On National Scientific Temper Day

Seven years ago on this day,Narendra Dabholkar, the eminent Maharashtra-based doctor,rationalist and  social activist who worked relentlessly to eradicate superstitious beliefs and inculcate scientific temper, was shot dead. He had founded an organisation called the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) that campaigned against superstitious practices, black magic, astrology,“miracle cures” and similar exploitative practices promoted by fraudulent godmen in the name of faith. Dabholkar had repeatedly advocated for enacting an anti-superstition law in the state but faced fierce opposition from right- wing groups who accused him of being against the Hindu culture. After his assasination in 2013, the Maharashtra government passed the law against superstitious practices and black magic.Along with MANS, the  All India Peoples Science Network, a national network of a number of People’s Science organisations from all over the country have kept his legacy alive by  observing August 20th as the National Scientific Temper Day. 

The Indian constitution tells the citizens of this country that it is their duty to develop “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform“. Jawaharlal Nehru is credited with coining and defining the  term “scientific temper” in his book “The Discovery of India” in 1946. According to him, scientific temper is not merely the study of science or its application but a way of life.Having a scientific temper has got very little to do with whether someone has a degree in science  or is a scientist professionally. Scientific  temper allows  people to reason, be curious and ask questions about the world around them. Those who have a scientific temperament  do not readily  accept  explanations given to them but try to find out  whether it is based on evidence or preconceived ideas or personal prejudices. Whether an explanation comes from the authorities, religious scriptures or textbooks, a person with a scientific temper would not accept it blindly but try to examine the evidence behind the claim. However, over the past few years, instead of trying to inculcate a scientific attitude among the public,many policy makers and television channels have been promoting myths, misinformation and pseudo-science.

When the global COVID pandemic hit this country,  such pseudo-scientific content was seen in TV news channels as well as social media platforms.A couple of months ago, leading science communicators Gauhar Raza and Surjit Singh teamed up to gauge the public understanding of science regarding the  coronavirus pandemic in India. Since COVID came to this country, more than the usual amount of  space and time began to be devoted to the science behind the virus in newspapers and TV channels. Scientists and science communicators started using social media platforms to communicate what a virus is, how this particular virus infects people and what precautionary measures could be taken to prevent the disease. Gradually, with repeated use in the media,scientific jargons like “SARS CoV2″,” PCR”, “RNA” became part of people’s household conversation. But   misinformation also continued to circulate, sometimes suggesting bogus ways to prevent coronavirus infection.  In a recent study, Raza and Singh tried to understand whether the Indian people were more prone to believing pseudoscience,myths  or scientific information from reliable sources during this pandemic. Their survey- based study, conducted both offline and online, involved over 2500 participants and was done in May 2020. The participants, over sixty percent of whom are working men from the upper middle class were asked to fill out a questionnaire that included questions designed to understand their scientific knowledge about the pandemic as well as  how they had formed their opinions. The respondents in the survey were 27 states and UTs of the country but more than half of them belonged to the northern states. Internet was the most popular source of information regarding coronavirus among the participants followed by TV news. Eight out of ten participants knew what  the coronavirus looked like. Most of them also knew about Wuhan, where the virus originated and that the virus could live in animal reservoirs like bats.More than seventy percent of the participants knew how the viral infection spread through sneeze and coughs from one human to another. A large number of participants also knew that viruses could survive longer on metal and plastic surfaces, how long the viral incubation period was and what symptoms were observed in a person suffering from COVID19 infection. The fact that there is a higher chance of  infection if they go out was well known as was the fact that coronavirus infection was not fatal most of the time. An overwhelming majority of respondents said that in the absence of a vaccine or a drug, they understood that measures like social distancing, wearing face masks and frequent washing of hands were the only strategies to prevent infection. Around seventy percent of the respondents were aware of the scientific methods used to test for  COVID19  infection. Half of the participants thought that imposing a lockdown had helped in controlling the pandemic. The decision to close  all religious places  to prevent spread of infection was also supported by most.

Although this study did not include a huge number of participants, it did show that a large percentage of this group of  participants relied on scientific information regarding the  coronavirus pandemic. During the biggest public health crisis of the century, these fellow citizens did not depend on cow urine or other pseudoscientific “miracle cures”, instead they followed scientific advice to socially distance, wash hands and wear face masks. The authors hope that this sense of scientific temper cultivated during a crisis would eventually become the “new normal”.

References:

  1. http://confluence.ias.ac.in/towards-an-index-of-scientific-temper
  2. https://thefederal.com/science/scientific-temper-a-nehruvian-thought-but-very-much-relevant-today/
  3. A Perspective on Scientific Temper in India by Subodh Mahanti (Journal of Scientific Temper,2013)
  4. Scientific Knowledge, Perception and Attitudinal Changes during Corona Pandemic by Gauhar Raza and Surjit Singh(Journal of Scientific Temper,Jan-June 2020)
  5. http://antisuperstition.org/?option=com_content&view=article&id=97&Itemid=80
  6. https://aipsn.in/
  7. https://www.newsclick.in/Scientific-Thinking-Requires-Independence-Thought

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