India’s middle class is uncomfortable with science. Its Covid response is proof

India’s middle class is uncomfortable with science. Its Covid response is proof

For most of us, science education is merely heavy-sounding jargon to be crammed en route to getting a cushy job.

By Srivastav Ranganathan

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It’s not often that scientific temper makes it to mainstream public discourse, especially in a deeply religious society like India. We rely more on faith than rationality. We aren’t averse to public display of faith: the halwa ceremony gets precedence in the Indian media’s coverage than the inconsistencies in the national budget and defence aircraft are sanctified by tying nimbu mirchi to them. We brush these aside as harmless rituals that are followed because they evoke positive memories. Belief systems are often means by which people feel connected to their childhoods too and, hence, this isn't a critique of their utility. Emotional, instinctive decisions are our innate biological responses to situations (and thus not to be frowned upon) and link us to our animal ancestors. However, relying purely on instinct and raw wisdom (as our prime minister likes to call it) during times of crisis could be foolhardy, as America and India have found out during this pandemic.

The Indian society's response to the coronavirus pandemic has brought this old debate between faith and rationality back into the limelight. Given that no situation is too dire for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party to further its cultural agenda, we have whipped up a heady mix of fear, irrationality, and fake cultural pride as our response to the pandemic.

While the focus in this context has mostly been on Ramdev's now retracted claims about developing a cure for Covid-19, the Coronil fiasco isn't an isolated case of hollow, irrational claims made during this pandemic. If we travel back to February and March of this year (in what feels like a different era), India launched its pandemic response via corona bhajans, gomutra parties and an officially orchestrated “Janata Curfew”, the highlight of which was the banging of pots and pans.

This was followed by an announcement by the country’s most popular person for people to light diyas as a mark of solidarity with the “corona warriors”. While the “Janata Curfew” and the “Diya Jalao” events were meant, officially at least, to be public expressions of gratitude towards our healthcare professionals, what floated around these events on social media was symptomatic of a chronic problem in the Indian society.

Catalyzed by WhatsApp forwards, and the eagerness of the Indian middle class to attribute more significant meaning to every word spoken by their beloved leader, we witnessed some of the most creative works of pseudoscience in recent times. The first piece of misinformation that did the rounds was a WhatsApp forward claiming that the 16-hour "Janata Curfew" was a masterstroke that would eliminate 98 percent of the viral load.

From sonic waves produced by the thaali banging breaking down the virus to the perfectly orchestrated diya lighting reducing the viral load, we convinced ourselves that there is always more to what we do than meets the eye. A brief brush with scientific jargon (to make it sound smart-ish) and tall claims are often enough to have millions of Indians feeling good about themselves and the scientific acumen of their Supreme Leader. If the Indian WhatsApp groups aren't eager enough, we have celebrities amplifying fake science in ways that real science would be envious of.

Indians take pride in producing a large number of science and engineering graduates so much so that it has given rise to the cliche of the Indian society valuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) education greatly. How does one reconcile this pride with the propensity of Indian STEM graduates for propagating pseudoscience that should be obvious to any rational human being? The answer to this lies partly in the uncomfortable and complicated relationship between middle class India and science.

It began with Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of making India a self-sufficient engineering and manufacturing power, and the resulting association of engineering and science degrees with financial stability. In a country of real financial constraints, an engineering job was an aspirational one. For middle class India, degrees in STEM were akin to keys that unlocked a place in the social hierarchy. The discipline of science was thus relegated to a tool that enabled an entirely selfish end objective.

Today, science education, for most of us, is more about heavy-sounding jargon that needs to be rote-learned en route to getting a cushy job.

In what is a profoundly problematic element of Indian STEM education, especially engineering, science is all about known solutions rather than the process of arriving at them. A classic example of how this obsession with solutions can result in ignoring the complexities of real world problems is Anil Bokil's reasoning for demonetisation. The worldview of Bokil, who claims to be the brain behind demonetisation, treats the Indian society as a network of leaky pipelines, and assumes that its economic problems can be fixed by plugging the leaks. Such an approach is also devoid of empathy, and fails to account for the complexities typical of diverse societies such as India.

It’s no surprise then that despite 16 years of science education, we Indians often have little understanding of how a piece of scientific information made its way into a textbook, or of the complexities of real world problems. An appreciation of the history of scientific progress (and social sciences) is considered unnecessary, even an obstacle to achieving the goal of leveraging the science degree for material gain.

This mostly transactional relationship with science, coupled with the fact that that our STEM degrees don't train us in scientific methodology, means that Indian engineers tend to believe anything that sounds remotely like the mishmash of jargon fed to them through school and college curricula. This helps explain why self-styled godmen such as Jaggi Vasudev have such a huge following among Indian engineering students; they strike an attractive balance between fancy sounding scientific jargon and mysticism.

