Science, truth and modesty

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The Martian film poster [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Mark Watney, the character played by Matt Damon in the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster The Martian is stranded all alone on Mars. But he announces defiantly that the only way he can survive and return to Earth is to “science the shit out of this!” This quote came as music to the ears of scientists worldwide, and all those who saw science as the all-redeeming vehicle for seeking truth, and the sole authority to make life better for us earthlings has generally been assumed by the larger public. But is it really so?

To begin with, what we accept as science is what is published in academic journals after experimentation and after scrutiny by expert reviewers. But recent evidence points out that several experiments published in reputed journals are not always replicable – meaning they do not yield the same results when the experiment is performed again. In other words, the science behind the experiments may not be reliable or worse, fake.

Failure is the stepping stone to success and science should also be allowed to fail if it has to succeed eventually, some of you may say. Unfortunately, history is filled with examples of “good science” having influenced governments and industries to take serious decisions impacting humans and nature, but with disastrous results.

In 1980, an academic letter in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that opioids (a morphine-like narcotic used to relieve pain) were not addictive. This declaration motivated leading healthcare specialists to recommend its usage. Today, it is widely acknowledged that opioids are highly addictive with deadly consequences – to the extent that opioid manufacturers in Canada and the US are being sued for “misbranding” and creating a “health care crisis”.

In the 1980s, neonicotinoids came to be used as one of the world’s most favourite pesticides for use in agriculture; of course, after approval by scientists, environmental agencies and government committees. Unfortunately, these pesticides also had disastrous consequences on bee populations across the globe, with implications for food crop production since bees serve as vital links in pollination. In 2013, the European Union and several other countries banned neonicotinoids with the EU planning to reinforce the ban in 2017.

Do these examples mean that science is flawed? Far from it – it only means that science also has its share of uncertainties and needs to be more modest about what it can do. People still trust science, but science also needs to trust people, as Wiebe Bijker points out. Scientists have been accorded a “priest-like status” in society today. But we need to realize, as Tom Nichols suggests, that “science is a process, not a solution”. We need a social system which rewards scientists who are more patient and more rigorous than those who publish unverified results for the sake of attracting industrial patronage.

So while Mark Whatney used the power of science to return safe to earth in “the Martian”, we need to be more modest and democratic if we need an earth to continue living on – this includes  listening to all groups in society, including the “non-scientists”.

 

Revealing fact or reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in Indian society

Whenever scientists achieve a breakthrough in understanding the fundamental laws of nature, it is often accompanied by an age-old question: has science nailed its final nail on the coffin of religion? This debate was reignited in 2016 with the detection of gravitational waves.

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Merging of two black holes [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) announced that the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detectors in the US in Hanford, Washington and in Livingston, Louisiana had directly observed gravitational waves on 14 September 2015. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 on the basis of his theory of general relativity. These waves are ripples in space-time (space and time as a continuum of four dimensions) created by large cosmic events such as the merger of two massive black holes. The 2015 LIGO detection not only confirmed Einstein’s prediction but also strengthened the emerging field of gravitational-wave astronomy, allowing us to observe early cosmic processes, including events that immediately followed the Big Bang. Does the observation of gravitational waves have any significance for understanding the relation between scientific knowledge and religious faith? What are the societal implications for this never-ending debate? Continue reading “Revealing fact or reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in Indian society”

“Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India

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Representative image [Courtesy: Amazon.com]

The West has always been fascinated with accounts of the East. While there is no unique “Western” or “Eastern” culture, scholars on both ends of the globe have practiced an “exoticisation” of Eastern systems of beliefs and traditions. This may limit the wider engagement with a plurality of ideas prevalent either in the West or the East.

It is this perspective that Renny Thomas brings to the discussion on ideas of rationalism, atheism and unbelief among Indian scientists, in his article Atheism and Unbelief among Indian Scientists: Towards an Anthropology of Atheism(s) published in Society and Culture in South Asia (2016). In this ethnographic account Thomas notes that several Indian scientists referred to themselves as “atheists”. But on closer scrutiny, he reveals that these “atheist” scientists neither subscribe to the “New Age” “scientific atheism” of (say) Richard Dawkins nor have they abandoned the lifestyles and practices associated with the religion of their birth. Continue reading ““Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India”

The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science

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Portrait of Countess Ada Lovelace [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon to British computer pioneer, Alan Turing. This came almost six decades after he was (sadly) convicted of “gross indecency” for having an affair with another man. His conviction overshadowed his significant contributions to the field of theoretical computer science and even put an unfair, early end to his life.

Social prejudices may have scarred Turing’s clean image in the field of computer science. But that did not stop his being recognized widely as the “father” of computer science, primarily for his Turing machine, an abstract model of a general purpose computer. However, the unintended consequences of social exclusion and gender stereotypes may have been just the reasons for another computing genius to carry on her work unrestrained. This forms the crux of Imogen R. Coe and Alexander Ferworn’s article The Life and Contributions of Countess Ada Lovelace in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (December 2016). Continue reading “The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science”

The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine

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Portrait of Paracelsus [Image source: Wikimedia Commons]
Theoretical scientist and astronomer Stephen Hawking recently warned that the best way to ensure the survival of humanity was to “spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” On the brighter side, he added that the end of planet Earth would become a certainty only in the “in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years.” Still, the search for habitable planets has gained momentum with efforts led by government agencies like NASA and billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk.

Humanism is the ethical and philosophical stance that emphasizes the value of human beings, affirmed by their ability to improve human lives through reason. We do not know if Hawking and Elon Musk call themselves “humanists”, but they do believe that the challenges of this age demand new and ingenious solutions even if it goes against conventionally accepted wisdom. Interestingly, a group of alternative medical practitioners in the Renaissance Era, the Paracelsians , also believed that theirs was a “violent age”. The Paracelsians sought new sources to solve the challenges of their age—including mystical. divine and occult sources—as Allen Debus elaborates in his book, Man And Nature In The Renaissance. Continue reading “The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine”