Sat Apr 02 08:56:06 2005.


Globe Scan
by Chanakya Sen

A Science so Noble

False dichotomies enjoying common currency have harmed harmonious progress of humanity. I have rebutted the one between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’ in foreign policymaking through this column earlier. Another so-called incompatibility is between science and ethics. The two are often thought to preside over divergent spheres- the material and the ethereal respectively. That matter exists and changes is the simple truth motivating the scientific spirit of enquiry and research. Science is non-judgemental, a voyage to uncover the truth of ‘what is’. That there is a world beyond what the physical senses can see or hear, in the land of feelings, is the belief motivating moral discourse. Morality is judgmental, an elucidation on what ‘ought to be.’

Science designates itself rational, efficient and cold, while morality is irrational, equity-conscious and warm. The majority of scientists shies away from public issues and cares to comment on “bloody politicians” only if the latter’s policies directly hurt their laboratories, universities or institutes. A Prime Minister or President can be good or bad in the books of a scientist depending on whether she enhanced or cut R&D budgets. Scientists’ view of the state is primarily from the angle of investment and divestment. If governments encourage or remove hurdles to cutting edge technologies, they are hailed by the scientific fraternity as ‘friendly’ regimes.

I was recently in Hyderabad to witness the impressive information technology infrastructure amassed by the outgoing state government. Parts of the city appear to be implanted straight from Silicon Valley. The advancement of the architecture and the gadgets is dazzling. They have Internet connections faster than any other part of India in the ‘Cyberadad’ software parks. When I confronted one scientist with the allegation that the last government had over-invested in the city at the expense of the impoverished countryside, he answered cynically, “The educated elites can leverage state patronage to make world-class products in India. What good would come out of investment in rural areas where there is no capacity?” Perhaps this man who breaks new frontiers in advanced scientific applications has never crossed the frontier of his glossy skyscraper to see the multitude of indebted landless farmers who have been committing suicides in Andhra Pradesh. The Bollywood film Swades bombed at the collections since men like him could not fathom a plot where a NASA scientist sacrifices his fabulously equipped American lab to teach basic physics in a remote Indian hamlet.         

IT earns big returns because it caters (with exceptions) to elite clienteles- the swanky blue-chip grossers trading in stock exchanges. High-end user scientific advances enrich the already rich hand over fist. As with globalised trade and investment, they trickle down very rarely to the parched masses. But rational science is mandated to be precise and heartless. It researches fields that guarantee investment, patent registration, royalty, payoff, prizes etc. Given a chance, frustrated mid-career government scientists who slave for aspirational ends would want to effect a job swap into the booming private consultancy sector that exports ‘packages’ and ‘solutions’ to offices in Europe or North America. Return on labour means everything for a typical scientist whose mentality is dominated by desire to encash her unique education and qualifications.     

Why has this gulf developed between science and social goals, especially in developing countries? One historical explanation is that post-colonial societies as a whole have lost the spine for selflessness, as memories of freedom struggles and nation building fade. Scientists are behaving like any other skilled individualist member of the Third World who would die for a chance for “greater recognition” (read higher pay). Another reason for the science-ethics divide getting wider is the absence of history of science as a subject at university-level curricula. Medical science at least has the Hippocratic Oath, though much abused. Pure science or engineering products have mammon for inspiration. 

Let me illustrate the lives of two great scientists who subordinated personal gain for the sake of humanity. Englishman Joseph Priestley is known to most as the discoverer of Oxygen and carbonated water. In fact, Priestley was also a political philosopher and religious reformer who publicly opposed the British monarchy as an impediment to human rights. In 1791, a monarchist mob set Priestley’s church and house on fire and ruined his scientific treasures. Refusing to recant, he fled to the US and continued to uphold the flames of democracy and justice like his role model scientist-cum-moralist Benjamin Franklin.

Albert Einstein was German-American only for formality’s sake, for this genius of a scientist belonged to the whole world owing to the breadth of his conscience. An enlistee of the New York Humanist Association, he was a man of letters ever wary of the diabolical ends to which science can be suborned. Though an early advocate of a US nuclear programme to counter Hitler’s bomb, he later felt personal remorse and became one of the earliest nuclear abolitionists long before nonproliferation was politicised by the haves. His immortal lines deserve iteration: “We must inoculate our children against militarism by educating them in the spirit of pacifism. I would teach peace rather than war, love rather than hate.”  

At the surface level, scientists enthuse youth in developing countries simply by achieving national or global renown. Magnification of scientific personas in newspaper supplements aids this process by exciting pride and inquisitiveness in young readers. To many a school-going kid in India today, APJ Abdul Kalam electrifies her sense of purpose. A figure like Kalam is rare not only due to his acceptance of high public office, but also his mission to popularise science in the poorest and least connected parts of the country. Scientists have to go beyond test tube greatness and set examples of altruistic dedication by opposing social evils and trends in polity that threaten freedoms. 

Going against the tide of general scientific boycott of ‘moral indulgence’ requires courage and augurs loneliness, as the above illustrations show. A subtler peer derision is also incurred by scientists who actively participate in affairs of wider public interest. After attending a spellbinding lecture by Stephen Hawking in Oxford, I recall hearing from a thoroughbred physicist that the speaker is “not rated very highly as a scientist.” Hawking has stopped probing black holes in the universe after taking on the much more socially responsible task of summarising the arcana of astrophysics in layman’s terms, so that galaxy secrets do not remain confined to the scientific Beat Generation. The reward he gets from the physics establishment for performing the great service of popularising science is condescension.

Traditional scientists live amongst indigenous communities worldwide, without being honoured as scientists in the Newtonian sense. They have in-depth knowledge of natural forces and the ways of guiding them for communal benefit, like expert irrigators channelling water torrents. Western scientists look askance at them as ‘quacks’ and ‘shamans’ who dare to parlay ‘medievalism’ as science. Assessed in the framework of the dichotomy we are discussing, traditional scientists manage to marry science to ethics in a way few can in the modernised world. They convert ‘what is’ into ‘what ought to be’ and bequeath their learning to posterity, unencumbered by trademark disputes. Their impetus comes not from a strict patent regime that restricts knowhow, but a community of learning that spreads science for the greater good. History of science curricula should feature some of these unsung luminaries too. Alternative role models alter history’s direction.


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