Let me begin by saying that the just concluded 106th Indian Science Congress (ISC) at Lovely Professional University, Punjab is an event that progress and promotion of science and research in India really needed. The participation of a galaxy of scientists and researchers, including Nobel laureates, from 60 countries was truly impressive. The focal theme ‘Future India: Science & Technology’ was very relevant and the topics on agriculture, forestry, veterinary and fishery sciences, anthropology, archaeology, psychology, chemical and material sciences, information and communication, medical and physical sciences, ‘New Biology’, etc., were apt. The concept of a ‘Time Capsule’ – a collection of objects representing today’s technology buried 10 feet deep for posterity – was a first in the congress. In fact, it shows the hard work and thought labour that went into organising this congress. In his inaugural address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly recalled the rich legacy of the ISC due to its association with some of India’s finest minds including Acharya JC Bose, CV Raman, Meghnad Saha and SN Bose. It was a dream start.
Then something happened on January 5, the third day of the conference. Something that the General President of Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), Dr Manoj Kumar Chakrabarti, was evidently embarrassed about; something that the Principal Scientific Adviser to the PM, Dr K VijayRaghavan, termed as ‘scientifically completely untenable’, something that he was worried could cause harm if it makes its way into state policy; something that prompted Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao to dissociate himself from ISC.
- Kauravas were born with the help of stem cell and test tube technologies.
- Lord Rama used ‘astras’ and ‘shastras’ while Lord Vishnu sent a Sudarshan Chakra to chase targets. This shows that the science of guided missiles was present in India thousands of years ago.
- Ravana didn’t just have the Pushpak Vimana, but had 24 types of aircraft and airports in Lanka.
- Theoretical physics – including the contributions of Newton and Einstein – is totally wrong. Gravitational waves will be renamed as ‘Narendra Modi Waves’ and gravitational lensing effect will be renamed as ‘Hashvardhan Effect’.
- Lord Brahma discovered the existence of dinosaurs on earth and mentioned it in the Vedas.
One may point out three things:
- What’s wrong with that? A scientist has spoken his mind, you may accept or reject it.
- The ‘colonial mindset’ of the ‘science establishment’ in India takes whatever the West says as science but ignores, and rather feels a sense of shame about, the rich heritage of our own land.
- Where’s the evidence that these were not real happenings? Those who ask for evidence should, on the contrary, provide evidence that these things did not happen.
I would have been happy not to be writing this article and rather focus on the positives that emerged from the congress. But what follows below convinced me, and probably would convince you too, that it was simply not possible to ignore this something.
Firstly, the speakers did not bother to provide any evidence or cite any authentic scientific study to back their claims – I would hardly doubt that the speakers, given their grooming in science, don’t know that evidence is the cornerstone of scientific process; the bedrock on which all scientific and technological advancement made by humankind rests. Would you consider subverting a basic tenet of scientific process an acceptable act?
Secondly, most of these claims were made in the Children Science Congress section of the ISC where the audience was largely comprised of teachers and young students. They were young students who, you’d agree, eagerly lap up whatever scientists of such repute speak in a science congress and in the name of science; young students who are yet to develop and mature their faculty of critical thinking, so badly missing in our curriculum. So, this ‘Meet the Scientists’ session of the Children Science Congress was not the occasion for a scientist to air his untested views, in front of an audience who wouldn’t really be able to critically distinguish what to accept and what to reject. Would those who ask question 1 above prefer their children to sit through this session?
Thirdly, we Indians can justifiably be proud of our varied and colourful cultural history spread over two millennia. Our contributions to philosophy, art, music, literature, astronomy, mathematics and medicine are renowned the world over. In fact, Einstein said gratefully: ‘We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count’. Our great philosophies of yore viz., Sankhya, Mimamsa, Vaisheshika and, of course, Lokayata contain wondrous elements of scientific thought. For instance, Sankhya declared that matter cannot come out of non-matter. Mimamsa saw the universe having no beginning or end. Lokayatas saw natural phenomena as consequences of material processes without intervention from any supernatural agent.
The legacy of Indian tradition is a legacy of conflict of thought between different schools of thought. To question and to seek, an integral part of scientific temper, was ingrained in this legacy. The richness of our culture is the direct outcome of the openness with which our ancestors welcomed and assimilated the essence of other cultures. The result is a wonderful collage that we have come to recognise as our cultural legacy. In fact, the past presidents of ISC – Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1920), Sir Ram Nath Chopra (1948) and Prof P Parija (1960) – dealt with Science in India in an objective and educative manner while giving due recognition to the achievements in science in ancient India.
