New Hindu nationalism erodes science in India

When I was lecturing in India a bit more than a year ago, I heard repeated complaints from scientists (in five cities) about how the Modi government and its Hindu-centric BJP Party was destroying Indian science. As was reported by the BBC in January (and in the article below from Science), some Indian scientists are beginning to claim that ancient Indians had stem-cell technology, airplanes, the internet, and so on (this is reminiscent of the “Afrocentrism” rife a while back, which claimed the same thing about ancient Africans).

The BBC reports that some Indian scientists attacked Einstein’s work at India’s most important science conference:

Hindu mythology and religion-based theories have increasingly become part of the Indian Science Congress agenda.

But experts said remarks at this year’s summit were especially ludicrous.

The 106th Indian Science Congress, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, runs from 3-7 January.

The head of a southern Indian university cited an old Hindu text as proof that stem cell research was discovered in India thousands of years ago.

G Nageshwar Rao, vice chancellor of Andhra University, also said a demon king from the Hindu religious epic, Ramayana, had 24 types of aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern day Sri Lanka.

Another scientist from a university in the southern state of Tamil Nadu told conference attendees that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were both wrong and that gravitational waves should be renamed “Narendra Modi Waves”. [JAC: Modi is India’s Prime Minister.]

Dr KJ Krishnan reportedly said Newton failed to “understand gravitational repulsive forces” and Einstein’s theories were “misleading”.

All over India, institutes are being set up to show that the products of the cow (milk, urine, dung, and so on) are “miracle cures”, which of course buttresses the Hindu view of cows as sacred. And even Prime Minister Modi himself got into the act, as the article below reports:

 

This is unbelievable:

. . . others say there is little doubt that pseudoscience is on the rise—even at the highest levels of government. Modi, who was an RSS pracharak, or propagandist, for 12 years, claimed in 2014 that the transplantation of the elephant head of the god Ganesha to a human—a tale told in ancient epics—was a great achievement of Indian surgery millennia ago, and has made claims about stem cells similar to Rao’s.

(The RSS is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement.)

Yep, a great achievement of Indian surgery. The Prime Minister thinks that! (Of course, maybe Trump could also get away with such nonsense . After all, a human/elephant head transplant is only a notch more ridiculous than denying anthropogenic climate change.)

And, of course, the teaching of evolution is endangered, since many Indians don’t buy it, as it’s not in Hindu scripture (see here for my earlier post on government interference with evolution education in India):

. . . in January 2018, higher education minister Satya Pal Singh dismissed Charles Darwin’s evolution theory and threatened to remove it from school and college curricula. “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral [texts], has said that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being,” Singh said.

Now don’t think for a minute that most Indian scientists sign onto this madness. Everybody I met at the high-powered government-funded research institutes I visited in Bangalore (Bengalaru), Pune, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) were upset and angry about this kind of pseudoscience; and I’m confident that, in the end, real science will prevail. But it’s swimming upstream what with Modi and the BJP in power.

The Science piece above has a lot more details, but I want to single out one paragraph at the end:

Some Indian scientists may be susceptible to nonscientific beliefs because they view science as a 9-to-5 job, says Ashok Sahni, a renowned paleontologist and emeritus professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh. “Their religious beliefs don’t dovetail with science,” he says, and outside working hours those beliefs may hold sway. A tradition of deference to teachers and older persons may also play a role, he adds. “Freedom to question authority, to question writings, that’s [an] intrinsic part of science,” Ramakrishnan adds. Rather than focusing on the past, India should focus on its scientific future, he says—and drastically hike its research funding.

These factors may play a role, but it’s odd that these reasons for the spread of pseudoscience among Indian scientists don’t include religion, which is the main reason for this nonsense. Indian scientists know that religion is degrading their fields, but Science magazine won’t be very explicit about it, although you can tell what’s happening by reading between the lines.

Religion poisons everything, they say, and it’s certainly poisoning science in India.

h/t: Greg

28 Comments

  1. Jenny Haniver
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I read about this late last year, should have FWd the link back then. At the beginning of this year I found this in aeon https://aeon.co/ideas/modern-technology-is-akin-to-the-metaphysics-of-vedanta.

