Sandhya Ramesh is senior assistant editor of science at ThePrint.in.
A couple of weeks ago, the Indian Science Congress, a century-old gathering of scientists, made news for all the wrong reasons. In keeping with a long-standing tradition of featuring headline-generating statements, one speaker at the conference claimed that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were wrong about physics. Another researcher argued that ancient Indians had discovered stem-cell research centuries ago, because a character in a well-known myth supposedly gave birth to 100 sons.
These stories earned ridicule and censure, but they weren’t unusual for the event. The government officials who open the conference have a long and illustrious history of making ridiculous or jingoistic claims on stage. Last year, a union minister said Stephen Hawking had claimed ancient Vedic texts contained a theory superior to Einstein’s theory of relativity, a statement I traced to an Indian-run Hawking fan page on Facebook. Speakers have even claimed that the ancient texts contain evidence of advanced interplanetary aircraft and that cows carry bacteria that turn everything they consume to gold. The two speakers at this year’s event were part of a larger trend.
This controversy is a classic example of the complex and contradictory nature of science in India. Though there is little outright denial of science, science often exists hand-in-hand with confirmation bias. This is especially propagated by the far right, where anything inherently Indian is stamped with approval to instill pride in ancient India. This happens in regular political discourse and even permeates scientific conversations — as it did at the conference.
This nonsense needs to be called out. The deeper reach of the Internet in India and the availability of tools such as WhatsApp have enabled the rampant spread of misinformation. These statements also diminish the growing reputation of Indian research and tarnish efforts to decolonize science and extract actual historic knowledge from ancient texts.
Perhaps even more frustrating was that the pseudoscience on display at the conference also dominated the news cycle for weeks. This year’s five-day event saw government ministers speak the first day, as is the norm, but also included a Children’s Science Congress, Women’s Science Congress, Science Communicators’ meeting and a concluding general body meeting.
A majority of the talks focused on new science that benefits agriculture and farmers; 70 percent of India’s population rely on agriculture as their primary source of income. There were also talks from female scientists on subjects such as the effect of abstract art on the brain, the impact of big data on health, technology to combat taboos in the country, urban growth and detection of adulteration in milk. Over five days, subjects covered included molecular biology, fisheries, anthropology, sustainable engineering, material science and so much more.
But weeks later, we are still talking about those two controversial speakers and nothing else.
The entire saga gives rise to a question first brought up by the former director of the Indian Institute of Science, P. Balaram, who criticized the event in a 2012 Current Science editorial: “Does the Congress contribute in any way to the ‘shaping of science in India’?”
The general consensus among Indian scientists seems to lean toward no. Well-known scientists and Indian patrons barely participated in the Congress despite the inclusion of three Nobel laureates this year: Duncan Haldane, Thomas Südhof and Avram Hershko. Several scientists have actively distanced themselves from it; Nobel Prize-winning biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan once called it a “circus.”
The organizers of the conference must confront two questions: First, why are the talks not screened and the selection process for speakers not transparent? The public doesn’t know how or why scientists are invited or selected. The speaker who criticized Einstein claims on LinkedIn that he has discovered 35 new physics concepts, including black holes, electricity and an “anti-god particle.” Anyone with a basic understanding of science would need only to look at his profile for two seconds before deciding he probably shouldn’t speak at a scientific event.
Second, and more importantly, why does the Indian Science Congress still exist? The event has had a tainted history of at least one unfiltered pseudoscientific claim each year. The quality of the conference never seems to improve, and there seems to be no real audience that cares for the content. The association doesn’t seem to have learned from the past or doesn’t care, both of which are counterproductive for scientific progress.
The Indian Science Congress is obsolete. It needs to change or go.
Word has it that the 2020 Congress might be different. Some are hopeful, while others scoff. But thus far, the conference has stood in stark contrast with big strides India is making to become a global powerhouse in medicine and science. Now, as in every year, it is imperative to ask ourselves why we give power to this insignificant event to define the legacy of Indian science, especially on a global stage.