Science at the grass roots

January 18, 2012


IN an article ‘Neutrinos and Angels’ he wrote for a national daily, Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan’s leading scientists, quotes the late Carl Sagan, America’s well-known astronomer, astrophysicist, and science communicator.

Sagan told Bible Belt Americans: “Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonise about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.”

These habits of thought Dr Hoodbhoy describes as the “cancerous growth of claptrap masquerading as science”. He further advises Pakistanis “to listen again, and yet again to” Sagan. How right he is.

I would, however, add that we should also draw some lessons from social scientists — Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan comes to mind immediately — who go a step further to analyse the basic causes of such evils and suggest feasible solutions. This is important because to root out superstitions and this ‘claptrap’ one must eliminate the factors that are creating the conditions in which they thrive.

Why do the likes of our televangelists with their bizarre pontifications on science and religion find popular acceptance in our society? The fact is that a socio-economic environment has been created in the country, courtesy the concerted and organised efforts of the right-wing religious parties that operate in a very organised manner at all levels, especially in educational institutions and the mosques.

Take education, the first safeguard against fanaticism and irrationality. It has been neglected woefully by all governments leaving the field open to the right to indoctrinate the masses and manipulate public thinking.

The biggest tragedy has been our failure to address primary education in the public sector. In fact most of our problems can be traced to this failure. It is what is drilled into a child’s head at a young age that determines his mindset as an adult. If a science culture had been created in our schools, things would have been different. Show a child the germination of a seed or let him toy around with the tuning fork and his curiosity will compel him to seek answers to the questions that crowd his mind.

If there are schools which take education seriously and understand the importance of teaching science correctly, they are in a minuscule minority. Beside their high fees make them beyond the reach of the majority. Then can we really hold the people responsible for their lack of education and for falling into the trap of the pseudo scientists? I would not blame Shan, a teenager from a katchi abadi, for telling me that we do not fall off the earth which is rotating because “Allah wills it so”. That is science for him. But after I talked to him about the law of gravity in simple language that he could understand, he was so fascinated that he wanted to know more. And Shan is only one of the 60 per cent of our population that subsists on less than two dollars a day.

With the rot going so deep, what corrective measures can be taken now? Several generations of teachers are products of a system that promotes rote learning in students and is afraid to teach them to think critically. They have never outgrown the naivety so cultivated. The religious parties aspiring for power, the preachers posing as fake scientists and the media vying for cheap popularity and ads have exploited the ignorance of the masses.

A number of students who have entered universities and professional colleges think no differently. As adults armed with a little knowledge (that has proverbially been pronounced a dangerous thing), they pose a threat to rational thinking as well as to peace and stability. A lot of violence can be traced to them.

Mercifully, the majority that does not go to universities generally abjures physical force. At the most it seeks relief in rituals and amulets as a panacea for the evils that plague our society. If in the process people manage to achieve their desired goal — even if by pure coincidence — it is enough to reinforce their faith in their strategy. Who can deny that the poor are overwhelmed with crises demanding corrective measures such as disease, joblessness, hunger and oppression by the powerful? Since the state does not help, they seek their own remedies.

The fact is that the majority of our people have no control over their own lives. The state does not offer its citizen facilities for good education for his children, healthcare for his family, protection from criminals, social justice and economic security. Poverty denies a person the luxury of choice.

The solution lies in promoting mass education that actually reaches the people at the grassroots. It would also help if the secular-liberals would participate in this process to neutralise the claptrap of the right. Focused informal interventions in schools could help create a culture of science. For this the help of the teachers will be needed.

The non-governmental sector is now trying to do just that. Every school system worth its salt has a teachers’ training centre attached. Some guidance from the scientists should help. They could show teachers how to popularise science in schools. It would also be an interesting experiment to have scientists themselves visiting schools — where the children of the common man study — to talk to them about the wonders of science.