But when grand and outlandish claims are made without backing them up, at a science congress, using the language of science, it does not help the cause of this rich heritage. On the contrary, it damages this heritage. In the words of Prof Jayant Narlikar, a foremost cosmologist of our times, “…even the West recognises the knowledge of mathematics held by the Indians. If we start making outlandish claims, the scientific community of the world will not look up to us as it does now”. So such grand claims don’t help; they harm. Even if the intention of the speakers was genuinely to help.
Fourthly, the scientific enterprise is a self-correcting quest to understand and explain natural phenomena based on critical observation, experimental evidence, universal verification and constant advancement. Stem cell research, in vitro fertilisation, science of ballistics and guided missiles, theory of relativity, quantum mechanics etc., have evolved in this process. It is important to note that no technological accomplishment can be made without the relevant scientific theoretical foundation. For instance, construction of guided missiles requires electricity, metallurgy, mechanics, projectile motion, radars, optics, motion sensors, wireless communication etc., and there is no evidence for the existence of most of these underlying pillars of scientific knowledge in ancient India. Metallurgy did develop in ancient India. Apart from the usage of brass, copper and iron, there were some innovative works. Zinc was extracted as early as in 4th century BC. The first form of crucible steel, Wootz, was developed in India around 300 BC. But, would this suffice to develop guided missile technology? It would help cookware or primitive weapons. That was really impressive for those days. No more was possible and no more could be expected.
Fifthly, to be fair, Prof Rao did cite Ramayana and Mahabharata. I cherish, as do most scientists, puranic verses and epics. They are poetic, enjoyable, rich in moral elements and imagination. But they are not scientifically constructed or validated theories. That’s why it is wrong to mix mythology and science. To claim that such innovations already existed in ancient India citing these sources is not only wrong but, as I mentioned earlier, an affront to the real achievements in science in ancient and medieval India.
Lastly, if you make a claim, the onus is on you to provide the evidence. Not on the rest of us to scurry around gathering evidence for or against your claim. That’s how science works. And when you provide the evidence, the rest of us try to verify i.e., test your claim and check whether the result is the same as yours and falsify i.e., try to find ways of proving your claim wrong. If every such attempt ends up strengthening your claim, then and only then your claim is considered true. That’s the rigour of science. You can’t simply make a claim and expect others to prove you right or wrong. You’re accountable for your claim and no one else.
I rest my case here. I hope you would agree why it was necessary to put things in proper perspective.
But make no mistake. This is not the first time this has happened. In ISC 2015 at Mumbai, similar claims on the existence of aircraft in ancient India were made. In ISC 2016 at Mysore, claims were made that sitting on tiger skin would reverse the aging process. No wonder that Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan termed the ISC a ‘circus’.
But it also brings into question the selection process followed by the ISCA to review the presentations and ensure quality at ISC 2019. ISCA has to review how this oversight happened and how such blatantly unscientific presentations made their way on to the ISC platform. ISCA is accountable to the science community and people at large. We hope they will review and make public their findings, including steps they will take to prevent recurrence of these unfortunate episodes in the future.
Darwin cautioned us long back: false facts are more dangerous than false views. They could lead one to lose his head in grand illusions rather than have one’s feet on the firm ground of scientific endeavour. A recently compiled list by an analytics firm suggests that only 10 out of 4,000 of the globe’s most influential researchers come from India. You would agree we need more names from India in this list. And that requires a firm footing and not grand illusions. It requires the ISC to make a course correction and focus on its stated objective – to advance and to promote the cause of science in India. As a research scholar and a science activist, I look forward to it with optimism.
There is a reason for this optimism. After the massive outpouring of anguish from the science community, the ISCA passed a resolution on the concluding day of the congress seeking declarations from all invited speakers to ensure that they would not make any irrational and unscientific claims. Another resolution was passed to seek an advance copy of the summary of speeches from all invited speakers. I am happy that the ISCA has taken due cognisance of the blatantly unscientific presentations made from the platform of ISC 2019. I hope that the lapses in the selection process that led to this fiasco will be thoroughly scrutinised and any possibility of recurrence would be avoided going forward.
In conclusion, I believe that the spirit of true patriotism today demands every citizen to promote the cause of science and, more importantly, scientific temper and to defend the cause of science in India in the face of unscientific claims, especially those made in the name of science and more so from a platform meant to promote science. This is the real tribute that one can pay to the rich scientific heritage of this land.
Rajani KS is a research scholar and member, All India Executive Committee, Breakthrough Science Society. She lives in Bangalore.
Views expressed are the author’s own.