Essay On How To Promote Scientific Temper

Cover Story Print edition : October 4, 2013 Interview: G. Vijayam

‘Promote scientific temper’


Interview with G. Vijayam of Atheist Centre, Vijayawada. By RAMESH SUSARLA

THE foundations of the rationalist movement in Andhra Pradesh were laid by Kumaragiri Vema Reddy, popularly known as Vemana, through his verses in popular, everyday Telugu.

The Atheist Centre is a social change institution founded by Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, popularly known as Gora, (1902-75), and Saraswathi Gora (1912-2006) in 1940 at Mudunur village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. On the eve of Independence in 1947, the centre was shifted to Vijayawada and since then it has been the hub of activity for promotion of atheism, humanism and social change. Here are excerpts from an interview with the centre’s executive director, G. Vijayam, son of Gora:

Who were the founders of the rationalist movement?

The history of the humanist or rationalist movement in the State can be traced back to the writer-poet Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao and the social reformer Kandukuri Veerasalingam Pantulu in the 19th century. When orthodoxy in society reached its pinnacle, rationalism was given shape by the early social reformers through literature. Veerasalingam is considered to have brought about a renaissance in Telugu literature. The playwright Tripuraneni Ramaswamy was yet another reformer who used his literary sword to propagate rationalism.

What did the rationalist movement aim to do?

Rationalists tried to end some of the social practices such as child marriage and introduced widow re-marriage, and some British utilitarians such as Arthur Cotton believed in maximising the good in society. Unlike Tamil Nadu and some northern States, the zamindari system did not prevail in Andhra Pradesh. The prevalent ryotwari system did not help in the anti-Brahmanism movement in the State. The birth of the Justice Party was on an anti-Brahmin plank and the radical humanist M.N. Roy led the self-respect movements.

Rationalism also emanated from the nationalist movement of Mahatma Gandhi and eradication of poverty and alleviation of human suffering were the focus, in addition to achieving independence. Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, or Gora, had close association with Gandhiji and left the teaching profession to work among the ‘untouchables’, and in the Independence movement from 1939.

What is the significance of rationalism today?

These days people are academically literate and professionally competent, but fail to think rationally when it comes to their personal lives. They tend to believe in the superstitions or miracles of a few self-proclaimed godmen and get cheated. What is needed is the promotion of scientific temper among people from their childhood.

What is the significance of the Buddha?

The Buddha, after enjoying all the luxuries, came out of the materialistic world to do some basic questioning and found answers for them. Rationalists also tend to do the same. However, these days professionals are treading the reverse path, falling prey to godmen by accepting whatever they say and by failing to ask them basic questions.

What is Gora’s contribution?

Gora, who questioned the concept of God, had to leave his job as a botany professor once in 1933, and again in 1939 from the Hindu College at Machilipatnam for the same reason. He, along with my mother Saraswati Gora, started the world’s first Atheist Centre in 1940 and organised the first World Atheist Conference, too. He went around the world between 1970 and 1974 propagating atheism as a positive way of life. He died while addressing an atheist meeting in 1975.

What is the ground-level work of the Atheist Centre?

We have been working on inculcating the scientific temper among children and people at large; Gora was the first atheist with a science background and he began questioning all social practices on a scientific basis. The centre organised magic shows for children, explaining the scientific principles behind the tricks. It even exposed to people the tricks used by godmen to produce articles from thin air.

What is your prescription for improving rational thinking?

The government should include lessons on rational thinking in the syllabi from the primary school level to the high school level, promote science exhibitions more extensively, encourage children to question the basics of scientific principles or anything happening around them in society.

The government should enact a law to ban miracle cure, put a stop on politicians going to godmen, make use of self-help groups to promote the scientific temper among rural folk and target the unorganised student community to curb superstition.

While modern science and technology is now accepted everywhere as an integral part of one’s everyday living, few ever stop to think, particularly in our country, about the obligations which rest on the users of the benefits of science and technology.

The most important of these obligations is the understanding of the scientific method and the development of a scientific outlook. In this article an attempt will be made to detail the need for such an outlook, to define some of the problems in its creation and to make some suggestions in regard to the responsibilities of the scientists in the development of a scientific outlook.

What are Scientific Method and Scientific Outlook?

The benefits of science with which humanity at large are familiar, are seldom recognized by the layman to be a result of a simple, systematic, well defined and objective approach: the application of scientific method to the solution of problems and discovering truth.

The scientific method stands in direct contradiction to the way of religion, dogma and faith which is based on the premise that truth can be revealed and which was the only approach available for solving problems and discovering truth till a few centuries back.

The scientific method rejects revelation as a means of discovering truth and substitutes it by the technique of observation followed by careful experimentation and logical deduction. Thus, in contrast to revelation which is highly personal, the scientific method is universal.

It is only logical that once science has permeated every level of human existence, the method of science must become a way of life and science must be conceived not as knowledge of facts but as a way of thinking. An unqualified acceptance of this role of science, defines ‘scientific outlook’; it is corollary of acceptance of the scientific method as the only way of discovering truth.

Need for a scientific Outlook

It may be perhaps argued that a scientific outlook is necessary only for those who practise science and that such an outlook is of little use to a person who is normally  concerned only with the utilization of the fruits of science and technology and not with science and technology perse. There is no greater fallacy than this.