The second cause of this problem is the deeply religious nature of our society and the position faith occupies in the lives of Indians of all religions. Despite its inadequacies, the progress of modern science is a testament to its ability to question its theories and reform over time. Unlike faith, the success of science hinges on its ability to ask questions. So, we have a paradox where India produces a lot of science graduates who are uncomfortable with asking questions. (As I write this, I am aware of the obvious retort to this being the argumentative nature of the Hindu texts.)

For all claims to the contrary, religious texts are subject to interpretation only; they are not open to being updated or questioned in the same way as scientific knowledge is. So, we have this situation where we are uncomfortable putting our claims of ancient scientific accomplishments to the test of formal science, yet desire legitimacy that the tag of science brings.

In the last six years, outrageous claims have been made in India about “Vedic Science”, traditional medicine, or the existence of aircraft and the internet in antiquity. Middle class India paradoxically vouches for the legitimacy of science degrees (rooted in Western systems of education) while claiming that solutions to modern problems lie in ancient texts.

For a country that boasts of being one of the world’s largest STEM graduate bases, have we questioned these claims enough? Do we even care about a claim standing the scrutiny of modern science? Do we even understand what comprises a scientific fact? That, right there, is a signature of faith and not science.

To make matters worse, in defence of these unproven claims, we label this as a battle between Indian science and western science. This argument is a result of our seeing science as the outcome (or the claim) rather than as the philosophy and the process that lead to something becoming a widely accepted scientific fact (and yet not beyond question). Regardless of the origin of the claim – a religious scripture, ancient wisdom, a thought experiment in a physicist's head – it must hold up to the same fundamental tests. So whether something is considered real or fake science depends on the process and not the source of the idea.

The battle, therefore, is therefore between real and fake science; not between Indian and western science.

When the dubious nature of Ramdev's Coronil claims were questioned, he responded, “Why should research be the exclusive domain of the elite? Why are only treatment techniques devised in Germany, the United Kingdom or Europe accepted as 'medicine'? It’s time people recognised Ayurveda's power to cure and heal people."

His response converts this issue of science into a clash of cultures, and a battle between the elite and the outsider. It pulls emotional strings, thus appealing to an extremely impulsive Indian public, but fails to address the actual criticism made on technical grounds. However, unlike what Ramdev claims, much of the criticism against Coronil is not because a man in saffron clothes is selling it or that it has Ayurvedic roots. It’s because there is no credible scientific data to establish that the drug can alleviate symptoms in Covid-19 patients.

Patanjali's claims are based on asymptomatic patients showing no symptoms after 14 days. What makes matters more absurd is that there is no evidence to suggest that the drug was trialled on Covid-19 positive patients to begin with. Despite all these gaping holes, our media’s response was to make this about the personality than the process. Good science outlives the person making the claim, and problematic science would remain that even if Albert Einstein claimed it.

In what is emblematic of religious societies, we construe a rational scientific argument as slandering someone or their culture. Alternate medicine is treated with scepticism because it’s opaque and often resistant to being trialled the same way allopathic drugs are. The origin of a drug hardly matters if the claims are robust and reproducible. Several conventional medications, including some commonly used anti-malarial and anti-cancer drugs, had plant origins before their synthetic counterparts became mainstream. What gives them acceptance is that these active compounds (the chemical from a plant that has actual therapeutic value) has gone through several rounds of tests and trials to ensure the claims are indeed reproducible.

If Ramdev's Coronil were to go through the same rigorous process, the global scientific community would welcome the finding. Yet, by making it about his yogic personality, much like the sympathizers of the government take every criticism of the prime minister as a slander against the nation, we will make no meaningful contribution to modern science!

None of this is to deny the shortcomings of formal science and its checkered past, including its failure to acknowledge contributions of several nameless, faceless individuals and cultures. As chronicled in Clifford D Conner's A People's History of Science, we owe a lot of our modern scientific discoveries to people who weren't part of the formal academic setup. Science, in its most functional form, is about the idea, not the person. Science isn't just about knowing how to solve equations or writing software, it's a worldview that enables one to understand why an equation is elegant and stands the test of time.

By associating science merely with a subject in school or college, where equations are crammed, we reduce the grandness of this human endeavour driven by curiosity. A person without a science degree can be scientific in outlook whereas a STEM degree holder can be irrational. India can produce 10 times the number of STEM graduates it does now, yet continue to have a deeply troubled equation with science until we start valuing the process of doing science. Until we embrace taking criticism and questions, our STEM degrees will serve as little more than keys to material success.

Srivastav Ranganathan is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, US.