A physician friend alerted me the other day about a strange new official proclamation from the Government of India (GoI). With a long history of uncritical friendliness (as well as State-sponsorship) towards various alternative medicine modalities, GoI —specifically, the ministry in charge of altmed, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha & Homeopathy) in this case— announced that a “high level committee” has been set up to “deal with issues” related to “false propaganda against homeopathy”.
Every year on March 24, World Tuberculosis (TB) Day is observed to commemorate the discovery of the etiological agent of this disease, the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis by noted German physician and microbiologist and Nobel Laureate, Robert Koch (1843-1910). The infection occurs via inhalation of the air-borne bug; therefore, the disease primarily affects the lungs, but it can spread to other parts of body as well, such as the central nervous system (brain and spinal chord), bone, and internal organs. If adequate treatment is not instituted (and sometimes despite therapy), a person with active TB disease will likely die. In the United States, in 2010 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available), of the nearly nine hundred deaths in which TB was suspected, TB was confirmed in roughly 4 out of 10 cases, and a total of 569 people died from TB. Globally, in 2012, an estimated 8.6 million people contracted TB, of which 1.3 million died.
Hello there! Did y’all miss me?
Belatedly, to whomever is reading this post, I wish a happy and healthy 2013, hopefully filled with peace, reason and sanity. The inestimable Khalil, our kind and ever-watchful community manager, asked after my health today, and it made me realize that I have been sorta kinda neglecting Scilogs for a while. Not that there is a great deal of interest evinced in whatever I write anyway, but blogging about science-related stuff at Scilogs is one of my more pleasurable activities. But of late, I have been languishing in a modicum of funk, and haven’t been able to find any lasting interest in professional topics. There is a reason for that, though. Allow me to explain.
My science-related interests are blogged at Scilogs (formerly, the Nature Network blogs), but I have another blog, a personal one, in which from time to time I write about things that flit through my mind – about life, society, people and stuff. I have used that blog to express my anguish about certain things happening in real life around me. Very few people actually read that blog, too (which is perhaps a testament to a certain lack of writing abilities in me), but it has given me a channel to vent.
And since the beginning of December last year, there has been a lot to vent about, and consequently, I have been writing in that blog of mine – in preference to Scilogs. Those who have followed events of recent past in India would perhaps know what I am talking about. I have been outside India for 11 years now, living and working in the US. But that has not diminished the emotional ties that I have with the country of my birth, my growing up and my education, the country where I still have family and countless friends. That is the reason why incidents happening in India still affect me, deeply.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not some sensitive flower wilting at the mere mention of unpleasantness. I have been known to be severely critical of, but otherwise unfazed by, the religion-inspired idiocy that goes around in much of India’s public spheres. I have been surprised, shocked, devastated at news of terrorist attacks or natural disasters, fearing for the safety of my family, friends and their families and friends. I have been deeply concerned about the state of science and education, and the current economic crisis in that country. But very few events of any magnitude have affected me at a visceral level, as did the spate of news from India about continuous – and unrelenting – occurrence of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women in contemporary India.
The Indian society is mired in patriarchal traditions and customs, which are ably bolstered by religions of various hues. One may be hard put to find any particular custom which doesn’t have the sanction of a corresponding religious tradition. All the spheres of societal life are intricately associated with religion. Which is perhaps why, on any matter of local, social or national importance, religious leaders, as well as self-appointed guardians of public morality – who often fall back upon quasi-religious justifications for their actions – feel impelled to comment publicly, and their utterances are faithfully lapped up by their followers.
The problem is that in this patriarchal society and its customs/traditions, the scourge of misogyny is deeply entrenched. And the putrid stench of that often permeates all aspects of society, including legislature and judiciary. Therefore, rape laws are antiquated and ineffective; victims are treated inhumanly and unfairly; even in case of apprehension of the culprit(s), the legal processes drag on, sometimes for decades, often resulting in utter humiliation of the victims – and justice is often denied in the end on some ground or the other. The worst of all – and the religious and social leaders are often complicit in this – the victims are almost always blamed for their own terrible calamities. The sheer ludicrousness of some of the victim-blaming statements that these uncouth people have spewed forth is mindboggling, and would have been funny, if they were not associated with a heinous crime. I have been writing and commenting upon these aspects in the other blog.
One silver lining of a very dark cloud has been the fact that aided by the internet, particularly social media tools, the citizens of India, especially the youth, have decided not to remain silent this time. Outrage has poured in, demonstrations have been organized, demands have been made of the government for swift and decisive action. I don’t know if anything will eventually come out of it, though. Nothing ever does, really. These incidents mostly would remain within public memory, flicker after a while, and go out, returning to status quo – except for those who have faced them personally.
Sexual violence against women has become this country’s collective shame. Delhi, the city close to my heart – where I studied for my Master’s degree and worked towards my PhD – has been dubbed the ‘rape capital’ of India. Unsavory as it is, the epithet seems le mot juste, since even while all this outrage is going on, rape incidents – including cruel and inhuman gang rapes – continue unabated in Delhi, in other North Indian states, and also elsewhere in the country. Even children, little girls, were not spared.
All these things have been bearing upon my mind rather heavily. I am a scientist, and science, to me, is a way of life; but these incidents and their repercussions have made me realize that I am a human being, too – mostly filled with impotent rage and frustration. I hope you’d bear with me for a little while longer. I hope to return to a more equanimitous frame of mind, and re-initiate my science-blogging.
See you soon, and take care. Ciao!
Yes. Yes!! Oh, yes! — This was my reaction while reading a commentary in April 12’s Nature. In a policy commentary article titled Bold strategies for Indian Science (Nature 484, 159-160;12 April 2012), Gautam Desiraju, a professor of Chemistry in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the current president of the International Union of Crystallography, held forth forcefully on what he thought were the bottlenecks that seem to be holding back the progress of Indian science. I found much to agree with.
In the past several days, the world was waiting agog for the news: is it there or is it not? As the Honorable Beeb reported:
The most coveted prize in particle physics—the Higgs boson—may have been glimpsed, say researchers reporting at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva; Scientists say that two experiments at the LHC see hints of the Higgs at the same mass, fueling huge excitement. But the LHC does not yet have enough data to claim a discovery.
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).