A friend of mine pointed me to this rather… interesting (for want of a better word) study the other day. (What can I say? I have interesting friends!) Published in the journal Liver Transplantation (an organ of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases), the paper is entitled: Religiosity Associated with Prolonged Survival in Liver Transplant Recipients1 by Bonaguidi et al. of the Institute of Clinical Physiology of the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Pisa.
As a species, physicists baffle me. To my meager understanding, Physics – the study of matter, energy and the relationship between them – is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. Physics elucidates the properties of matter at level of the most basic structural units, and therefore, must necessarily underlie our understanding of the other branches of the natural sciences, namely, chemistry and biology. Therefore, I have always assumed – perhaps naïvely – the physicists’ understanding of the natural world is firmly rooted in empiricism, in critical analysis of observed data – in other words, in the conscientious application of the Scientific Method.
Today’s Nature Middle East published an interesting and thought-provoking commentary from Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, an astrophysicist and professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, entitled: Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?
The accompanying blurb nicely summarizes the main argument in the commentary.
The Arab world cannot afford to ignore curiousity-driven basic research in favour of applied research, if the different states hope to produce an enlightened science culture at home.
Dr. Guessoum starts by defining what he considers basic vis-à-vis applied research. For the basic research, he refers – and justly in my opinion – to the French description thereof:
The French say “recherche fondamentale”, referring to any research around a foundational topic, be it in the laws and fabric of nature or in the essential components (particles, fields), interactions and phenomena that we need to scientifically understand and describe it.
This definition of Basic Sciences is profoundly important, because it accepts the premises that empirical, evidence-driven scientific research is the only real way available to humanity for exploring, learning about, and understanding nature in all its glory and the laws that govern the natural phenomena. In fact, it would not be stretching a point to consider that Basic Sciences research is fundamentally grounded in rationality.
In contrast, Applied Sciences research – what Dr. Guessoum also refers to as ‘development research’ – is done with the express purpose of testing and developing an idea into a tangible product, such as a particular technology, that can be put to good use in the society.
While acknowledging the need for continued support of applied research, Dr. Guessoum makes a strong argument for basic research. He discusses the primary defence of basic research, noting that “… few innovations are made without prior discoveries in fundamental science.” In addition, he makes a more fundamental appeal, saying:
I believe that science is not solely, or even primarily, for improving lifestyles: it is for human progress. We humans have been blessed with reason, intelligence, and the growing capacity to control our environment. With this comes the responsibility of both stewardship (khilafah in Arabic) and proper moral behavior and spiritual attitude (amanah).
This is a deeply recondite statement; in fact, I can find no stronger argument for the support of basic sciences, the foundational concept being reason and application thereof, in order to find answers about everything around us, some of which concern us directly and/or immediately, while others provide a framework for future understanding.
Dr. Guessoum goes on to cite some national and international statistics, emphasizing the observation that unless “countries… do not have a strong basic science program in both education and discovery… their scientific and intellectual progress will remain modest” – however much they “…pursue ‘research and development’”. He cites instances of poor allocation of funding for science in the Arab world, noting the inordinate emphasis placed on “applied”, “innovation”, and “technology” in existing Arab scientific literature, as well as amongst the primary funding agencies, and calls for an attitudinal balance, indicating – again, justly –
… encouragement of basic science is a must if we want to produce enlightened, informed, and well-educated communities, as well as robust home-grown socio-economic development. Basic research is difficult to control and direct; outcomes are often unexpected, and even results which initially seem devoid of potential can later yield important applications. Furthermore, for research to truly be productive, the scientists must feel free to explore all kinds of paths and ideas.
Intriguingly, Dr. Guessoum seemed to take pains to emphasize that he was, in fact, “…not calling for basic research to be given priority in funding or support in the Arab world.” – to which my question is: why on earth not? Perhaps there are political realities in the Arab world that I am not aware of, but given all the arguments Dr. Guessoum made favoring basic research, anything else would seem counter-intuitive, and indeed, counter-productive in the long run.
