Their powers of levitation...

Albert Einstein has said that: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” The German-born theoretical physicist’s witty lines ring particularly true today. Current reports state that mosquitoes are troubling Asaram Bapu, lodged in a Jodhpur jail in connection with a case of sexual assault on a minor girl.

A file photo taken from a helicopter shows the Admiral Makarov Russian icebreaker advancing in ice in the Sea of Okhotsk. On Tuesday it came to the rescue of French adventurers Sebastien Roubinet and Vincent Berthet who were blocked in the Arctic during their 3000-km, three-month-long sports and science expedition from Alaska to the Svalbard archipelago. Pics/AFP

While that’s the latest buzz on the Asaram case, men of science and medicine state that never mind the mosquitoes, if there’s one thing worth not swotting away, that is a scientific temperament as a nation and rational thinking, which is the most powerful way to combat false belief, blind superstitions and bogus claims.

Says Shrikant P Pathak, Curator-F and National Coordinator NSS-2013 Nehru Science Centre (E Moses Road in Worli) “Everybody needs to develop a scientific mindset because science is a study of the physical world and its manifestation, especially by using systematic observations and experiments. Science has evidence to support its claims.” Having said that, Pathak admits that, “Science, like democracy is an imperfect instrument, but it is the best weapon against ignorance and injustice.

Indian schoolchildren and visitors watch a demonstration of the qualities of liquid nitrogen at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The Festival founded in 1989 is Europe’s largest educational charity inspiring people to experience the wonder of science and technology

The whole idea is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. Scientific mindset gives ability to think rationally irrespective of cast, creed and status.” Like every weapon or tool, science too, can be a doubled-edged sword. Pathak cautions that it must be used ethically, “Scientific mindset prepares oneself to build a mature and logical understanding. Facts in nature itself are so fascinating that the studies of these facts are enough to quench the thirst for surprises, then why do we run behind astrology, miracles, and magic? Curiosity is the basis for science.”

A man tries out a Chinese Taikonaut (astronaut) suit at a space exhibit in the Science and Technology Museum in Beijing. China will send its first probe to land on the moon by the end of the year. Beijing sees the multi-billion-dollar space programme as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise

In a country where superstition certainly trumps science in the marketing department, where ‘miracle’ men and women touting panaceas for all kinds of ills have the gift of the gab, compared to straight-talking scientists, how can one develop what experts call a scientific temper? One way is by making science centres. Says Pathak, “The potential of science centres as instruments and agents for percolating scientific temper is phenomenal and we have a long journey.”

Dr Q Maskati
Dr Q Maskati

Centres have always been particularly keen to undertake campaigns that help deflate hollow claims. Says Pathak, “One such campaign was during the period when the country was struck with a superstitious belief that idols of Lord Ganesha drank milk, making people offer gallons of milk. The National Council of Science Museums conducted road shows and demonstrations across the country to try and debunk this myth and to highlight the science behind this phenomenon.”

Dr S Khened S P Pathak
Dr S Khened and S P Pathak

For Dr Shivaprasad Khened, Nehru Science Centre director, developing a scientific mindset is not just important, it is mandated by the Indian Constitution. The director says, “We are constitutionally mandated to develop a scientific mindset as part of our fundamental duties. In the year 1976, India became the first country to include in its Constitution ‘Scientific Temper with humanism’ as a fundamental duty of all citizens of the country [Article 51-A(h)].”

Having it enshrined in the Constitution though, has not stopped people falling prey to all kinds of hoaxes and bogus claims. “That is because some people assume their destiny is predetermined by forces beyond their control. They take shelter in so called godmen/ gurus who make such false claims. India continues to stand at the crossroads of having to choose between the two roads that lead to belief, one which is based on faith not put to logical scrutiny, while the other is founded on reason. Faith is a non-rational belief system. Science is a rational belief system. You can say that one can counter such claims with the scientific mindset, which unfortunately is easier said than done,” elaborates Khened.

Khened says animatedly that young minds should blaze like a furnace at knowing that we stand on the cusp of exciting innovations and watershed scientific discoveries. He states, “There are several exciting scientific discoveries which hold promise for bettering the lives of mankind. Our very understanding of how our life is governed stems out of the discovery of the DNA, the structure of every life on Earth.

Unravelling the Human Genome is destined to bring in better medical diagnostics and improving health care. The discovery of the Higgs Boson (popularly called the God Particle), at the Large Hadron Collider experiments at CERN, will help us understand the very fundamental forces of nature that govern the physical world, and in the years to come promise unprecedented benefits for humankind. The spin-off benefits from this research, just as the ones that stemmed from space research, will benefit mankind.”

Now, why a levitating man (who usually leaves the ground with the help of some well-hidden device) seems to lure people more than the thought of news about Gods Particle, is just how it is. However, it is not just scientists who are befuddled. Doctors too, know their task is uphill especially when patients’ seem to find quack quick-fixes more appealing than genuine cures.

For Mumbai’s Dr Quresh B Maskati, President-Elect, All India Ophthalmological Society, “There is an urgent need to restore the scientific temper in India. Earlier, we had giants like Swami Vivekananda, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan who were deeply religious men but extremely clear thinkers and rational in their approach to all issues. Rationality and religiosity are not mutually exclusive as some fanatics would have us believe.”

When asked if people fall prey to ridiculous claims especially, when they are at their lowest ebb emotionally, Dr Maskati explains, “Unfortunately, whenever there is no quick cure in allopathy for a disease, quacks step in and fool thousands with their advertisements promising miracle cures. (We qualified allopathic doctors are bound by Medical Council of India rules and forbidden to advertise). I have had patients who have permanently lost eyesight due to putting in animal excreta into their eyes to “cure” cataract, only to land up with severe eye infections.

Bogus beliefs rule when it comes to pledging one’s eyes, says Dr Maskati who has worked extensively in this field. “Many people do not wish to donate their deceased relative’s eyes, even if he had expressed this desire during his life. This is out of fear of the unknown - they worry that he will be born without eyes when reborn or that he will be sightless in heaven above.

It is extremely difficult for a doctor to shake this ‘conviction’’ at the time of death of their loved one.” He signs off with, “When we buy vegetables we weigh everything before purchasing, why do we not weigh the advice given by quacks, before following it just because we see no better alternative? Remember, a physician/surgeon is bound by the Hippocratic oath of ‘Do no harm’ - others have no such binding.” That’s just what the doctor ordered.

Bring them to book
Just recently a 10-member delegation of political leaders and activists from Maharashtra comprising Prakash Ambedkar, Prof N D Patil, MLC Kapil Patil, Prakash Reddy and others met the Governor of Maharashtra K. Sankaranarayanan at Raj Bhavan, Mumbai under the banner ‘Samyukta Nirdhar Parishad’ and sought his intervention to bring the perpetrators of the killing of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar to justice.

Dr Dabholkar was an Indian rationalist and founder-president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organization set up to eradicate superstition. They complained that the State Government had failed in tracing and apprehending the persons responsible even after a fortnight. The delegation requested the Governor to ask the state Government to institute a special inquiry into the matter.

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