MODERN SCIENCE - THAT HOLY COW
(Frontier – May 4, 1985)
One of the least noticed legacies of colonial rule in
Such a reading of colonialism crucially influenced not
merely the processes of State intervention in independent
Well, as the tragic saga of
Marxists came up with a radically different answer to the
question of the kind of society in which science would flourish. As expressed
in the oeuvre of the
Ironically, despite their sharply opposed political positions,
Bernal and Merton show a marked convergence in their reading of science. For
both writers “Science” is equated with modern Western science. Bernal for
example says that “effectively science in
This then is the received wisdom which constitutes the dominant view of science. In the West itself, this has been challenged from at least four distinct (though not necessarily discrete) perspectives.
Science and War
First, there is a role of science in war. As chronicled by
the Viennese journalist Robert Jungk, the idealist
world of atomic physics was rapidly transformed in World War II into an
instrument of state power.
Of course, in recent years the critique of science’s role is bringing the world to the brink has proceeded beyond intellectuals and policymakers. The Western peace movement is one of the more significant popular initiatives of our times. It is a sad reflection on the near-total loss of the humanist core of socialism that “revolutionary” Marxists like Jan Myrdal can hold the peace marches to be “objectively” the stooges of the Soviets.
The second kind of criticism has been focussed on the role of industrial technology in maintaining social control. As is often the case, representation in art preceded theoretical formulation. I have in mind Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times, made in 1936 (note that Chaplin uses the prefix “Modern” and not “capitalist”). Several decades on, Herbert Marcuse, drawing from a strand in Marx that was a victim of “official” Marxism, described capitalism as moribund and its technology as alienating human beings from the essence of life. A little later, Harry Braverman was to write the definitive statement on the use of technology and “scientific” management in maintaining control within the workplace, noting too that following Lenin’s enthusiastic approval of “Taylorism” work conditions in Soviet industry were no less alienating.
Thirdly, there was the recognition that S&T operated at
the level of ideology in such a manner that even in so-called free societies,
the prestige of science was continually used by the state to legitimize action
taken without proper attention. As argued by scholars like Jurgen
Habermas and Paul Feyerabend,
democracy is in essence a technocracy, wherein State-supported experts are
called upon to unilaterally offer their solutions. An outstanding example of
this is the cloud of secrecy that surrounds the
Lastly, there is the ecological critique of modern science in a famous article; the historian Lynn White traced the modern environmental crisis to the Judeo-Christian ethos of man’s mastery over nature. By desacralizing nature, Judeo-Christianity had facilitated the growth of modern science. While this led to a quantum jump in the understanding of the “laws” of the natural world, it also sanctioned infinite exploitation under the Baconian dogma that nature exists only to serve man. Moreover, a hallmark of modern science is reductionism – the investigation of discrete segments in isolation from the whole. Again the revolutions in atomic physics and synthetic chemistry led to the creation of new forms of matter that were not biodegradable and often had an unforeseen and damaging impact on the environment.
The ecological critique of modern science has found
expression in the environmental movement. This has many strands, ranging from
local level action over environmental issues to alternative health movements
and the opposition to nuclear energy. Predominantly middle class in its early
phase, it has over the years developed a trenchant critique of industrialism.
As exemplified by the Green Party in
The emergence of the Green movement is in a sense the crystallization as a political force of the ideas of a long tradition of utopias and anarchist thinkers opposed to the centralization inherent in the industrial ethic. In the words of an early prophet Lewis Mumford:
“Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.”
Recent attempts to combat the “technological imperative” have seen the recovery of writers like Peter Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, and Mumford, and the emergence of the cult figure of E. F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich. Notwithstanding their differences, what these writers have in common is the emphasis on the non-material aspects of life – i.e. an emphasis of quality as opposed to quantity.
As we had briefly indicated, the dominant perspective on
As is evident, the first three decades of planning have brought no millennium. Our establishment radicals insist (witness the “Statement of Scientific Temper” brought out by our top scientist-bureaucrats in 1981) that this was because we had been unfaithful to the Nehruvian vision and needed to renew the crusade for science. Outside the purview of State agencies, however, intellectuals and activists have started re-examining the earlier assumptions about science’s potential to transform Indian Society. At the risk of some simplification, the major responses can be divided into two groups as detailed below.
