Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Faith-based attacks on science and the reluctance of Indian science community to fight them

Our Hindu Fundamentalist Party (HFP) has launched a shrill campaign to prevent the dredging of a geological feature -- called Adam's bridge -- in the thin stretch of the Indian ocean between India and Sri Lanka because it 'believes' that this feature is the same as the bridge built by the Ram's army in the mythological epic Ramayana [1]. HFP's campaign is going on in spite of a perfectly natural explanation for the formation of this feature.

Both Krish and Sujai, who have been following this ugly campaign quite extensively, have also raised this question: Why has India's scientific and academic community not risen up in protest against HFP's crass attempt to whip up religions passions and to establish the primacy of faith over science.

Now, among the desi bloggers I read, at least one has expressed her dismay and disgust at HFP's campaign; another poured scorn and ridicule on it in a 'research publication'. While I have not been following this debate in our media much, I presume that some scientists have also voiced their opinion -- favouring science, I hope! -- on this issue in TV debates, etc.

But these are isolated voices. What about the voice of the scientific community as a whole? By this I mean our science academies -- of which we have three! Wouln't if be nice if they come forward with their opinion on Adam's bridge? Wouldn't it be nice if they explain what science has to say about its formation? Wouldn't it be nice if they also offer a strong argument for a scientific outlook to life in general and natural phenomena in particular? Wouldn't it be nice if they lend their collective support to ASI and its scientists? Wouldn't it be nice if they take a united stand for science and against superstition?

All that would be nice, but don't hold your breath. It is extremely unlikely to happen. The science academies' past silence on issues impacting on science has been spectacularly eloquent.

Consider the following excerpt from The Saga of Indian Science since Independence by Pushpa Bhargava (founder director of CCMB, Hyderabad, and a former member of the National Knowledge Commission) and Chandana Chakrabarti (see also footnote [2]):

... Rarely have scientists occupying important positions, even in autonomous organizations such as our numerous universities and institutions of higher learning, taken a firm and consistent stand against superstition and irrational belief. The same would be true of the country's socially and intellectually sterile science academies none of which have, for example, formally and officially objected to the proposal of the Universities Grants Commission ... to introduce and fund liberally graduate and postgraduate courses in Vedic astrology in our universities from the 2001-02 academic year [p. 107]

Given this kind of deep reluctance to stand up to political masters and fundamentalist thugs, it is extremely unlikely that our academies will bat for science in the current debate about Adam's bridge. All we have got -- and all we will get -- are just isolated voices. And we should be happy with what we get.

* * *

[1] I have no opinion about the commercial benefits of the Sethusamudram project that requires the dredging up of the Adam's bridge. This post is essentially about the faith-based claims about the origin of this bridge.

[2] It's not just on science vs. superstition that Indian scientists have been reluctant to take a stand. This realm also includes policies where scientific inputs are essential. For example, sometime ago, Nature did a profile of Sunita Narain and her organization, the Centre for Science and Environment. Accompanying this profile was an editorial which pointed out the reluctant of Indian scientists (not just the science academies, but individuals) to get involved in policy debates:

... Indian scientists who resent either the CSE's positions or its influence do themselves no favours by carping about either the activities of the Delhi think-tank, or about the media outlets that lap up its output. They should instead look at themselves, and ask if their public influence is commensurate with their own expertise, and with the ever-expanding scope and scale of scientific and environmental policy debates in India.

According to CSE director Sunita Narain, and many journalists, India's scientists too often remain old-fashionedly aloof from the discussions that accompany policymaking. Seeking status and advancement chiefly among their peers, and suspicious of the media's tendency to simplify and exaggerate, scientists who could assist the messy democratic process are inclined, instead, to look down on it. This approach by scientists to science policy is, of course, a global phenomenon. But it is particularly pervasive in India — and particularly inappropriate, given India's vast and pressing need for more public, more thorough, more detailed policy preparation, in areas such as environmental regulation.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Prof. Abi,

    Leaving aside religion/science debates, why in the first place, our secular fundamentalists refer to the bridge as Adam's bridge in spite of the fact that numerous literary works and travelogues stretching over a period of 1000 yrs or more mentions that bridge as Rama Sethu? Aren't they aware that Adam's bridge is a recent coinage by British? Does this reflect something about the intentions/mentality of the so called scientific-rational souls? Perhaps not to you. Certainly yes to me.


  2. Anonymous said...

    I think Indian academics take the rational decision that getting into the politics of religion is not worth the risk involved. I see the same behavior among most academics in the US regarding the creationist school of thought or regarding the policies of Israel.

    Also note that science doesn't have much social clout in India. The scientific method is not understood by the people - even by many of those who ostensibly hold higher degrees in science. Add to that the problem that many Indian academics/scientists have the habit of talking down to people and you have an impasse on your hands.

    Before you can get Hindus to accept that Ram did not build the setu, you will have to find out how scientists in the much more literate and scientific US are countering the more than 50% of the population who think Jehovah planted dinosaur fossils in the ground. It might be a cause worth fighting for but I'm not sure exactly what the strategy should be.

