How to React to Stupidity at the Science Congress

Vasudevan Mukunth

Correlation is not causation but its really hard to set aside the fact that Indias ruling party has empowered a clutch of people to vocalise their pseudoscientific beliefs without fear of ridicule, leave alone consequence. When you hear a person in any kind of leadership position utter unscientific, ahistorical nonsense, you used to be able to laugh and uninhibitedly point out that theyre wrong.

And then you read news reports about how people are being arrested for beingsharply critical of the prime ministeror forinnocuous comments on social mediatargeting ministers and politicians. You read about vice-chancellors, judges and ministers balking at the slightest insult yet freely dismissing reason and civil liberties in single sentences. You keep your Twitter timeline clean to escape the attention of a wandering troll army, many of whose foot soldiersthe prime minister himself follows. You watch your language closer than before, almost as if a syntax-obsessed linguist might.

When someone gets on stage and says something stupid, you no longer see one face. In the visage of G.N. Rao, the Andhra University vice-chancellor asserting at the Indian Science Congress that we had stem-cell technology and test-tube babies thousands of years ago, you see The System glaring down at you. And you swallow the laughter.

But of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and their satellite outfits havent caused any of this because they havent actively directed one event after another. What youre seeing is just a correlation, a remarkable coincidence but a coincidence nonetheless. If you think theres causation, then its in your head,you liberal, antinational punk.

So you arent just silenced. The phantasmal force of the back reaction reaches into you and invites you to reconsider your opinions. Why did G.N. Rao, who sits at the very top of a state university, say what he did? You recoil from the simplest answer: that hes stupid. (He says we had stem-cell and IVF tech because the Mahabharat says hundred fertilised eggs were put into hundred earthen pots.) But then he cant be stupid; it must be something else.

Maybe Rao simply meant it as a metaphor as an allegorical explanation for a complicated subject, something he alludes to in the clip. And maybe Narendra Modi was trying to be funny when he said we had plastic surgery thousands of years ago when we fixed an elephants head on a human body. Maybe that Rajasthan high court judge was simply illustrating his devotion when he declared peacocks dont have sex butprocreate through tears.

Maybe Satyapal Singh was on the cusp of a new philosophy of sciencewhen he said monkeys didnt turn into menbecause his grandparents didnt have a story about it. Maybe Harsh Vardhan was only musing about unknown unknownswhen he said Stephen Hawking believedthe Vedas had a better theory than E = mc2. But wait: the buck stops with the science minister, and when hes crossed the line, its definitely not a metaphor.

What else could it be? Perhaps the BJP government has thrown the field open to anyone who can craft a call to conservatism in a way that sticks to theparivars ideological line, finds traction among the people and makes news. The best craftsperson is then chosen and granted one boon, to use Amar Chitra Kathas favourite word for wishes granted by the gods. This franchisee model of nationalist expression would explain former ISRO chief Madhavan Nairscommentthat two women entering the Sabarimala temple at night was a government-sponsored act of cowardice.

Or maybe those of us discomfited by an ecosystem that quietly tolerates and normalises increasingly offensive statements are in fact the cynics were often told we are. Cynicism, and the disengagement with public politics that it encourages, is a privilege. Many of us can stop fighting for what we believe is right and shrink into a life no different for it but most of us cant. At the same time, cynicism is hard to shed when it is consistently rewarded. You decide to hope when the government appoints an excellent principal scientific advisor and feel snubbed when a senior educational administrator cant see the national science congress as anything more than a spit ball range. (And heisnt alone.)

Just like that, were left navigating a tangled web of excuses were forced to make for The System if only to avoid confronting the abject incompetence at its centre. Correlations jump up at us everywhere we look but we resist the cynical temptation to see causes instead.

However, ad hoc judgments are inimical to the everyday practice of reason more so when a students vice-chancellor invites her to try.Dont be a cynic and everything will look better.But be a cynic and avoid another demonetisation or starvation death.Dont be a cynic and read meaning into every silly statement.But be a cynic and think about what G.N. Raos andwords might do to the spirit of a student at his university.Dont be a cynic, be a skeptic instead, and learn to hope.But be a cynic and prepare to have your hopes dashed.

Dont be a cynic; there are scientists and teachers doing good work in other parts of the country. Lets hope that much continues to stay true.

Courtesy: Wire