The older and more influential trend comes under the rubric of “people’s science movements” (PSMs) – among the better known of which are the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Prarishad, Kishore Bharati in Madhya Pradesh and Lok Vigyan Sangathana in Maharashtra. Many of these groups owe their genesis to the dissatisfaction of socially conscious scientists with the organizational framework of Indian science – highly bureaucratic in nature and whose research priorities are largely determined by intellectual trends in the West. Faced with the virtual impossibility in the institutional setting of doing research relevant to the needs of the poor, these scientists decided to work directly among the people. Science was perceived to be “elitist” in so far as the benefits of science-based development were restricted to a small segment (chiefly urban) of the population. The effort to construct a “people’s” science involves two kinds of strategies. In the short term activists pass on technical advice in areas such as agriculture, animal husbandry and health. In the more long-term perspective science is a potent weapon that could liberate the minds of the oppressed from ritual and fatalism and make them aware of the social roots of their oppression. Thus the role of science in raising mass capability to make a social revolution is critical. In consists, first and foremost, of generating a scientific attitude and culture of scientific enquiry among the masses, so that they can move from sensory perceptions of their social experience to conceptions and analytical frames and from fatalistic prejudices to a realization of their power to change reality in their favour.
The ideological orientation of the PSM’s can be summed up as a more or less direct application of Bernal in an Indian context. Within the use/abuse model, modern S&T is presently used for the benefit of a few, but by educating the masses and freeing them from superstition, a more broad based application of Western science is possible.
The other trend is sharply opposed, both in its philosophy, and in its strategy – one of intellectual work as opposed to activism. Here, there is a denial of the autonomy of the content of science from its social and cultural context. As succinctly stated by Ashis Nandy, while modern science had started as a movement of protest it was now a part of the Establishment. While arrogating to itself the right to criticise all other systems of thought (such as religion) science claimed immunity from external criticism. This must not go unchallenged, for modern science was inherently anti-democratic. It was in fact a totalizing philosophy that brooked no dissent and whose often far from noble impact was felt in every sphere of social life. Nor could science continue to deflect criticism to technology. With growing State intervention, there has occurred a fusion of S&T and the focus of research shifted from the university to the industrial research laboratory. Moreover, if science claimed credit for the achievement of technology it must likewise assume responsibility for its misdeeds.
Social and philosophical critiques of modern science in the Indian context have been strongly strengthened by studies of its failure in areas such as agriculture, forestry, and health. The detailed researches of the Patriotic People Oriented Science and Technology (PPST) group have focused, on the one hand, on the viability of many indigenous techniques and on the other on their destruction and suppression under colonial rule. Forestry is an outstanding example. While forest communities did have a highly sophisticated system of conservancy that enabled prudent use, State forestry relies on the methods and prestige of science to justify the reckless exploitation of forests for commercial purposes. More recently, big dams and nuclear energy can be counted as failures on both social and environmental grounds of a developmental strategy based on modern science. The insensitivity to criticism, the fudging of figures and the suppression of vital information by our nuclear bosses epitomizes the coming of age of science as a pillar of the Establishment.
A third trend, which some see as being a variant of the PSM’s but perhaps, which is better viewed as straddling the two positions delineated above, seeks to build upon (rather than supplant) traditional technologies with the help of insights derived from modern science. One can mention in this connection the work of A.K.N. Reddy and the ASTRA group at the Indian Institute of Science, and the alternate health movement.
“Science for the people”
The two major trends can be conceptualized as “Science for
the people” as opposed to “Science of the people”. If the first trend is
politically active and conscious, it works by and large within the received
framework of Western science, and does not seriously question its mythology,
i.e. of modern science as being objective, liberating, and superior to other
forms of knowledge originating outside the sphere of organised scientific
activity. The alternate trend is far more critical of the content of science,
correctly identifies modern science as operating at the level of ideology as an
instrument of cultural oppression, and has forcefully highlighted the
suppression of indigenous scientific traditions under colonialism. However, in
its historical research it lays insufficient stress on the relations of power
and domination in pre-colonial
It is heartening to note that recent events raise hope of a
genuinely fruitful dialogue between the two perspectives. Through their
involvement in the
Both in the West and in