What struck a particular chord with me about Dr. Guessoum’s commentary is that what is true for the Arab world is true for the rest of the world, too, especially the developing countries, such as mine, i.e. India – a fact that often remains poorly understood. In 2003, the vice-Chairman of one of the country’s premier funding agencies, The University Grants Commission, acknowledged that “No cutting-edge technology will emerge without the background knowledge in basic sciences. So the interface areas of knowledge in physics, chemistry and biological sciences need to be strengthened at the universities” and called for the allocation of at least 2% of India’s GDP for basic research in science and technology. In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India set up a Task Force for basic sciences, which recommended several pro-basic science changes, including that “…every institution of higher learning should earmark 5% of its non-plan budget for the furtherance of research in Basic Sciences” (PDF). And yet, according to official statistics in 2011, the investment in the field of Scientific Research & Development in the country remained at less than 1% of GDP. So, the problem of underfunding (and possibly low appreciation) of basic sciences is by no means restricted to the Arab world.
However, in the context of the social climate in the Arab world, there is another significant question that Dr. Guessoum seems to have skirted across, using grandiloquent, but rather vague, terms. He says:
As Arabs, contributing to human civilization in basic sciences will make our lives meaningful and comfort us in our quest to be morally responsible stewards of Earth.
Will the good doctor care to answer an uncomfortable question about the role religion plays in his region’s societies, and how far that fact influences the funding decisions he laments about? I submit that research in applied science and technology most often does not have to answer fundamental questions about life, nature and natural phenomenon, minimizing the chances of any intersection with the territories claimed by religion and religious philosophies, whereas questions in basic science often impinge upon the same areas.
Consider, for example, the evolution of human beings from less complex organisms; without the fundamental understanding of this evolutionary heritage, it is impossible to use the modern technological tools, such as molecular genetics, to probe the integral mechanisms underlying core biological processes. It is also an area about which a multitude of religions make grandiose claims that have been contradicted and disproven by empirical evidence gathered by basic science research. Can this be a/the pivotal reason for the devoutly religious (from all appearances) Arab world to consciously shy away from funding basic sciences?
As a testament to humankind’s everlasting quest for knowledge and understanding of the self, a number of scientific studies in the recent times have examined the elusive relationship between the human brain and that fountainhead of human emotion and passion, namely, Religion. There have been studies on neurological correlates of religious experiences and spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer; many studies have looked at both acute and chronic effects of such practices in relation to brain function. A recent study along the same lines, published by Owen et al. of Duke University, in PLoS One on March 30, 2011, has attempted to link religious factors with changes in a specific brain region, the hippocampus, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques.
Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, has written a book titled Geek Nation in which she makes a case for the rise of India as a scientific superpower despite the overwhelming influence of religion in the Indian society. I’d love to read the book. It will be published tomorrow, on March 3, 2011 in the UK; I don’t know when it’d be available in the US, but soon, I hope.
In the first part of this two part post inspired by science-journalist and author Angela Saini’s write-ups on the topic of science and superstition in India, I explained my views on the real problem plaguing science education in India. In this second part, I look more closely at Angela’s writings.
One of the more controversial themes in Geek Nation is the impact that the rise of science and technology is having on superstition and faith in India (which is, after all, said to be the most religious place in the world).
This happens to be an issue that has, frankly, troubled me for a long time. Angela offered a sorta-kinda justification in her post:
The ideas we’re instilled with as kids are far more difficult to abandon when we grow older than some rationalists would like to think they are. And of course I know lots of intelligent, rational people who cling to faith (and many more who read their horoscopes)… for many, it’s comforting and reassuring.
This immediately dredged up memories of my having grown up in India, images of people I have been around and situations I have been in: (a) the frequent practice of choosing an ‘auspicious’ time and place of a scientific convention (meeting, congress, conference) based on astrology or some other personally favorite superstition; (b) the invoking of gods and goddesses for blessings prior to the commencement of scientific symposia; © working scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, sporting on ten fingers ten rings set with precious or semi-precious stones, all designed either to curry favor with some astrological planet or star, or to ward off the evil influences thereof; (d) biochemists and molecular biologists devoutly praying for a favorable outcome of their PCR runs; … the list can go on and on. This regrettable behavior on part of scientists is the sign of a greater malaise: Irrationality of any kind leaves our minds open for further irrationality. For that very reason, merely because a superstition appears ‘comforting and reassuring’, that cannot/shouldn’t be reason enough for embracing it wholeheartedly.
I have listed my views on the topic. I am, unfortunately, not aware if Angela is a scientist by training or not (Her Blogger profile mentions her industry as ‘Communications or Media’). If she is not, it’d certainly be refreshing to get a perspective from a non-scientist on the strange, and strangely easy, coexistence of science and superstitions in India – all the more reason to wait eagerly for the book.
