Dividing Lines: Science and responsibility

One of the most fascinating things about science is that it can no longer be seen as the thing under a lens. In fact, science today is like a theatre, a drama played out at many levels. There is innocence, a methodological naiveté, an arrogance about scientists. At one level, one is reminded of John Ziman’s statement that scientist knows as much about science as a fish about hydrodynamics. This does not mean he cannot swim, but when the waters get muddy, the scientist feels lost. One is reminded of C.V. Raman muttering “I would rather study one more property of a diamond rather than worry about its industrial uses”. Yet, science at the everyday level has been acute in its wisdom, a wisdom not captured in the formal methods but present in acts of storytelling. I am reminded in particular of two stories.

The first was told by Loren Eisely, the anthropologist. He talked of a scientist who had spent most of his career at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb. Now a retired man, he is walking quietly in a forest. He spies a little tortoise, picks it up and says: “this will make a wonderful gift for my grandchildren. He then stops, puts the animal down, nodding wistfully saying ‘I have interfered enough with nature for a lifetime.’”
The other story is about two men boating in Dalma Lake, in Jamshedpur. One of them is my father, a metallurgist and he was talking intensely to an old man listening intently. The later was another hero, Desmond Bernal. My father tells him of the Tata Company plan to coat the lake with a chemical to restrict evaporation. Bernal listens quietly and then exclaims. “Never think you can outthink nature. It will always outwit you”.

There is a crisis in science today and it is not merely about its implications in defence, nuclear energy and chemical warfare. Science for all its institution power has questioned itself creating a different view of its axioms. It no longer sees certainty as axiomatic and value neutrality as iconic. Science realises it is a muddy system, complex in its intentions and consequences.

Indian scientists suffer a sense of isolation. Their leaders feel misunderstood and often tend to lash out at the public treating the public as a form of obstruction. Science as truth claims to be confronting social movements, dissenting groups and science journalists many of whom seem sceptical about its claims. However, by creating such dualism, scientists, especially in India are showing their naiveté both about science and democracy. These are major themes that haunt science in its confrontation with democracy which we must frame more systematically.

Firstly, one has to recognise that nature can no longer be confined as an object of analysis subject to representation by science. Nature has to be represented in other ways. The social contract of modernity allowed science to interpret nature and subjugate it. The recent crisis of agriculture, climate change, forestry demands that nature be part of the new social contract. The Western idea of rights did not recognise nature as a person.

The work of Michel Serres, the French philosopher, the ideas of ecological radicals, the conversation between cosmologies now suggest that nature needs representation, not just as a commodity but as a voice, a theory. This is not just a totemic idea of affinity between man and species. This goes beyond fragmentary affirmations to give nature, as a coral reef, the last lizard, a bullfrog representation in the legal and cognitive sense. Apart from recognising nature as a value, one looks at context. Western writers often write of forest as a wilderness as devoid of people. In India, nature is livelihood, a commons, a source of knowledge, skills and medicines. Representing nature also means representing the tribals that live in nature. No idea of sustainability can ignore this fact. Thirdly we have to represent nature not just in a social sense.

Social contracts have been bounded, limited to distinct territories. Nature is planetary and cosmic and one has to think of carbon and hydrological cycles. The Indian Constitution should be amongst the first to allow nature voice and representation such an act too is a promotion of scientific temper as an act of social responsibility.

One has to realise that sustainability is not just a technological act of cleaning or an improving efficiency. Sustainability challenges science as a Promethean self. It redefines relationships and sustainability includes both nature and things. It is in such a frame that we can use Bruno Latour’s idea of parliament of things. The tools, the inventions around us not only have use, but they are symbolic. In this way it is not the market alone that decides when can an object be obsolescent. The life cycle of products need representation. When one looks at a can of beans and realises it travels over 40,000 energy miles before it reaches a breakfast table one senses a new territoriality to a simple object. It lets society link an ethics of memory to an ethics of invention.

Also, our sense of responsibility needs methods as processes of monitoring, as rules for watchfulness. We often confuse audits and responsibility. Audits reveal accounts but accounting is only a fragment of responsibility. It still needs motions of caring, ethics. Imagine if we read the Ganga in this context. The Ganga is sacred. Cleaning up the Ganga demands more than a battle against pollution. It demands we examine the link between life and livelihood. Domes determine the rituals of death or can we institute an electric crematorium? Is the Ganga a commons or do we refuse some forms of livelihood entry? Can we commoditise water in India or do forms like water remain beyond the market? These are questions the new parliaments of nature and technology must determine. Merely leaving it to law dulls possibilities. The question is how far has Indian science the courage to travel inventing new forms of ecology, responsibility and democracy.



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