  3. Anonymous said...

    All hail the king of secular fundamentalists!

  4. Arun K. Subramaniyan said...

    Two things in your post deeply trouble me. One is obviously the blatant attack on scientific freedom by political leaders. I think enough has been said about the ignorance of non-scientific folk about science.

    But is the behavior of the so called "scientific" minds in our country any better? I agree that our culture is rife with superstitions. But many of the old practices have some scientific basis. Some may not be valid for this day and age but that does not mean they were always useless. The scientists never bother to give even a passing thought to our old beliefs. I think this is equally damaging. We have never studied the methods of vedic astrology have we? How come we are so confident in commenting that it is "irrational belief"? I am not saying we should agree that it is science. I think every subject has the right to be considered science unless proven otherwise. Don't we consider every hypothesis in science equally irrespective of its absurdity? Don't we test every model with experiments? Are we not hypocrites if we are willing to consider a whimsical theory from a scientist as science but not the ancient practices of our country?

  5. Unknown said...

    Abi, here is an interesting site that exposes, "Bad Archeology". This particular link debunks the finding of "Herod's tomb".

  6. Badri Seshadri said...

    To Arun: I recommend the book 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. There are certain things which are considered "irrational" because they are not rational. It is the job of the defenders of Vedic Astrology to prove that it is a 'science'. That it and any other astrology is bunkum is easily provable. Every subject should not be considered science until it is disproved. It should be the other way.

    Otherwise, we will have namologists, gemologists, numerologists, creationists, ram-sethuists and several other undesirable elements wanting courses offered in colleges, spending billions of rupees, challenging the rest of us to disprove their wonderful theories.

    I have gone through one book called Vedic Mathematics by Puri Sankaracharya. It is nothing but a bag of tricks helping in quick multiplication. Far better or similar methods are available in Abacus teaching. But the book claimed that every mathematical problem ever could be solved using this book. Such junk are peddled as courses in BJP ruled states.

    We already allow such nonsense on taxpayers money. Now you want more of the same, until the rest of the academic community debunks such nonsense.

  7. Arun K. Subramaniyan said...

    I neither supported teaching Vedic Astrology in our universities nor said that it is science. I just used it as an example for the ignorance with which we scientists treat anything that stems from our ancient scriptures.

    I believe in evolution and also believe in God. Does that make me both a supporter and a detractor of 'The God Delusion'? I don't think the discussion whether God exists is relevant here.

  8. Anonymous said...

    Is debunking scriptures the new face of science?

  9. srikanthsastry said...

    The post, although well written, I think oversimplifies the real problem academics, and the religious groups are facing.

    Science (particularly the scientific principle) is a hypocrite. According to science, anything it can explain is science, anything it cannot is not. Consequently, if anyone tries to conduct research in areas that is not a part of science (by the foregoing definition), it is quickly shunned and condemned by the scientific community. Vedic Astrology is a good illustrative case in point.

    However, if a convincing explanation is found, then it becomes a part of science. This, IMHO, is hypocrisy.

    Religion, on the other hand, is stubborn and unyielding to anything , save social pressure. We have seen religions change to society, but seldom seen it change to reason and rationality.

    Coming to the specific case of Ram Sethu, of course there are natural explanations for its formation. However, that doesnt necessarily mean that its the truth. If there are competing explanations, and science claims that its explanation is the correct one, then its the scientific community's responsibility to disprove the alternate explanation of Ram Sethu being man-made.

    Science will not do it, because the hypothesis that Ram built the bridge is from Mythology, and hence is 'not a part of science'.

    Thus we have an impasse.

    The only way this will be solved is if both science and religion get their heads out of their asses and take a good hard look at each other, and try to gain something from the other.

  10. Hawkeye said...

    "and to establish the primacy of faith over science. "

    so you want science fundamentalists to establish the primacy of science over faith.

    whats the difference between HFP and SFP (scientific fundamentalist party) ?

    the HPF maybe crap but they've got to be better than the crap that scientific logic is throwing out.

  11. ankan said...

    one obvious question that needs to be answered: would primacy of faith over science be established only when the faith in question is H....? We have seen the scientists, the social scientists, the enviromentalists and those who are in the business of secularism chicken out when the faith in question differs from H!

  12. Badri Seshadri said...

    Arun: The book 'The God Delusion' is not just about whether God exists or not. It talks about irrational beliefs, religious sentiments etc.

    It is time we start looking at this 'hurting the religious sentiments' issue. Ramsethu supposedly built by Ram is not a matter for discussion - as far as the Hindu fundamentalists are concerned, because they believe it is a matter of faith. The rest of us who are not that 'faithful' are expected to simply lump it.

    It is this kind of 'faith' that accepted that widows can simply be burnt along with their dead husbands. We didn't accept this. For the progress of the nation and its people, we have to hurt the sentiments of the religious. Their sentiments - which are mostly unscientific and stupid, and also dangerous - deserve to be hurt in several ways.

    They also have to be educated.