    This stuff is now being proselytized (heck, we’ve got biblically derived fundamentalist Christian ‘science,’ Buddhist ‘science,’ so why not Vedic derived ‘science’ and science derived from any and every other religious and spiritual tradition.

    Granted, this article makes associative statements rather than declarative ones, and it’s not funded by Templeton (probably not the right kind of Eastern spirituality); nonetheless, it seems to me to be more suggestive in the sense of possibility than merely descriptive. But perhaps I read too much into it because I’m appalled by this trend, wherever it comes from.

  2. Steve Gerrard
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    They are just offering conjunctive explanations!

  3. Posted February 14, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    It seems from my limited exposure to these things that there is always a strong amount of nationalism involved as well.

    • Posted February 15, 2019 at 3:34 am | Permalink

      It certainly seems that way. They managed to make the no. 1 subscribed channel on YouTube a nationalism thing too, according to a few Indian redditors.

      -Ryan

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    When you think about all the really good doctors and surgeons that have come out of India it is hard to figure this other side. I had a thoracic surgeon do a big operation on me nearly ten years ago and he was one of the best. The top guy doing TAVR, that is Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement in the city where I live is Dr. Chehab.

    • Posted February 14, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      India’s population is over 1.3 billion. If only a quarter of them don’t subscribe to Hindu superstition, that’s still a pool the size of the entire USA from which to draw their doctors and surgeons.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Surgeons don’t necessarily have to be scientific. What was that 2016 Presidential candidate? Ben Carson?

      cr

  5. yazikus
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Some Indian scientists may be susceptible to nonscientific beliefs because they view science as a 9-to-5 job, says Ashok Sahni,

    Brings to mind a little Elton John:
    And all that science, I don’t understand
    It’s just my job five days a week

  6. busterggi
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Name your poison, any religion will do.

  7. bapu@arekapudi.com
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Current Indian PM and his political Hindu majority party is generally fundamentalist/Hindu Nationalist Party and appears has taken deep roots in India. Real science development of today is the result of long time ago science policies of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi is some what like India’s Trump represent more religious fundamentalism than Trump.

    B

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted February 14, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Dear Bapu, thanks for that comment. I guess you are switched on into current Indian politics. Is the Congress Party – Nehru’s people – any better in terms of supporting real science? I hope so.

    • Posted February 14, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Nehru and Modi – India’s Atatürk and Erdoğan?

      /@

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    There is this ancient Roman mosaic tile (I think in Pompeii) that shows a double-helix pattern. Scooped Watson and Crick by about 2000 years!

    • Posted February 14, 2019 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      But there are Greek ceramics at Paestum that are decorated with swastikas, so … 

      /@

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 15, 2019 at 1:22 am | Permalink

        As it happens, the swastika is an old Indian good-luck symbol.

        I was a bit startled to see that some typical Bollywood singing-dancing-comedy-fighting (they seem to like to include all possible genres in their movies) was made by Swastik Productions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastik_Productions

        (And no, if there was any subliminal uktra-right-wing message in the movie it sure escaped me).

        cr

  9. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    It must be some kind of law. Be it Christians, Muslims or Hindus, all the modern science is predicted or described in their Holy Scriptures. Of course that only works if your knowledge of science is extremely poor, and your interpretation of those scriptures extremely ‘creative’.
    A few years ago I entered in an internet debate about the scientific predictions in the Qur’an (which can be as easily dismissed as the ones in the Bible). It did not earn me a status of being ‘beloved’. Nevertheless, it did not deteriorate into insults, the worst I got was “I don’t like you anymore”.

    • Zetopan
      Posted February 17, 2019 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      It is actually the result of embarrassment. As science progresses and religions are increasingly shown to be woefully wrong about how the universe operates, the true believers can only fight back using on of two overall methods.

      1. Claim that science is wrong. This will only work for awhile, until a sufficiently large percentage of the public recognizes that the science is correct. Legal attacks by creationists often use this tactic.

