see parts of India. They love meeting with the scientists, going to the stalls, mobbing the Nobel laureates. It is a mela, which leaves a lasting impact on them when things go well. For that, the speakers are important.

Third, the speakers. The science congress has an overall theme each year, There is a wide range of topics that are covered in the talks. A group of scientists, chosen by the ISCA, requests applications to speak and chooses speakers. Once chosen there is no censorship on what the person actually speaks. Only a few of our best scholars go to the science congress.

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The crowds, chaos, the diverse audience (who does one direct the talk to? the experts, school students, college students?) seem to put off many. This is a pity. The congress is usually better organised nowadays that some years ago, but more pertinent, it’s precisely the diversity and lack of tight organisation that makes it special. Perhaps one should just embrace that. The talks then reflect the speakers. A few are superb, some good, many unremarkable and few, usually one or two, outright preposterous.

The last part gets disproportionate national and global attention. This attention stays over the year, till the next congress, assigned to the #pseudoscience bin. It is a fascinating reflection of our mindset that this bin is taken to be emblematic of scientists and to be an official endorsement.

Someone, concerned and well-intentioned, asked, how one (presumably the government) could give a platform to such preposterous talks at the science congress. Well, the organisers rightly don’t have a filter and the government rightly has no role in the matter. Scientists say what they say, and if they talk nonsense, they will feel the heat from the community.

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It is indeed unfortunate that a sitting Vice-Chancellor of a great state university, a biologist to boot, says something that is scientifically completely untenable. His Chancellor should get a formal complaint from those who were there and he will surely hear personally from individual scientists and our very vocal science-academies.

The #pseudoscience bin is an important one. But we in India fill the bin in an oddly lazy manner. When lay people, including politicians, make random untenable statements linking religion, culture, the past etc, to science in an erroneous manner; the problem is to be addressed by collegial communication. When scientists make such links, they should be addressed more squarely. If there is a likelihood that such views may enter policy, the engagement needs to go up. But these are not the gorillas in the room.

The gorillas, who deserve to be in #pseudoscience bin, are huge, several and freely roaming around. But, first, here are just a few from history and then from the present. Trofim Lysenko’s (under Stalin and Kruschev) rejection of Mendelian genetics, ruined the study of genetics and plant breeding in the Soviet Union, ruined Soviet agriculture and caused famines through the acceptance of what was, then too, clearly pseudoscience.

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Millions of lives were lost because of the introduction of a process where Lysenko was complicit. In South Africa, tens of thousands lost their lives when the president and health minister asserted that HIV does not cause AIDS. This has long been recanted, fortunately. More recently, human-induced climate change gets denied, by those with direct interests and by a leader.

Some affluent from the West have the luxury of not just voicing pseudoscience on vaccines, but actively funding and propagating these views. This results in people dying. Other activists have views on agriculture which, like Lysenko, display not only a poor understanding of genetics but a desire to translate this poor understanding into policy by stoking fears in the public, and thus grid-locking well-intentioned policymakers.

Yet others have similar views on nuclear power. More recently, Nobel Prize winner James Watson, now 90 years old, reiterated his decades-old racist and bigoted rant on African intelligence, which is scientifically flawed. Such views, if not repudiated, have a great danger in seeing the revival of eugenics.

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On a more mundane level, many scientists look at where research work is published, to judge its merit rather than what it says, creating an assessment pyramid which has little science in its construct. These are the topics that must be at the centre of the debate on pseudoscience.

The application of science, through technology, must be cautious and wise. This requires careful listening to a range of scientific possibilities, and working with citizens, and government. Time and attention must be given to all views.

But, as with Lysenko, as with HIV-AIDS, as with climate change, if we (our scientists, in India) hesitate to call out #pseudoscience in these debates we risk endangering our citizens and the planet. By preventing the right thing from being done and by also by doing the wrong thing ‘big’ pseudoscience poses a great danger.

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Salacious headline-grabbing stories are interesting, but focusing on them risks ignoring the big pseudoscience gorillas rambling in the porcelain shop which is our planet.

This article first appeared in the author’s blog and has been published here with permission.

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