The absurd mixing up of science with mythology has become an annual feature of the Indian Science Congress in recent years. The 106th Congress which was held in Jalandhar has had more than its share, some of it coming from senior scientists including a Vice Chancellor and another senior researcher.
The latest blather came from G Nageshwar Rao, the Vice Chancellor of Andhra University, and Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. He claimed that the Mahabharata offers proof that stem cell technology was prevalent in ancient India and that Kauravas were born of thus!
“We had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell and test tube technology,” he said. He also went on to say that Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets and that Ravana had access to different types of aircraft.
Another presenter, a senior research scientist at the World Community Service Centre in Tamil Nadu, Kanan Jagathala Krishnan, proclaimed that Isaac Newton did not understand gravitational forces and that Albert Einstein has misled the world with the theory of relativity.
It is bad enough that some politicians conflate science and mythology to bolster Hindu nationalism to win votes. But when such beliefs are presented as science at a premier event like the National Science Congress, the few rotten apples contribute to lowering the stature of Indian Science. They also make it difficult for the growing cadre of Indian scientists doing excellent scientific research to be taken seriously on the global stage.
It was not long ago that India’s Minister of State for Higher Education, Satyapal Singh, argued that the theory of evolution was baseless and wrong, and vowed to change the national school curriculum to fix this. We have in the past had to put up with the Prime Minister Modi enlightening us in 2015 that plastic surgery existed in ancient India and that Hindu scriptures offer proof for this claim.
Not to be left behind, Science minister Harsh Vardhan last year proclaimed that Pythogoras Theorem was invented in India and that the ancient Greeks took credit from us for this and other early mathematical laws. He also wrongly claimed that Stephen Hawking had praised the Vedas for many discoveries, some of which were more important than Einstein’s theory of relativity. This was immediately refuted by several British physicists familiar with Hawking’s work.
The annual Science Congress is one of the most important fora for Indian scientists to come together to share important scientific contributions and to honour fellow scientists who have achieved significant breakthroughs. It was established in 1914 with the explicit purpose of advancing and promoting the cause of science in India and to publish journals, proceedings, transactions and other publications to facilitate the sharing of scientific knowledge.
The Congress has an illustrious history of participation by eminent Indian and foreign scientists including many Nobel Laureates, over the years. The body charged with organising the Congress, the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) is actively represented in various foreign scientific academies/associations, including the British Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, French Academy of Sciences, among others. There should be no place at such gatherings for pseudo-science and cocktails of mythological snippets.
The well-known physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman once said that science is the accumulation of “what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves”. Notions like scientific method, reliable testing of hypotheses and conjectures, evidence, and rigorous attempts at refutation and reproducibility are central to the scientific enterprise.
In contrast, the mythology-laden pseudo-science peddled by the likes of Rao and Krishnan are characterised by unproven and unprovable claims, zero evidence, and a shocking ignorance or disrespect for the scientific method. Very often it is based on beliefs that are presented to a core group of devotees for whom the patina of science is attractive.
Mythologies serve as the bedrock of collective memory in all societies and it is the cultural mooring of mankind. These are the ideas and narratives that get communicated from one generation to the next and help people find meaning and make sense of the world. However, the attempt to mix these with science and to garb it as scientifically valid creates a toxic mix that debases scientific discourse and corrupts the fantasy and wonder associated with the myths.
ISCA and a large number of Indian scientists have distanced themselves from the few pseudo-scientific papers presented at the congress. But the damage to Indian science cannot be reversed easily. ISCA needs to come up with appropriate vetting procedures to ensure that the papers of the kind presented at this year’s congress by Rao and Krishnan are consigned to the dustbin where they belong and that future Congresses are free from such farrago of nonsense.
(The author is the Professor of Information Systems and Services at the School of Computer Science, the University of Sydney in Australia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Translation in Malayalam had appeared in the edit page of the Mathrubhumi on January 9, 2019