Worldview of Indian Scientists

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The 2008 result of a web survey on the World-view and opinions of Indian
scientists is available online now [1].

There were 1,100 participant scientists from 130 universities and research institutes. The maximum number of participants was from IIT Kanpur (58). I was one of the participants from IIT Madras (51).

The survey was conducted by Profs. Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism [2] in Society and Culture, Trinity College, Connecticut, USA, in Cooperation with the Center for Inquiry India, Chairman, Dr. N. Innaiah.

Some of the interesting results and my associated opinions follow.

Fifty five percent answered personal interest and curiosity when asked to cite the main reason that led them to become a scientist, with only 2 percent citing social status, international contact, financial reward.

Many a times in the past twenty years, only this personal interest and curiosity has carried me through to become and remain an academic. It usually over-rides the lack of commensurate financial rewards. Usually.

While in general, scientists feel they are well respected in India, they also think Scientific Temper doesn’t prevail in majority. For the question “To what extent do you think that India today is fulfilling its constitutional duty “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform?” (Article 51Ah), most of us have answered in the negative.

While it is perhaps an obvious result, what we could do to change this lack, is an open question. The situation could easily result in a chicken egg situation: To develop scientific temper we need more scientists; so we need more scientific temper (among the next generation). The question of why is innate in humans. Only while seeking the answer, we choose to do it with or without scientific temper. I think we should make it obvious to the public through accessible mediums that scientific temper is not restricted to, although a must for, scientists among us. It can be practiced by everyone (including our honorable politicians).

Seventy five percent believe that the current under-representation of women in the sciences is due to nurture, that is, to culture influence and learning, rather than nature, i.e., biological and genetic reasons.

I wonder what we are going to do to change this under-representation of women in sciences, in a country that is rich in “culture”.

Majority of the scientists endorse the theory of evolution (88 percent “definitely” or “probably”).

What say, Amrika [3]?

Two-thirds of scientists have no problem with the issue of researching with cows and pigs.

That opinion by scientists from a country depicted as one that treats cows as holy is interesting.

A majority have refused to work on designing biological (64 percent) and nuclear weapons (54 percent) based on their “moral or religious beliefs”. In the same context, only 29 percent will refuse to work in human cloning and only 8 percent in stem cell research. A majority (66 percent) don’t mind working in projects that could lead to chemical pollution.

There are some disturbing things in this for me. Why only 64 and 54 percent refused to work in designing weapons? Why not 100 percent? Likewise, a majority of the scientists don’t feel bothered about possible chemical pollution their work could generate?

How many of those 29 percent who refused to work on human cloning are scientists working in life sciences? If it is a majority, then the result throws a different conclusion.

Indian scientists are equally divided (about fifty fifty on either side) in the efficacy of homeopathy and prayer. The rest of the “traditional methods” got a sound negative opinion (whew).

I answered in negative for the efficacy of homeopathy and prayer [see reference 4].

In a similar context as above, 90 percent of the Indian scientists “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of university degree courses in Ayurvedic medicine. And 44 percent approve “Vedic Astrology” courses.

I approved the former and didn’t the later. I think there is enough research content and societal benefits in exploring about the possible medicinal values of traditional and regional plants and herbs and associated medical treatments. At least these “ayurvedic” treatments are testable (i.e. whether they work or not on patients). But I think the “predictions” from Vedic Astrology doesn’t have this credibility.

Public secularism means, for a majority (93 percent), tolerance to various religions and philosophies.

I answered in the next 83 percent view, that public secularism means keeping religion and state/government separate (according to our constitution). The public secularism result is not surprising because that (tolerance to other religion and philosophies is secularism) is what we hear from our teachers in schools.

A majority (59 percent) of scientists have proclaimed themselves as secularists. There is also a group of 22 percent who are either religious or “somewhat religious”.

This has an interesting twist when it comes to what it means by personal secularism (as against public secularism mentioned in the previous item) for them.

Personal secularism meant for a majority of the Indian scientists “as meaning the absence (in them) of religious affiliation”.

I am in the minority (20 percent) that conceives personal secularism “as meaning atheism” but claimed myself as a secularist. The 59 percent comprises of a mix of the 20 percent atheists and more from the majority who don’t have religious affiliation. But this doesn’t add up then correctly because it would mean perhaps more than 59 percent are secularists.

In 2005 space scientists went to Tirupati [5] to seek the blessing of Lord Venkateswara before launching the rocket and satellite. Do you approve or disapprove of the action? For this interesting question the scientist are split. About 45 percent each have, in general, either disapproved or approved this action.

I disapproved. But the result itself is in expected lines, as we had a similar split while (dis)approving the efficacy of prayer in an earlier question. This shows perhaps Indian scientists in toto are consistent.

Even this time [6] before the launch of PSLV in April 2008, the Lord’s blessing were sought (and given [7]?).

While we are in this context, one fourth are firm believers of God while another one fourth are either atheist or agnostic. The rest are somewhere in between.

Given the choices in the questionnaire, I think this situation is fine. Answering whether there is God is an ongoing question that takes input forever until we die and all conclusions are temporary. The next time around the survey would perhaps yield similar proportions, with only the personnel switching their positions.

Forty four percent of the scientists were willing to criticize and confront religions where they think they contradict accepted scientific theories. A sizable minority (23 percent) is opposed to this.

There is an interesting 33 percent of us who say we should confront “sometimes”. I wonder what this mean. Sometimes when the religion is not practiced by me? Or sometimes when the confrontation doesn’t land me in trouble like losing my job or community recognition or having to confront with religious fanatics? I presume many from this 33 percent could sway to the criticizing side if it is made clear that they needn’t have to face obstacles like the ones I mentioned above. But that is not possible in a democracy like ours.

Anyway, isn’t India already a scientific superpower [8]?

More than a quarter (thirty percent) of us believe in karma but only six percent believe in caste system.

I think the social circumstances and present surroundings have made an influence in the fall out in the caste system. But society and circumstances do not force an immediate change of personal beliefs like the concept of karma. They would survive in such proportions even in the future.

A majority consider themselves as spiritual but this needs to be interpreted carefully.

In an accompanied question spirituality itself means different things for the scientists. A majority (more than 50 percent) think that spirituality either means commitment to peace, harmony etc. or higher level of human consciousness. If these were the ones who think they are spiritual, then it is very noble of them to feel this way. I ticked spirituality means “contact with forces or entities that exist beyond nature” and in that sense, I am not spiritual.

In the eyes of scientists (in a pool that includes women, government officials), politicians fare last in scientific literacy.

But of course.

The survey investigators promise to update their online database and results in the future. It is worth watching over a generation.

References

[1] Link to pdf file size ~ 1.9 MB

[2] http://www.trincoll.edu/secu larisminstitute

[3] Americans don’t believe in evolution? http:// www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/08/well_at_least_w.html

[4] Prayer doesn’t heal, for instance. At least a recent controlled study suggests so. Read also a related blog post at Rhosgobel. The complete reference for the related journal article is: H Benson, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, and Hibberd PL. 2006. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934-942 [Link to abstract]. Thanks to Niket for the original link.

[5] Read this http://www.thehindu.com/2005/05/04/stories/2005050404361500.htm and this http://india-unleashed.blogspot.com/2005/05/space-science-in-lords-hands.html

[6] Read the story here and here

[7] Press release from ISRO: http://www.isro.org/pressrelease/April28_2008.htm

[8] Frontline magazine article http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/fline/fl2219/stories/20050923002109200.htm