  13. Hawkeye said...


    please read what semantic overload in the comment above has said.

    your comments are terribly flawed. you seem to have surrendered at the altar of science.

    "Ramsethu supposedly not built by Ram is not a matter for discussion - as far as the science fundamentalists are concerned, because they believe it is a matter of faith. The rest of us who are not that 'faithful' are expected to simply lump it."

    if we begin to research the number of scientific theories that are simply idiotic, then they wopuld far outweigh religious theories.

  14. Anonymous said...

    semantic overload,

    In my opinion, your statements are a load of nonsense, and I'll highlight exactly why.

    Science (particularly the scientific principle) is a hypocrite. According to science, anything it can explain is science

    You misunderstand what Science is. Science, and the scientific method, is a way of trying to understand nature. As of date, it's the only method which has made verifiable predictions with unerring accuracy.

    Vedic Astrology is a good illustrative case in point.

    Vedic astrology is shunned by the scientific community, simply because it has no scientific basis whatsoever, it's premises are contradictory to our current knowledge of science, and it fails every attempt at experimental evaluation.

    However, if a convincing explanation is found, then it becomes a part of science. This, IMHO, is hypocrisy.

    That is not true. Science isn't a matter of "personal belief", where if you find something convincing on faith, it becomes a part of science. Science is a rigorous method to separate fact from fiction, by experimental observations. It doesn't ask for your faith to "believe" something is true, but only your eyes and ears to perform experiments and check them yourself!

    However, that doesnt necessarily mean that its the truth.
    then its the scientific community's responsibility to disprove the alternate explanation of Ram Sethu being man-made.

    There's no such thing as "absolute truth" in science. There's always a degree of uncertainty in any scientific statement. However, based on our current knowledge of evolution, geology and archeology, there's overwhelming evidence that the bridge is most probably man-made.

    Science will not do it, because the hypothesis that Ram built the bridge is from Mythology, and hence is 'not a part of science'.

    No. The ENTIRE WORLD is a part of science. There are two ways you can look at the world, based on reason, evidence and rationality, or based on pure faith and the scientific method works in an overwhelming majority of the situations.

    -- anon3.1415 (to prevent confusion with other anons)

  15. Anonymous said...

    Yikes, major typo.

    "there's overwhelming evidence that the bridge is most probably man-made."

    should read

    "there's overwhelming evidence that the bridge is most probably NOT man-made."

    -- anon3.1415

  16. Anonymous said...

    Hope ur blog gets national media attention (i mean ur SG and so called secularists attention). You will probably get a raise plus some award for something u never invented or researched...and offcourse hailed as the country's top most scientist from IISC (which btw has its name and nothing else to be proud of)!

    Behti nadi main haat dholo yaar..aisa mauka baar baar nahin aata hain!!

    hail sucklurists!!

  17. Sirensongs said...

    The Indian scientists aren't stupid (obviously). They don't want the HFP/RSS/pick an acute acronym/ mobbing their doorsteps and burning them in effigy. I'd be afraid of them too. Why these worthy associations fear mob reaction and don't feel protected by the law is another question.

    No one asked me, but I think Sethusamudram is an ecological disaster, and for that alone should be abandoned.

  18. Anonymous said...

    I wonder how much of this really about belief vs. science. If you ask the man on the street whether he really believes that there was an actual monkey-army which built the bridge, probably he would say 'no'.

    I feel it's all about symbols. We're not perfect rational beings - we require "identity", "society", being part of something bigger than ourselves. Religion and its associated myths/legends/history, are all symbols that we hold on to. The controversy arose since a significant symbol was "under attack".

    Now if we ask the common man whether he felt his identity was "under attack" because of the affidavit and the controversy, maybe he would say "yes". I am sure there are fundamentalists out there who thrive on creating such a fear complex.

  19. Anonymous said...

    Wow!! Many comments in this post is a very good example to see how messed up Indian society is. Ahem, Hindu society is. Did anyone say that India will be an advanced country by 2020? If yes, it was a good joke. Way too many people are roaming around the streets without understanding what is science. Best examples are "According to science, anything it can explain is science, anything it cannot is not." and "science fundamentalists". I am ROFLing over their ignorance. Many a times, I used to wonder if I am being too harsh on right wingers but such statements sort of reaffirms that my approach is way too correct. If at all India is to be saved, we really need an entity that fits the description of the so called god.

  20. Anonymous said...

    @sirensongs: You are right. Sethusamudram can be an environmental issue. It can be an economic issue too (the case of livelihood of fisherman getting affected) but it is never a religious issue.

  21. Anonymous said...

    Before someone provides scientific explanation one has to survey and excavate in the region, since that has not happened how can one just use science as means to silence opposition?. That is unscientific and political in nature!.

  22. Anonymous said...

    Before someone provides scientific explanation one has to survey and excavate in the region, since that has not happened

    One doesn't need to perform a survey to realize that, based on our knowledge of evolution and biology, it's highly improbable for a bunch of monkeys to build such a "bridge" millions of years ago.

    -- another anon

  23. Wavefunction said...

    We just need more Abraham Kovoors!