Thursday, January 17, 2013

Scientific Temper

Scientific temper. n., An attitude which involves the application of logic and the avoidance of bias and preconceived notions.
When in high school, I won a competition (I think it was an essay writing competition), the prize for which was a book about Scientific Temper. Naturally, I lost mine, and cursed the organizers for being stupid enough to give a class VIII student a book that was clearly intended for adults. What hurt further was the organizer invoking the Indian Constitution to justify his selection of the prize. (For those not in the know, the Indian constitution mandates the cultivation of scientific temper as one of the fundamental duties of the citizen.) I sulked for days on end.
In time, curiosity (and boredom) got the better of me and I finally read the book. It was a good read, and it brought out a clear distinction between scientific and unscientific thinking. Elimination of bias, reproducibility and validity of hypothesis, experiments and data,  avoiding the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, and statistical significance were some of the themes of the book. It emphasized that the scientific method conformed to these themes, while unscientific ones didn’t.
Why bring it up now? Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that so many of our problems are because our people either haven’t developed scientific temper or are reluctant to use it. An obvious example is the reception saffron- (or green- or white-) clad gurus get on TV. But think also of supposedly intellectual debates on TV, and in parliament, and in various fora, which  have no grounding in reality, let alone the scientific method. A sad, but relevant example is the solutions suggested by influential people to prevent the kind of rapes that have happened in the recent past.
Bias: RSS chief Bhagawat takes the cake here, showing his bias against both women, and against ‘western culture’.
Invalidity of data and/or hypotheses: All those who want to pass stricter laws – have strict laws prevented any crime from happening in any country?
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Rapes have gone up. So has the number of women wearing jeans/going out to work/going to discos/mixing with men/marrying in the same gotra/getting married late/…, Therefore, rapes are because of the number of women wearing jeans/going out to work/…you get the idea.
Statistical significance: One girl was raped coming home late in the night. So preventing girls from going out late in the night will prevent all rapes.

The wide prevalence of these fallacies along with an obstinate refusal to get to the bottom of any issue make a debate or discussion on any issue a self-defeating one.
This lack of rigor has an insidious effect, literally, on people’s health. Now, many of us believe in the Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda. Ayurveda has found to have effective medicine for liver treatments, for (in)digestion, for bone maladies and for many such diseases. Practitioners also claim miracle cures for diseases like cancer and kidney failure. But how does one verify the veracity of these claims?  Apart from some medicinal compounds like Turmeric, few Ayurvedic medicines have been scientifically tested. All you see are claims of a person X who had disease Y for Z years and was cured in a week, or of person K who had a enzyme level of L which reduced to M in N days. Papers are published in local journals without even double-blind experiments. Further, no Ayurvedic practitioner can explain how their medicines counteract disease in terms that are accepted by the broad medical community. To blame is also the allopathic community which has refused to even examine the vast wealth of knowledge accumulated by Ayurveda. And the pharma companies who fear that traditional medicine would kill their golden geese, patents. And the one entity+ which could be a honest broker in the exercise, but is too busy politicking to care about the wellbeing of the citizenry.
While his own scientific temper could be questioned, Nehru was spot on when he said “The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science”. Too bad we have looked the other way.

+ The government

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