Sunday, June 27, 2010

Is science education promoting scientific temper?

The following keynote address was delivered by me at the inaugural session of the Ninth All Karnataka Science Congress organized by the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat at Bidar, Karnataka on 3rd August 2007.  In view of the undiminished relevance and ever increasing importance of the issue I am reproducing the address in its entirety here.


I am dedicating this address to Dr H Narasimhaiah, founder-president of the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat (KRVP), who strived all his life for the development of a scientific temper in all people and at all levels, primarily though the medium of education.  He knew that he was fighting a losing battle against irrational beliefs and practices, ignorance, superstition, dogma and vested interests, but never wavered in his principles and determination.  We all miss him very much today.

I have a few things in common with Dr HN, including a humble origin and a research guide, Professor M L Pool, in the Physics department of the Ohio State University in the USA.  However, unlike Dr HN, my attachment to Prof Pool was for only one semester, in 1967.  Only when I first met Prof Pool did I come to know that Dr HN had got his doctorate degree in Nuclear Physics under him.  He showered encomiums on Dr HN, describing him as an outstanding human being and a very good student as well.  I later got acquainted with Dr HN and worked with him in several state government committees dealing with educational matters.  Once I had a long chat with him and we shared our experiences in the USA.  As I got to know him better my admiration for him grew even greater.  I cherish this opportunity to pay my tributes to his memory.

Scientific Method and Scientific Temper

The term ‘scientific temper’ embodies everything that makes science so distinctive and different from other human pursuits.  Science has attained its unique stature today through its successes in understanding the nature of things and happenings in the world and the universe around us.  There is an underlying ‘method of science’ which is well tested, established and applied to solving most problems that we encounter.  The essential steps in the scientific method are:  (1) Observing something that draws our attention or interest, (2) Coming up with a tentative explanation (hypothesis) that is consistent with the observations, (3) Using the hypothesis to make predictions, (4) Testing these predictions by experiments or further observations and modifying the hypothesis in the light of the findings, and (5) Repeating steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observations.
The basic ‘method of science’ transcends the natural and physical world in its applicability and can be very helpful in tackling problems we face in everyday life as well.  Underlying the scientific method is a firmly established conviction that all natural phenomena occur within the framework of and subject to the laws of science.  Scientific temper is the mindset that results from repeated reliance on the basic method of science to solve problems of all kinds.  Some of the characteristics of scientific temper are:  open-mindedness, suspension of belief, critical thinking, application of logic and reasoning, avoidance of bias and preconceived notions, readiness to question unsubstantiated claims, disinclination to accept anything on the basis of authority alone, reliance on evidence based judgment, seeking explanations that are consistent with well established laws of science, willingness to consider alternative explanations and subjecting unfamiliar situations to the scrutiny of the scientific method.
Under the Indian Constitution it is a fundamental duty of all citizens “to develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.  We shall now examine whether and to what extent this goal has been achieved through science education imparted in our schools.

School Science Curriculum and Textbooks

The objectives of the Karnataka state high school science curriculum are very impressively worded and place considerable emphasis on the application of the scientific method and acquisition of a scientific temper.  However, very little of it is reflected in the actual contents of the textbooks.  There is hardly any consonance between the stated expectations and what is achievable through the use of the textbooks in the teaching-learning process.  The textbooks are uninteresting, uninspiring, incoherent, loaded with factual information, devoid of efforts to promote an in-depth understanding of the underlying scientific concepts and principles, and their contents are geared more to passing examinations than to any useful learning.  Since most teachers are almost solely dependent on the textbooks, and the students in turn are heavily dependent on the teachers, it is inevitable that the learning outcomes do not in any way reflect the excitement of science as a dynamic and on-going adventure to understand the world around us.  No wonder too that science teaching contributes little to the development of a scientific temper.

