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Have we scientists failed our society?

Anindita Bhadra

Anindita Bhadra is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER Kolkata. In this article, which first appeared on Confluence, an editorially moderated discussion forum by the Indian Academy of Sciences, she writes about the collective responsibility that scientists bear for making their science accessible to the general public, and the consequences of scientists failing to engage with the society at large.

Have we scientists failed our society?
Have we scientists failed our society? 

In recent years, there has been some concern among Indian scientists and in the public media about the spread of pseudoscientific ideas in our society. Every time a comment is made in public by a politician or administrator, there is outburst in the media and an even bigger outburst on social media. Sometimes the scientific community is so outraged that statements are put out against the anti-scientific or pseudoscientific statement. A few days later, only the scientists remember the incident as fresh news takes over public attention. 

Let me take the example of the statement made by a Union Minister, that Darwin was wrong about human evolution; the sages in the Vedic age did not write about apes turning into humans, so this can’t be true. There was considerable media outburst, which lasted longer than expected as the scientific community reacted strongly to this statement. Especially when it was suggested that school curricula be appropriately changed in the light of such an opinion, the community recognized the responsibility to criticize this. 

Moreover, in spite of a rap on the knuckles by higher authorities, the Minister defended his statement on a later date, creating further controversy. In fact, the clamour reached a level to make international news, with a report published in Nature News. The Minister, I feel, actually did a service to the community in this case, because there was some positive fallout of the controversy.

Perhaps it was serendipitous that this statement was made by the Minister towards the end of January. 12th February is Darwin day and typically, this is not celebrated on a large scale in our country. However, following the controversy last year, there was a flurry of activities around Darwin day, organized by the academies, NGOs, schools, colleges and other institutions. I personally delivered three lectures on Darwin and Darwinism in Darwin week. This sudden interest in Charles Darwin had its roots in that one controversy over an anti-science statement. 

One year later, this frenzy has died, the activity level on Darwin day has returned to its normal state of absence. Personally, I have interacted with several people over the last year, following this controversy. Unfortunately, most lay people agree with the Minister, in spite of all the statements in the media by the scientific community!

Many consider research that can be communicated to the uninitiated, shared in the public media, discussed by non-scientists to be of an inferior quality.

I feel it is time we scientists held a mirror to ourselves and asked, Where have we gone wrong?” We agree that in India, there is not enough funding for research and education and we need to work towards improving this situation. We need to raise our voices against funding cut for science and to engage with the policy makers to enable higher investment in basic research and education. 

However, we need to remember that we have a greater responsibility towards the people whose hard-earned money helps us to pursue our research – the taxpayers of the country. As a community, we have failed the people who fund our research by not communicating to them our findings and the excitement of science.

A large number of scientists take pride in the fact that their research is beyond the understanding of the aam aadmi” and in fact, cannot be communicated beyond the peer group. Many consider research that can be communicated to the uninitiated, shared in the public media, discussed by non-scientists to be of an inferior quality. In fact, some go to the extent of saying that such research cannot qualify as science and at best can be called social science. In making such sweeping statements, one does not denigrate the social sciences but one’s own standing as a scientist, by the sheer display of lack of objectivity.

If we cannot take our research findings to every classroom and drawing room, every coffee shop and bus stop, we should be shy of demanding more public funding for our research.

As scientists, we need to recognize that communicating our research findings to the non-specialist, taking our science to the next-door neighbour or a vendor on the street or a politician, spreading the excitement of science among young people are our responsibilities as much as carrying out our research with sincerity and honesty is. We should take pride in the ability to communicate science to the layperson and not shy away from it. When a piece of research gets highlighted by the public media, we should rejoice and congratulate the researchers instead of mocking them for not doing science that is of high quality”. 

If we cannot take our research findings to every classroom and drawing room, every coffee shop and bus stop, we should be shy of demanding more public funding for our research. Why should the shopkeeper in my neighbourhood care about funding science if he cannot understand what it is all about? He/​she would rather fund the building of roads, laying of railway lines, the establishment of hospitals and even buying of more ammunition – all tangible ways of spending his/​her hard-earned money, as opposed to funding some vague scientific project with a meaningless acronym. 

At least launching of rockets can bring pride to the nation and its people, but why should the people care if someone is peeping into the depths of live cells or growing populations of mutant flies or solving partial differential equations? Why should they care if PhD scholars get a fellowship hike or not? Why should they be bothered if an Indian scientist publishes a paper in the world’s best journal? After all, how many Nobel prizes have we brought to the country as a community, the people ask, and why shouldn’t they? 

Neither do we give them something to be proud of, nor do we care to share our knowledge with them. We keep them away from our labs and we treat them as intellectual inferiors who have no right to demand answers from us. Why should the people be interested in supporting an endeavour which doesn’t give them anything tangible in return? When we, as scientists, do not make the effort to reach out to the people, how can we condemn them for believing in pseudoscience? At least the people who spread pseudoscientific and anti-scientific ideas make an effort to reach out to society. How can we expect to counter this from a pedestal of our own creation?

When we, as scientists, do not make the effort to reach out to the people, how can we condemn them for believing in pseudoscience?

As a community, we have failed to engage with the society and thus, we should hold ourselves responsible for the flourishing of pseudoscience, not the politicians who use this for propaganda. 

When someone claims that an ape never changed into a man, we don’t make a concerted effort to explain the fallacy in the statement. We don’t bother to explain to the layperson the true essence of evolution. 

We do not protest when our children are taught to accept anything that is written in the textbook as truth, not through experimentation and reasoning, but through command and faith. 

We do not bother to waste” time in reaching out to school children and showing them how they can test the facts written in their books. 

We do not object to a system of education that is dictated by the vicious loop of examinations based on memory, marks and tutorial businesses. 

We do not talk to the media and we do not encourage our students to take up science communication as a profession. 

We do not bother to write popular articles as it is a waste of time and does not get counted in various metrics for promotions and awards. 

We do not bother to deliver talks and write in the regional languages as this is below our dignity. 

We are thereby largely ignored by the public media, unless there is some scandal and the science that we do gets filed away in computers and lab notebooks, never reaching beyond the peer group. Yet, we demand that the public should support our research and we expect that young people would be motivated to take up science as a career.

It is time that we owned up to ourselves that we need to cleanse our community of the false pride of knowledge. It is time we came down from our pedestals and engaged with the public, taking our science to schools and colleges, cafes and shopping malls, drawing rooms and playgrounds. Only then, can we hope to begin cleansing the society of pseudoscience and anti-science and begin creating a society rooted in the philosophy of science as a way of life.

Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Let us know in the comments below.