Pending the arrival of the book, I turned to the column that Angela has written for the New Humanist, titled the same as her blog post, “The god confusion”, in order to get a feel of what was to come in the book. It is well-written and insightful. Angela’s conversational style is a pleasure to read. She has explored the situation from a personal as well as historical perspective, noting past efforts at injecting rationality into the Indian societal mores. She has examined a couple of the reasons why the juxtaposition of science and superstition seems to have endured in the Indian psyche, such as high levels of adult illiteracy and the apparent fluidity of Hinduism (which is the predominant religion in India). She has questioned the foundations of a so-called spiritual resurgence among India’s urban or semi-urban, educated youth.
But there is also something oddly wrong and out of sync in her piece. It is almost as if the confusion she underscores in her article is not the confusion that the Indian people appear to face in having to choose between science and irrationality; it is rather a confusion that is her own, as if reflecting her own ambivalence about the relative place of science and religion in her life – perhaps borne out of the confusion of ideas from her childhood, the invisible-yet-present struggle between her unashamedly geeky, rational and skeptical father and horoscope-wielding mother (judging from her own words).
In odd places in Angela’s otherwise interesting account, a strange credulity, a desire to look at the Indian science situation through rose-tinted glasses, has shone through – evident in the facile ease with which she refuses to acknowledge what her inner rationalist says. When she passed by the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi, a sprawling religious edifice purportedly for showcasing “the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages”, the rationalist in Angela did note that “In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith”, and yet she is “impressed” by the motivations of the people who built the place. Is it really that hard to imagine how many poor, hungry people could have been fed and clothed, how many little girls given the light of education, how many endeavors – towards empowerment of women, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized – financed through the amount of money and/or effort spent on building an edifice that does nothing but look pretty and rehash some perennially ineffectual words?
Towards the end of the article, Angela also whimpers about how difficult it is to let go of religion in India. Don’t get me wrong. Her observation is astute when she notes:
In India that struggle is multiplied because the culture is so dominated by it. Beliefs are burned into the minds of children – Hindus often keep shrines at home, pray daily and have their fates decided by their horoscopes at birth. It’s common to appeal to the gods to guide you in your choices and to give you luck. Not only this, superstition and religion are big business: astrologers have their own television programmes (sic); homeopathic drugs and traditional medicines are sold in the millions; and fashionable gurus attract stadia full of fat-walleted worshippers. Ditching god isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by an infrastructure built on belief.
(It may be difficult, Angela, but it is not impossible. I have done it and freed myself from the shackles of religion. It is an unbelievably liberating feeling.)
However, it is important to understand that unless Indians grow up as a nation, unless the unholy reliance on faith and superstitions is burnt at the altar of reason and sanity (the religious imagery of this allegory seems oddly appropriate here!!), unless rationality and skepticism is made the mainstay of the basic education, including science education, the nation can never grow, prosper and thrive intellectually – no matter how ‘desperately religious’ modern, so-called educated Indians try to rationalize their transcendental bond with faith and superstitions, no matter how much they attempt to reconcile scientific facts with fundamentally incompatible religious stories.
But perhaps Angela’s problem – despite her obvious understanding of the crux of the situation – has a different root. She epitomizes it when she engages in a rather disappointing, spacious, strawman-beating statement in her blog post, where she says:
“Unlike some scientists and radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, I’m actually quite sympathetic to the emotional reasons behind religious belief.”
Yes, the sympathy. Angela’s article’s title The god confusion may possibly be a play on Dawkins’ The god delusion, but the former ain’t nothing like the latter. Nowhere has Richard indicated that he is not sympathetic to the emotions associated with religious belief in people; in fact, in The God Delusion, he has dedicated chapter after chapter towards understanding the basis of religious belief, of faith.
But Angela’s ‘sympathy’ towards the faithful – likely stemming from her own internal confusion – seems to have effectively blinded her towards the fact that rational atheists object to the religious beliefs, myths and superstitions per se, and not to the individuals holding those beliefs – until and unless those beliefs lead to harm and injury to others (and they do; there is enough evidence of that in the real world – but that’s a topic for another day).
This week’s Scientia Pro Publica blog Carnival has a host of very interesting blogposts. I invite you all to check them out; I did, and even commented on some of them.
One particular post, by
Pamela Priscilla Stuckey, PhD, a theologist and professor of humanities, deals with an age old debate —who exerts control over the natural world— and she asserts that it is in the natural world that science and religion come to co-exist in harmony.