Science owes its successes to the crucial and decisive role of observation and experimentation in settling between conflicting theories and ideas.  This has been so since the time of the great Galileo who had to fight the might of the Roman Catholic Church to gain acceptance of the idea.  The teaching of science at any level is virtually meaningless if students don’t get adequate opportunities to learn by doing – through observation and experimentation, with an investigatory approach.  This points to the importance of teaching aids, equipment and laboratory facilities to make science teaching effective.  Even more so, this points to the need for using the resources available in the natural and physical environment around the school.  Yet, science teaching is almost always confined to the classroom and the only aid that the teachers seem to use is the blackboard.  Very rarely do the students get a chance to do anything in the school laboratory or the larger world outside.  When the students are not exposed to the fundamental nature of science as an experiment centred discipline it is futile to expect them to develop a scientific attitude towards looking at problems in the everyday world. 

In most government schools hardly any facilities exist for the implementation of the experiment centred method of teaching.  Students don’t get adequate opportunities to study the world around them employing the steps outlined in the scientific method.  Even if adequate facilities and opportunities are available, teachers do not make efficient use of them since their overriding concern is to prepare the students to face a terminal public examination and this requires teaching only from the textbooks.   
Lest I be judged as being too harsh on Karnataka, let me hasten to add that ineffective science textbooks and teaching is a nation-wide malady, and indeed has an international flavour too.  Science educators worldwide are dissatisfied with the quality of science education imparted in schools.  Scientific temper appears to be the major casualty of all this.

Assault on Science & Scientific Temper

Long ago I remember that a famous scientist from Hyderabad had designed and produced a set of wall posters for the NCERT depicting the basic method of Science through numerous examples and, in the process, attacking irrational and pseudo scientific beliefs and practices.  He faced the ignominy of seeing these posters taken off from display on the grouse that they hurt the sentiments of some people.  This is a story oft repeated in different situations and contexts all over the country.  Truth is readily sacrificed at the altar of ignorance in the garb of sentiments and beliefs.  People who wish to promote scientific temper in our society have to face such assaults all the time.  Indeed Science itself is becoming a target for assaults and rational people are becoming an endangered species.

Irrational and unscientific attitudes and actions are not confined to non-scientists alone.  On the contrary, they seem to be prevalent as much among the so called scientists as in ordinary people.  If scientists have to fight against the assault on science the battle should begin at home.   Pseudo science and non-science have invaded the portals of our higher education institutions without much resistance.  The UGC has now made it acceptable for universities and colleges to offer degree courses on such patently unscientific subjects as Astrology and Pourohitya.  Very few voices were heard in protest against this, even from the scientific community.  Let us not forget that this was done on the initiative of a minister who holds a doctorate degree in Physics and was a university professor.
If anything, Science is enjoying greater freedom in India than in a country such as USA, supposed to be the very cradle of Science and Technology.  The on-going assault on the teaching of Evolutionary Biology in some American states is too well-known to need elaboration here.  Despite losing a legal challenge, the proponents of biblical Creationism in the glorified garb of ‘Intelligent Design’ are putting up a relentless effort to secure equal status for this along with the long established Darwinian Theory of Evolution.  As in the times of Galileo, they wish to establish the supremacy of religious dogma over established scientific truth – even in this new millennium. 

I knew of a preacher-teacher who would teach Darwin’s theory in the classroom and Creationism in the congregation without any conflict in his mind!  Like the duality principle in Quantum Physics he had no difficulty accepting both!

As an example of the assault on scientific temper I can never forget what happened, or rather what did not happen, on the occasion of the great total solar eclipse of 16th February 1980.  The event was visible over most of North Karnataka and I was one of the diehards who dared to watch it from the Tungabhadra Dam site in Hospet.  Barring a few of us who ventured against the very commonly held superstitions associated with any eclipse and watched it, the entire population of the town chose to lock themselves up inside their homes.  This was the scene repeated everywhere along the path of totality and elsewhere as well.  Indeed the same story has been repeated both before and after that memorable day almost everywhere in the country when any eclipse was visible.  While nature put up one of its grandest spectacles for human eyes to behold, the humans themselves didn’t want any part of it and put up their own grand  eclipse of reason. 

The current assault on science is well depicted in a recent international best selling book titled “The God Delusion” and two related video programmes subtitled “The Root of All Evil” and “The Virus of Faith” respectively, by the renowned Oxford Biologist and popularizer of Science, Dr Richard Dawkins.  Many of you may not like the radical tone of the titles (Dawkins is an outspoken atheist), but you will not disagree with most of his arguments.