      2. Claim that your religion actually lead science (as per some forms of “scientific creationism”) and in some cases preceded scientific discoveries by centuries if not millennia. The is most often done by just reinterpreting ancient and vastly incorrect writings to make then appear prescient. Of course the mental masturbations involved in this activity are every bit as bad as the original absurdist writings they seek to save from any well founded criticism.

  10. ploubere
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    The religious always claim that their particular faith discovered and invented everything. And then they call scientists arrogant.

  11. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    “some Indian scientists are beginning to claim that ancient Indians had stem-cell technology, airplanes, the internet, and so on”

    Utterly bizarre.

    Though on reflection, bizarre and absurd as it seems, maybe it’s just because it’s unfamiliar to us. That is, you can find this sort of ‘wisdom of the ancients’ trope in almost any culture. The Incas and their ancient alien visitors (von Daniken), Atlantis, Xenu… we’ve just given up taking much notice of them because we’ve got used to them. The tinfoil hat brigade.

    So I don’t think I’d put that down to religion as such, more just the tendency of a small percentage of the population to be not quite right in the head.

    Sacred cows, OTOH, religion is absolutely responsible for.

    cr

    • Posted February 15, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      The “airplanes are in the Vedas” idea is not new – I’ve heard about that one for 20 years.

  12. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    “The Tao of Physics” may become a textbook there.

    • Posted February 14, 2019 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I enjoyed that as a teenager. It’s one of the reasons I did a degree in physics and a doctorate in particle physics.

      I’m not sure it would stand rereading 40+ years later … 

      /@

  13. Deodand
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    That “Afrocentrism” thing is still with us, it’s now called African Studies and taught in major universities.

    Also taught in universities is a reformulation
    of a notion that was used to keep females and non-whites out of the sciences. Namely the idea that ‘white mans’ science is incompatible with the mentalities of the same.

    The modern version is that ‘Western Science’ is incompatible physically and spiritually with the Peoples of Color (Black, Brown, Asian & Muslim Races) and the Peoples of Gender (Females, Non-Cis) therefore they should embrace and promote ‘other ways of knowing’.

    What we see in India is a perfect example of this embrace.

  14. rickflick
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    “experts said remarks at this year’s summit were especially ludicrous.”
    How are these ludicrous speakers invited in the first place?

  15. eric
    Posted February 14, 2019 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    These factors may play a role, but it’s odd that these reasons for the spread of pseudoscience among Indian scientists don’t include religion, which is the main reason for this nonsense…

    I think it’s probably more accurate to say that the BJP is using/riding Hinduism to gain political power. The ultranationalists see pseudoscience based on folk culture to be a tool they can use to control people, pander to the ignorant, and shift funding to their own pet projects. They’re hyping it not out of some religious belief but because it’s their version of bread and circusses.

    I expect that 5, 10, maybe at worst 20 years from now groups like the BJP and Trump and their brands of toxic nationalism appealing-to-the-ignorant will be gone. Religion will remain.

  16. Posted February 15, 2019 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  17. Zetopan
    Posted February 17, 2019 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    And some scientific illiterate ministers in India are fond of making absurd claims:

    “Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that cosmologist Stephen Hawking … had said the Vedas have a theory that is superior to Albert Einstein’s equation e=mc^2 that sums up the theory of special relativity.

    https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/did-stephen-hawking-really-think-theory-of-vedas-is-superior-than-einsteins-relativity-equation/articleshow/63342609.cms

    I actually tracked down the original source of this nonsense that Vardhan was claiming since a scientifically illiterate nitwit was pedding this on the web while claiming that anyone disputing it was guilty of “hubris” and went on to claim that Newton was also wrong (without stating about what).

    In fact the original claim was made on an *obviously* fake Stephen Hawking Facebook page that only contained the below (note the actual root owner – hari.scientist):

    The real Stephen Hawking Facebook page can be found here:

    https://www.facebook.com/stephenhawking/

    Also note the trepidation that some Indian scientists are clearly showing about not contradicting Vardhan despite showing some skepticism about the alleged Hawking claim!

  18. Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    And after all the trepidations and everything said and done, he is still coming back for a second term!

    https://t.co/LZKkG0WWdR


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