Today scientific answers are either available, or there are reasons to believe (from the trend of modern researches in chemistry, biology and physics) that such answers will be found in the future to virtually all the major questions which humanity has been asking itself since man came to be endowed with intelligence.

In fact, by providing answers (or opening avenues for the acquisition of such answers) to common questions such as those pertaining to atmospheric or cosmological phenomenon (e.g., rain, thunder, day and night, and eclipses), or to the more sophisticated questions such as the nature of the universe, the origin of life,  the mechanism of heredity, the cause of disease, and the basis of the various physiological processes (including those which control behavior and brain function), science has established the validity of its method and has thus given a new technique to humanity for solving its problems.

Attempts to provide answers to these questions in the past were based on the teachings of religions, dogma, faith, custom, convention and tradition. Science has ultimately proved to be right in every case where its results and conclusions have differed from the teachings of religions, etc. Darwin’s theory of evolution propounded a little over a hundred years ago was vehemently contested by the Church as it went its teachings but is today fully accepted even by the Church.

In view of such astounding successes of science, particularly where its results come in conflict with religion, dogma or the life, it can be assumed with confidence that a scientific outlook,  which is based on an understanding of the method of science, can help arrive at a rational solution, in terms of human resources and knowledge ( and without invoking any supernatural power) of various problems which face man as an individual or as a part of the social community. In fact, a scientific outlook is today a prerequisite for proper appreciation and pursuance of the ideals of liberty, freedom and self-reliance and, in a modern setting, it can be a strong pro-secular force.

Even if one should like to be concerned only with the benefits that science brings to humanity, one would immediately see that a scientific outlook could lead to a better appreciation of the impact of science and technology on society and thereby provide the right kind of atmosphere in which science and technology can flourish and their importance, recognized.

Moreover, such an outlook is essential to ensure application of science and technology exclusively for the benefit (and none for the destruction) of mankind. The presence of a scientific outlook amongst the masses is necessary for developing in the people the desire to understand natural phenomenon and thus to encourage acquisition of fundamentally new knowledge on a large scale. There could be no two opinions about the fact that the whole history of the progress of mankind  is a history of the acquisition of such knowledge.

Problems in the creation of Scientific Outlook

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in developing a scientific climate is the widespread belief in superstition and in the supernatural as a result of uncritical acceptance of the dictates of religion, dogma, faith, customs, convention and tradition. Scientists and intellectuals are no exception to this, particularly in our country.

This dichotomy amongst them is of much greater concern than the belief in superstition or supernatural on the part of a person who has had no access to the fund of modern scientific knowledge. Illiteracy and lack of proper education amongst the masses accentuate the problem. Emphasis should be laid on the word ‘proper’; a large number of existing text books in this country, instead of propagating rational, scientific thinking, do just the opposite.

For example, the bulk of our what is legend and what is history. It is not uncommon to find a highly educated person, even a Ph.D in science, telling you the exact date of the rule of Rama in the country! Lastly one faces the lack of a policy and of adequate media for dissemination of scientific information.

Steps which should be taken for the creation of a scientific outlook and the responsibility of scientific workers in this respect

It is of the utmost importance to make the teaching of science compulsory through schools, and to stress its principles and methods while teaching it. Science teaching must also emphasise the role of science in everyday life, for example in an Indian village. This would involve a complete revision of the syllabus (which should take into consideration the recent developments of science), the development of proper textbooks with adequate provision of frequent revisions, a programme of training of teachers to teach science, and creations of adequate facilities in schools for such teaching. It is clear that this cannot be achieved except though the State and Central departments of education, but the direction for this could and should be provided by a suitably organized body of scientists.

Efforts to improve science teaching should be supplemented by efforts to popularize science. Competent scientists should devote time to write articles in newspapers and help set up a system which would ensure that science reporting in newspapers is true and interesting instead of sensational and prosaic as it mostly is at present. As many popular science journals as possible should be started, for example, there can be one in every institution of the level of a high school or above.

Scientists in positions of influence could see that greater time is devoted on the radio and television to popularize science. At the moment, these two media are doing virtually nothing in this respect.

State Governments should be persuaded to establish at least one science museum  and one museum of natural history in every state. If such museums are established, all school and college students must visit these museums at periodic intervals, and facilitates for such visits, which should be made compulsory, should be provided by their respective institutions. The museums should stress the principles of science, the joy of scientific discovery,  the substitution of irrational with rational thought, and the importance of deductive thinking.

Another way in which scientists could help in the creation of scientific outlook is through the establishment of science associations formed with the express objectives of (a) spreading consciousness of the aim, method and values of science; (b) removing belief in the supernatural and in superstitions; and (c) removing dichotomy amongst scientists themselves.

Lastly, we think the time has come when every scientific  worker – and we include students of science and technology in this category – must do a little bit of introspective thinking with the objective of emancipating himself from all that is anti-science. The basic methodology one learns when one studies science and technology can lead him to only one logical conclusion: the decision to renounce faith in revelation and to apply the scientific method to his everyday living. There cannot be any substitute to the exemplary behavior of scientists themselves as an aid to the propagation of a scientific outlook.

Courtesy :  Angels, Devil and Science
- A Collection of articles on scientific temper

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