Teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s campaign urging the world to “listen to the scientists” to save the planet and the appeals from scientists to “save science from sabotage” by the US President Donald Trump have dramatically foregrounded the public role science could play in society.

In many parts of the world, the raging Covid-19 pandemic has created a new collaborative urgency to manage disease control: scientists have been working with social scientists, public health officials and politicians.

In some places, there has been an attempt to establish a new social contract by recognising the substantive advisory role of specialists. When this proceeded with transparency, open communication and public acknowledgement of the limitations of the data or changing knowledge of the virus, there has been greater public trust and better compliance with scientific advice.

In India, though, this has not happened. The country has witnessed an endorsement of pseudoscience. It has also seen confused official pronouncements about the Covid-19 curve “flattening without ever peaking” and that it would dive to zero in May despite a surge.

Coincidently, a little before the necessity of scientific opinion came to dominate global headlines, India prepared a new draft policy on “scientific social responsibility” seeking to develop linkages between science and society. Though it declared that scientific social responsibility should be a two-way engagement between science and society, it actually posits a one-way model: it urges every “knowledge worker” to be responsible for “transmission of scientific knowledge to society” for at least 10 person-days per year.

This directive is for people working in national and state laboratories, and public and private institutions of higher learning and research.

The policy aims to “infuse scientific temperament”, which it describes as “an approach to human and social existence that rejects dogma or assertion that contradicts empirical evidence or lacks a scientific basis, that habitually questions everything, that privileges logic and rationality, and is consistently self-critical”.

It does not qualify the use of “temperament” instead of temper, or how it can be infused. But as per the Constitution, it is the fundamental duty of every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

Of course, the idea of inculcating “scientific temper” is not new. In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru invoked the “temper of science” almost as a meta concept – in the realm beyond reason and the application of science.

“There appears to be a definite stopping place beyond which reason ... cannot go,” he wrote in Discovery of India. “Realising these limitations of reason and scientific method, we have still to hold on to them with all our strength.”

Nehru elaborated:

 “The applications of science are inevitable and unavoidable...But something more than its application is necessary. It is the scientific approach, the adventurous yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, 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 pre-conceived theory...[This] should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen...It is the temper of a free man. We live in the scientific age, so we are told, but there is little evidence of this temper in the people anywhere or even in their leaders.”

Samarendra Kumar Mitra demonstrating India's first indigenous computer to Jawaharlal Nehru at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, around 1953. Credit: AlokeKumarBose, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Science and philosophy

However, the term scientific temper has tended to be used in a limited sense, as being able to think rationally and scientifically or to not subscribe to pseudoscience or superstition. Its relationship with humanism is not fully explored. Nehru’s humanistic search was grounded in trying to understand the purposes of life, and being informed by the limitations of science, in the destruction wreaked by war or the exploitation of nature.

He reflected on how philosophy and science both used reason and logic, but in different ways. Philosophy encouraged inquiry and concentrated on questions of ultimate purposes of life, but from its “ivory towers of the mind” it failed to connect with fact and life’s everyday problems.

On the other hand, “science ignored the ultimate purposes and looked at fact alone.”

Nehru explained:

 “There was no knowledge of ultimate purposes and not even an understanding of the immediate purpose, for science has told us nothing about any purpose in life. Nor did man, so powerful in his control of nature, have the power to control himself, and the monster he had created ran amok. Perhaps new developments in biology, psychology and similar sciences... may help man to understand and control himself...[or else] man may destroy the civilisation he has built.”

Historian David Arnold argues that a philosophical understanding of the temper of science was important for Nehru in various ways. He attempted to free science in the non-Western world from Western hegemony, while maintaining a moral political authority to critique its limitations. He saw that scientific progress “encouraged constructive dialogue with other fields of speculation and inquiry – from history and philosophy to psychology and psychoanalysis – each of which might challenge scientific orthodoxy or present its own complementary understanding of the world.”

Humanist vs scientific temper

In 1981, a sharp debate had followed after some leading scientists issued a Statement on Scientific Temper. The document had focused too narrowly on the scientific method prompting sociologists to issue a Counter Statement on the Humanist Temper. They said that Nehru had been selectively quoted by the scientists and his critique of science ignored.

They showed that claims of the achievements of modern science, such as the eradication of epidemics or famines, ignored the role of social welfare and changes in social and political structures. Their critique also pointed to the high social costs of the “superstitions” that science had created –
such as social eugenics, IQ tests (tied to racial and gender bias about white male superiority) that continue to eliminate millions of children from schools, the unnecessary use of drugs and surgeries, the myth of security promoted by the military-industrial nexus and more.

In fact , Nehru had underscored that the scientific method itself is not applicable “in much that is vital to life – the sensitiveness to art and poetry, the emotion that beauty produces, the inner recognition of goodness”.

As he noted, “The botanist and zoologist may never experience the charm and beauty of nature; the sociologist many be wholly lacking in love for humanity. But even when we go to the regions beyond the reach of scientific method and visit the mountain tops where philosophy dwells, and high emotions fill us, or gaze at the immensity beyond, the approach and temper are still necessary.”

Open and reflexive Science

Nehru’s thoughts seem prescient as they resonate with the immediate concerns of the pandemic, while reminding us of the early traditions of shared knowledge through inquiry, scepticism and argumentation. Scientists today demand a reflexive transformation in humanity’s relationship with nature, pushing us towards deadlier pandemics and even greater impending crises. Unlike the often secretive and competitive procedures of conducting research, during the pandemic, scientists have been using unprecedented mechanisms to share data and build solidarities in the “knowledge commons” across national borders.

Nehru had emphasised the need to win peace with ourselves and the environment. He felt that the “real temper of science” had not yet been developed even in the West, where science had a dominant position.

“In India in many obvious ways we have a greater distance to travel, and yet there may be fewer major obstructions on our way, for the essential basis of Indian thought for ages past, though not its later manifestations, fit in with the scientific temper and approach, as well as with internationalism,” he wrote. “It is based on a fearless search for truth, on the solidarity of men, even on the divinity of everything living, and on the free and cooperative development of the individual and the species, ever to greater freedom and higher stages of human growth.”

Significantly, Nehru had pointed to the tentativeness of knowledge, which was not absolute, since truth as perceived through the limitations of the human mind “has ever to be sought and renewed, reshaped and developed”.

This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource for Indian arts, culture, heritage and history.

Professor Anita Rampal was the Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University. She is a joint coordinator of a project on Education for Sustainable Development, was a Nehru Fellow, and Chairperson of the NCERT Primary Textbook Development Teams. She works in the areas of policy analysis, curriculum studies and science-technology-society studies.