Let us now look at a disturbing situation in our own country.  In 2002 the Madhya Pradesh Government issued a fatwa that the 30-year old nationally and internationally acclaimed Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP), being conducted in all the middle schools (classes VI to VIII) of the Hoshangabad District, be terminated forthwith. This meant that HSTP’s inquiry-oriented, experiment-based and environment-related child-friendly pedagogy was to be replaced by the drudgery of rote-based and over-burdened science curriculum operating in the rest of the state.  The decision was apparently the result of a malicious campaign against HSTP orchestrated by a local politician.  In Karnataka also there has been some opposition to the Nali-Kali experiment whose objectives are similar to those of HSTP, but fortunately there has been no fatwa against it.

Jawaharlal Nehru was a strong supporter of Science & Technology, the method of Science and the development of scientific attitude in all classes of people.  Post-independent India under the enlightened, even if misguided, leadership of Nehru saw the emergence of a large number of industrial establishments and research laboratories all over the country to take it forward at rapid pace.  Through these efforts he wanted to transform not only the economy of the country but also the mental ethos of its people.  Sadly he achieved neither, but his intentions were never in question.

While we have seen in recent years the kind of transformation of the Indian economy that Nehru had envisioned, we have seen no such transformation in the attitudes of the people.  Scientific temper is still a far cry and, if anything, people’s attitudes and beliefs have seen a regression in inverse proportion to the economic progress being achieved.  Irrational beliefs and practices in the name of religion are dominating almost all aspects of society and Science has taken a back seat, becoming a helpless spectator.  Basic sciences do not hold much promise for the younger generation and, unless radical steps are initiated speedily, they are in danger of joining the endangered species.  I may sound harshly pessimistic, but this is the hard truth.  If it is of any comfort to us, most other countries are also finding themselves in the same predicament.

A Blueprint for the Future

Coming back to the question that is the title of this talk, the answer to the question is an emphatic NO.  Science education imparted in our educational institutions does not promote scientific temper any more than education in any other discipline does.  So where do we go from here?  How can we improve the situation? This can be done only through some radical and proactive changes in our system of science education.  Here is a suggested blueprint:

*Draw up a new curriculum that clearly reflects the nature, scope and purpose of science education, with one of the primary goals being the inculcation of scientific temper as stated in the list of fundamental duties under the constitution.

*Produce a set of textbooks fully aligned with the curriculum objectives, emphasizing understanding and application oriented learning with minimum of information content.  The textbooks should also emphasize learning by doing and written in a self-instructional style to minimize dependence on classroom teaching.  There should be no limitations on the size and number of pages.

*Do away with the SSLC public examination and strengthen the system of continuous comprehensive evaluation so that the textbook contents and teaching strategies are not examination driven.

*Let the textbook contents discuss issues that specifically promote inculcation of a scientific temper and not shy away from discussing superstitions and pseudo scientific beliefs on the excuse that they hurt the sentiments of some sections of people or segments of society.

*Train teachers on a large scale with special emphasis on the revised goals of the science curriculum and textbook content using the EduSat two-way mode recently setup at the DSERT premises in Bangalore.

*Initiate special measures, including a system of monetary incentives, to attract students to study the basic sciences at the collegiate and post-graduate levels.

*Let organizations like the KRVP and experienced voluntary NGOs play a more active role in matters of curriculum, textbooks and teacher training.

In conclusion, I fervently hope that Jawaharlal Nehru’s and Dr HN’s vision of a scientifically literate and tempered society will not continue to remain a distant dream.


A V G Rao said...

Excellent and informative blog. However, the part about what shoud be done is likely to remain as a dream. Our 'experts' are very good in extolling the virtues of 'Scientific method & Scientific temper' and then adraft a curriculum in order to teach children 'good science' by doing a 'cosmetic surgery' on the old one.
Do they really know the steps involved in curriculum construction and if they know do they relly follow them?

A V G Rao said...

Second thought on the subject: Do our Govts. relly want people to develop 'Scientific temper'. If people really develop it then the position of todays 'rulers' may become very very shaky. There is a saying in Marxism: 'Education is a tool used by ruling classes to perpetuate their hegemony'.