Narendra Dabholkar. Photo: Special arrangement
- August 20 is observed by some progressive organisations as Scientific Temper Day in honour of the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who was assassinated on this day nine years ago.
- Science and democracy share many common traits. While science draws legitimacy from scientific methods, democracy has ideals grounded in justice, liberty and equality.
- We must, however, remember that science and democracy cannot flourish in hostile and stale conditions.
- Embracing scientific temper and upholding democratic principles enshrined in our constitution has to become a part of the people’s consciousness.
Science and democracy share many common traits. One is a form of knowledge, and the other is a form of governance. Besides its immense utilitarian value, the core strength of science is its openness and ability to question its own theories and make the necessary course corrections in light of new evidence. Likewise, freedom of expression and the right to dissent are the bedrock of modern democracies. Despite their inherent flaws, democracy and science are the most effective tools for serving the interests of nation-states.
Democracy is a social contract between the rulers and the ruled where the authority to choose leaders solely rests on the will of the people. Science, on the other hand, is a systematised way of understanding and acquiring knowledge about nature. Methods of science – observations, plausible hypotheses, experimentations and inferences – make scientific knowledge superior to other forms of inquiries.
Just as science draws legitimacy from scientific methods, democracy has ideals grounded in justice, liberty and equality, along with ensuring economic prosperity and welfare for all citizens. It is here, that democracy’s reliance on science becomes paramount in fulfilling the material needs and aspirations of the people. Integration of science with society is essential to bolstering economic growth and prosperity.
We must, however, remember that science and democracy cannot flourish in hostile and stale conditions. A society that is gripped by superstitions, irrational fears, intoxicating myths, bigotry, jingoism and obscurantism cannot harness the power of modern science to its advantage. A well-informed citizenry is one of the key pre-conditions for a healthy and vibrant democracy. This means convincing ourselves that our ideas and actions should be guided by reasons and rational arguments and not by blind faith, and a dogmatic worldview. A healthy dose of skepticism and evidence-based thinking can go a long way in empowering individuals to dislodge old habits of mind.
The fusion of science and democracy largely depends on how well the public understands and appreciates both. Scientific temper is a connecting bridge between democracy and science. In The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru says:
“The scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind, all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.“
The lack of independent thinking breeds despotism and pseudoscientific beliefs. Acceptance of belligerent claims and blind allegiance to religious or political authority is not just plain wrong; it is positively dangerous. History is a sober reminder of the appalling acts of brutality that followed from uncritical conformity to group beliefs and a jarring sense of false pride. Voltaire, the French philosopher was correct in pointing out that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities“.
While enthused by extreme religiosity, we are also becoming an increasingly consumerist society. Constant fixation with new gadgets has made the affluent class increasingly self-absorbed and indifferent to real-world problems.
At yet another level, technology has become an easy tool for the social and psychological manipulation of the masses. Rich and powerful spiritual leaders, big corporations, and lobbying groups are increasingly utilising digital technology to lure, influence, and sway public opinion to achieve ideological conformity, political dominance, and monetary gains.
We also see how technology and social media platforms are exploited to unleash mindless propaganda and misinformation campaigns, aimed at spreading fake news, arousing communal hatred, and engineering mob violence.
At this critical juncture, society’s growing dependence on technology, which is awfully out of sync with basic understanding and appreciation of science, is a deeply worrying concern. Finding the truth in this information age is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Every citizen ought to know how things work, how the real-world functions, and how decisions are made. They should be able to evaluate the strength of competing ideas and claims without the fear of retribution. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
Reactionary elements, now patronised and emboldened, have joined hands to create an atmosphere of fear, violence and disruptions. They stifle creativity, implant falsehoods and constantly distort historical facts. Flawed reasoning is used to push partisan agenda that fuels emotions and stroke mass hysteria. The upshot is the proliferation of anti-science ideas, fads, fake news, manufactured civil unrest, psychological deceptions, social divisions, group conformity, and the degeneration of democratic values.
The importance of scientific temper
To counter these destructive trends, there is a pressing need to develop a humanist outlook combined with a scientific worldview, skepticism, and critical thinking. Scientific temper should bridge democracy and science at the grassroots level.
The rationalist, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, fought a lifelong battle to eradicate various forms of superstitions, social evils, and discrimination. He worked tirelessly to promote scientific reasoning and debunked miracles and hoaxes meant to deceive the public. But sadly, his life was curtailed by the enemies of reason. In a most cowardly act, he was shot dead while taking a walk on the morning of August 20, 2013.
As they say, you can kill a person, but you cannot kill their ideas. It is befitting that many progressive organisations observe August 20 as National Scientific Temper Day to fulfil Dr Dabholkar’s dream of emancipating people from superstitions and blind beliefs. In the expanding circle of humanity, culture and traditions are not immutable. They ought to change with time. No nation deserves to remain captive to the imagined glory or victimhood of its past.
In this ongoing battle, the culture of science and scientific thinking must permeate the mainstream culture. Embracing scientific temper and upholding democratic principles enshrined in our constitution has to become a part of the people’s consciousness. The freedom from dogmas and beliefs is fundamentally crucial to unleashing new thoughts and energy, paving the way for youths to imagine a better future and build a strong, inclusive, and self-reliant India.
Self-reliance cannot emerge from wishful thinking or from a political masterstroke. It is an organic process that requires long-term vision, careful nurturing, and pruning. Unlike smartphones and jet fighters, self-reliance cannot be imported from other countries. Neither is there a currency to trade it nor a commodity to exchange. True self-reliance would remain an elusive goal unless society collectively embraces the spirit of science and scientific temper to strengthen democracy by fostering a cultural change in thinking, attitude, and behaviour.
Ravinder Banyal is a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore. The views expressed in this article are personal.