Why we need a science column

There is no shortage of science news but there is little as a framework to explain it or locate it. There is no paucity of scientific information. Our information is rarely located within wider paradigms of knowledge. In fact, the very talk of the information revolution hides the fact that a lot of science is today secret, lost in the labyrinth of the military-industrial complex. Sadly, the debates, the controversies around science are hardly cited today and when the popular mind thinks of controversy, it goes back to Galileo and Darwin, because there is little sense of choice on alternatives. A lot of biography is sheer hagiography and it conveys little of the everydayness of science. In fact, in an odd way, despite the development of science journalism and the success of science studies, science is haunted by a failure of storytelling, where information marginalises meaning. The very unreflective tone of science and the failure of the democratic imagination demand that we open up the black box called science. This column is directed to that debate.

Years ago, journalist Robert Park who later went to establish The legendary Chicago School of Sociology reputed for its understanding of crime in the city, described sociology as the Big News. “Big” to Park was not about sensationalism, and news was not about scandal. “Big” was a question of implication, a different sense of language and storytelling. If science is to become the big news in India, it needs better reporting, more textured interpretation and a deeper sense of critical enquiry. One cannot take experts for granted or policy as inevitable. One has to see science not as ideology or table manners but as a tentative, hypothetical, experimental exercise. There is a necessity for us to be open-ended about science for science to remain scientific.

Such an ecology of critical enquiry has been a part of the democratic tradition. Oddly, Indian democracy, at least civil society and the social movements, have tenaciously debated science. The debates around Bhopal, the Emergency, which was seen as a scientific experiment, the genetic revolution and the BT cotton and mustard debates, the paradoxes of the Green Revolution are monuments to this consciousness. But this has not been enough as these often demonstrated the contempt of the expert for any lay revolt or doubt about science. Yet there is a stark illiteracy about ethics in science. Ideas about ethics focus more on honesty but display little reflections about risk, complexity or security.

Dissenting imaginations like those of renowned scientist Amulya K.N. Reddy, C.V. Seshadri have not been too welcome in science. In fact, the irony is that while science is hailed as public knowledge, articulate doubt hardly enters the public domain of science.

Science news need not necessarily be a fifth column that the security establishment suspects it to inevitability be. Such a column need not be only about an apocalyptic science. It could and should capture a sense of play and the inherent diversity of science. Secondly, scientists should portray science as a pluralist enterprise. The myths of science often emphasise of a world of fang and claw, but one needs to talk of cooperation, diversity and explore their implications for science as a cognitive system as Alfred Wallace, J.B.S. Haldane, Patrick Geddes and Peter Kropotkin did. Science has multiple genealogies which we need to invoke and understand. It is in this context that the historian of science Thomas Kuhn had hinted that a text raises alternatives in a way a textbook cannot. A textbook can even rewrite history to align the past to the present. But dissent, doubt and diversity are also built in thought and one needs the right kind of history to highlight them.

I remember there were and are rationalist groups in science determined to decimate superstition. Yet, few examined the relation between inquisition and science, or dared to question the so-called opposition between science and religion, which might have been restricted to the battle between Catholicism and science.

Few dare to say that what we call Western science is an Arabic creation — that if the Arabs had not translated Greek texts and annotated, there would be little of this West today. One has to re-examine the myth of the value neutrality of science which Arthur Koestler called the great myth of the 20th century.

The dialogues of science and religion is an encounter that has to be replayed and enacted so that we capture the new experiments that the Dalai Lama and French monk Matthieu Ricard, who holds a PhD in molecular biology, are creating between Buddhism and modern science.

Some of the annals of this debate need to be retold. One of them is the encounter between Matthieu Ricard and his father Jean-François Revel, the philosopher. Ricard was a promising biologist working with Nobel Laureate François Jacob. The day he finished his thesis, Ricard decided to become a Buddhist monk. Ricard’s father, the famous French philosopher, Jean-François Revel, questioned the decision. The Monk and the Philosopher, a record of those conversations, requires a broader audience in India.

One has to emphasise that the science column is not a mere act of reportage. It has to be seen as something more creative. I remember literary criticism lost its umbilical tie to literature when Bakhtin, Jacobsen and Barthes transformed the subject.

Similarly, science studies today go beyond an ideological validation of science. As a discipline, it is autonomous. The dynamics of knowledge systems is a story societies have to understand and reflect on. In a small way, the science column contributes to that greater enterprise. At moments of crisis, during moments of controversy, where choices have to be clarified, the nature of complexity summons the storyteller, the ethicist and the philosopher become critical to the understanding of science.

The science column stands at the confluence of three great efforts. It is a modest way for understanding an immodest subject. But more than that it is a constant effort to keep the public mind and public space open to the claims of science. By listening and by reporting it creates a reciprocal flow between two great inventions — science and democracy. This might be the beginning of an experiment between the two great institutions of the 21st century.

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