On Friday, after unusually intense rainfall caused Kerala to be inundated by worst floods it had experienced in a century, a tweet by newly appointed Reserve Bank of India board member S Gurumurthy sparked horror. The co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch suggested that the disaster may have been a manifestation of the anger of the god Ayyappan because some women have filed a case in the Supreme Court demanding that they too be allowed into the state’s Sabarimala shrine, which bars the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50.

Gurumurthy’s statement isn’t an anomaly. Over the last month, the media has reported cases that demonstrate how the absence of a scientific person can literally be deadly. In Kerala’s Idukki, a man killed four members of his family in an attempt to gain divine powers. In Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, a couple in Uttar Pradesh killed their six-year-old daughter who had rickets after a self-claimed godman said that this would ensure that their next child would be healthy. In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur, a woman died in childbirth because her husband did not trust doctors and decided to deliver their baby himself, following YouTube videos.

This is exactly the attitude that Narendra Dabholkar fought against. The founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti or Maharashtra Blind faith Eradication Committee, Dabholkar worked tirelessly to attempt to spread a scientific temper and the ideas of rationalism. For his efforts, he was assassinated on August 20, 2013, by assailants who are yet to be caught. To carry his ideas forward, the All India Peoples Science Network, a network of over 40 Peoples Science Movements, has declared August 20 as the National Scientific Temper Day. Dabholkar’s understanding of scientific temper was insightful: “As much belief as there is evidence for.”

Constitutional duty

As it turns out, this is something the Constitution requires every Indian to do. Says Article 51A(h), “It shall be the duty of every citizen ... to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” The term “scientific temper” is uniquely Indian. It was formulated by Jawaharlal Nehru. In his book The Discovery of India, he says that scientific temper is “... the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory”. Since Independence, many rationalist societies and Peoples Science Movements have been formed around India to promote interest in science and scientific temper.

Science and scientific temper are not synonymous. Scientific temper is a way of thinking critically and rationally, the ability to question what is told to us, and not be satisfied with an answer just because it is uttered by or with authority. Scientific temper is something that all of us possess and is as much a social and political tool as it is a scientific one. It is, as Nehru said, “... the spirit of the free man”.

Our education system teaches us that science is a collection of facts that have been proclaimed by scientists. In reality, it is a systematised method of investigating the material world through observation, experimentation, hypothesis and verification. Science assumes that all phenomena are natural rather than supernatural, that these operate by rules that humans have the ability to uncover. More and more areas of knowledge, traditionally deemed not knowable, have yielded their secrets to the method of science. Scientific temper is about applying similar methods of questioning, and of rational enquiry in our everyday lives.

‘Nothing is infallible’

Inculcating a scientific temper among citizens is a part of democratisation of society. Social reformers from Socrates, Buddha, and Lokayatas in ancient times to the rationalist movement led by Periyar in modern times have used scientific temper to effect social change. As BR Ambedkar says in his work Buddha or Karl Marx, “Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination.”

Ironically, in recent times, some Indians have developed a distrust in science even as they believe everything they read on social media. They blindly forward messages that claim that lemon juice cures cancer or that the Sun will disappear for a day. Worse, recent years have seen government officials mixing up literature with fact. As an All India Peoples Science Network statement issued in June says, “Pseudo-histories and anti-scientific views are being incorporated into school curricula and college/university teaching. So-called ‘research’ to ‘prove’ pseudo-scientific claims in both the sciences and social sciences are being officially funded by government.”

Scientific temper teaches us how to question, but the freedom to question is equally crucial. The statement goes on to say, “The aggressive anti-science and anti-rational atmosphere whipped up by obscurantist forces with official support has generated a climate of intimidation and even violence in an attempt to suppress a scientific outlook and critical thinking in our educational and intellectual institutions.”

On National Scientific Temper Day, perhaps we Indians will take the opportunity to question these attitudes as we ponder the theme set for the event: “Ask Why.”

For a list of events around the country on National Scientific Temper Day, click here.

Niruj Mohan Ramanujam is an astronomer and a member of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum.