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The Scientific Temper and Irrational Beliefs Often Live Together

The Scientific Temper and Irrational Beliefs Often Live Together

Illustration: CDD20/pixabay

  • Most career scientists are justifiably livid when influential persons from other professions preach unfounded information or explanations as ‘science’.
  • However, unscientific or irrational beliefs are not the prerogative of non-scientists.
  • One may take a sympathetic view that human knowledge is incomplete and hence such faith in the uncertainty of events – even by experts – is legitimate.

“What would happen to us if Jupiter disappeared from the Solar System?” my son asked nonchalantly. He recently graduated, completing a two-year pre-primary course with flying colours, and has decided to pursue higher studies in, well, almost everything.

Thanks to a nearly-invisible half-inert-half-living entity known as the novel coronavirus, he is officially permitted to indulge in a liberal dose of the world wide web. With limited scope for outdoor activities, he has of late been focusing his attention on profound astronomical questions, aside from pursuing intense research on the esoteric conversations between Oggy and the Cockroaches.

I am, in general, quite elated with the scientific temper he has been developing – except for such moments when my hallowed image of an all-knowing scientist is threatened.

Is scientific temper an in-born attribute or an acquired trait? Does it depend on the social matrix in which a person has been embedded in by some unexplained chance of birth? Is it possible to inculcate scientific temper among people?

José Arcadio Buendía, the impulsive and headstrong chieftain of Macondo, on finding that the town he had founded was “surrounded by water on all sides”, lamented to his wife Úrsula Iguarán that “we’ll never get anywhere” and that “we’re going to rot our lives away here without receiving the benefits of science”.

On the other hand, the charming and eccentric teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, in her prime taught the adolescent girls of her class that “art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance”. Formal education may thus not be directly correlated with scientific enlightenment.

Most career scientists are usually livid when influential persons from other professions preach unfounded information or explanations as ‘science’. They are quite justified in doing so. However, unscientific or irrational beliefs are not the prerogative of non-scientists.

Rather boastful about my rationality, my right hand touches the forehead in reflex whenever my undisciplined feet come in contact with anything made of paper. This is most likely the outcome of my moderately liberal upbringing in a Bengali middle-class household, which taught me to revere knowledge in the form of (paper) books. Surprisingly, I recently noticed my son touching his forehead and saying a silent prayer, when the Terminator, a precious Christmas present from a benevolent bearded saint in red uniform, fell from his hands on the floor, before quickly picking it up.

Without any explicit instructions, he surely acquired my habit of showing respect to objects that are valued by observation. Does it show that scientific temper and irrational habits go hand in hand? He also firmly believes that spirits do not exist but he dare not visit the loo alone after dark.

Many a cheeky tiny tot, who can churn out plenty of garbled scientific facts, love also to hear spooky stories. It is not too hard to find an astronomer with deep faith in astrology. Rocket scientists asking for God’s blessings before mission launch is not an uncommon sight either. Don’t doctors advise terminal patients to pray to the almighty instead of admitting the limits of medical science?

One may take a sympathetic view that human knowledge is incomplete and hence such faith in the uncertainty of events – even by experts in various branches of knowledge – is quite legitimate. Also, the human brain loves to hear and cook up stories and doesn’t always follow the path of cold logic. Besides, sugar-coating harsh truths and not uttering unpalatable facts are counted high among decent social norms everywhere.

So then why do we blame only the heads of states for calling climate change a “hoax” or being certain about the existence of a mythical airliner? Is it because of the enormous responsibility bestowed upon them, their substantial influence on the masses or our fear that their personal beliefs may influence state policies, resulting in fund cuts for basic science research?

Or, worse, is the uproar caused by a deep-rooted superiority complex of scientists?

Isaac Newton was a committed practitioner of alchemy, in pursuit of the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ to transform base metals like iron or lead into gold, for decades. He taught humankind that Earth, heaven and everything in between are bound by the same set of laws and was instrumental in laying the foundations of mechanics, optics and some branches of mathematics.

His firm belief and lifelong devotion to a pseudoscientific object of study did not hinder him from being celebrated as one of the founding fathers of science. We must not judge him with the advantage of hindsight and be fair to him. Alchemy was one of the intellectual pursuits of his day and modern science – objective and rational as we know it to be today – had just begun to progress, with a few baby steps.

That an intellectual giant like Newton could also not shake off the irrational influences of his social ambience, however, is telling. Hearteningly the posterity, except for a rather small community of science-history enthusiasts, does not care about his deep attachment with a trade nearly synonymous with witchcraft today.

The uncomfortable truth is conveniently forgotten. The lasting contributions of Newton – and some of his illustrious contemporaries with indulgence in alchemy – in science is justly valued.

An umpire may well be the fan of a particular bowler, but they still can be capable of discharging their official duties on the cricketing field. Doesn’t an election commissioner similarly assert their right of exercising franchise in favour of a particular candidate? People of many professions are faced with such dichotomies and have retained their integrity.

Indeed, M.K. Gandhi wrote about his spiritual and moral experiments in the introduction of his autobiography thus:

“I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them. I have gone through deep self-introspection, searched myself through and through, and examined and analysed every psychological situation. Yet I am far from claiming any finality or infallibility about my conclusions.”

This is a remarkable demonstration of the scientific temper by a person with over-reliance on fasting, quackery, vegetarianism and celibacy! The man who experimented with truth the whole of his adult life surely knew that the truth always prevails. Rational thinking is not a prerogative of scientists alone.

It might be helpful to recall the famous zebra question. Is it “black with white stripes? Or white with black stripes?” Light and darkness, hope and despair, scientific temper and irrational belief often live together. Fortuitously, science progresses despite the occasional drag backward.

If you are still reluctant to align with my scholarly views, please talk to your financial advisor. They will surely convince you that the markets are poised to achieve greater heights in the long run, though short-term “corrections” in the indices are quite likely as well. Please don’t lose your sleep but do your best to develop the scientific temper, first in yourself and then among others. If you are a scientist, you of course have a greater responsibility to uphold the truth.

I am yet to respond to another intriguing query from the budding scientist at home: “Do protons float in water?”

Any clue?

Subir Nath is a nuclear physicist at the Inter-University Accelerator Centre, New Delhi.

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