Losing one's temper

Scientific temper- Jawaharlal Nehru's coinage- "involves the application of logic and reasoning, and the avoidance of bias and preconceived notions in arriving at decisions, and becomes particularly valuable while deciding what is best for the community or the nation."

Amartya Sen, in his The Argumentative Indian, characterises a group that practices scientific temper as possessing "internal pluralism and external receptivity". By that token we, as a nation, fare poorly.
The need for scientific temper, and its paucity in our public life- and all too often, in the public life of our scientists- has been discussed time and again, and frequently by the defaulters. A belief in the predictive powers of astrology, the curative powers of homoeopathy, the endorsement of proven charlatans (purveyors of herbal petrol and transcendental meditation, for instance) is common in our country. It is not enough to put private and public lives into different compartments since the boundaries are not always as watertight as one would like them to be... so it does matter when science bureaucrats- that most visible face of science- show their feet of clay quite so easily!

Pushpa Bhargava has been a loud voice in the science establishment who has often drawn attention to such issues. By organizing meetings and discussions on scientific temper, by bringing the discussion into the national press, and now, by collecting a number of his articles in a book to be released tomorrow by the National Book Trust entitled Angels, Devil and Science. Coauthored with Chandana Chakrabarti, this book documents the efforts of Bhargava and a number of others in the 1970's and thereafter to bring about a national sense of scientific temper.

"Believe nothing merely because you have been told it" the Buddha is reputed to have said... the tradition of agnosticism is an hoary one, but also one that does not grip public imagination as much as the willingness to hold on to poorly substantiated beliefs. Somehow the discussions on rationality seem to miss something crucial in the argument as to why so many people are willing to believe things that are patently unprovable (and often patently false) so much of the time. D D Kosambi in one of the essays collected in Science, Society, and Peace suggested that the state use science as propaganda- accurate weather prediction in stead of astrological forecasts, for instance. Given the error margins in such predictions (and Kosambi died in 1966, just as Chaos theory was being born) that may not be such a wise move! Still, the ease with which we as a nation are willing to live a dichotomous existence- with sharply differing public and private belief systems- is a bit worrisome.

We hope to bring you the Kosambi essays as downloadable pdf files shortly. In the meantime, all the NBT titles can be ordered through Scholars, of course. And Amartya Sen as well... and the few Kosambi titles still in print...


bhupi said…
Most of Kosambi's works are available at Arvind Gupta's site: