Saturday, May 22, 2010

Civility and irreverence

Raghunath Mashelkar, the former CSIR director, has an editorial in Science where he laments the lack of ‘irreverence’ in Indian science. Mashelkar’s point is well taken, namely, that excessive deference to professors and senior students common in the Indian academic culture can hamper free thinking and the open communication of ideas. I myself can vouch as a long-past student, the timidity I and others used to feel to even ask interesting questions, let alone challenge the professors, for (usually justified) fear that we be insulted and dismissed. It’s absolutely true that there needs to be a much more open and stress free atmosphere of communication among students and professors in India, and even fellow scientists in the Indian scientific hierarchy.
As exemplars of scientists who embodied the idea of irreverence, Mashelkar cites Richard Feynman, whose lack of deference to authority was well-known, but also Saha, Bose and Raman as noted by Freeman Dyson in his excellent collection of essays, “The Scientist as Rebel”. I am not aware of any particular streak of irreverence in these famous Indian scientists, but they certainly had to challenge prevailing wisdom and boldly venture into new territory.
One other pair of scientists who famously embodied irreverence and who should be mentioned was the Watson and Crick duo. Both have themselves said that one of the key catalysts in their collaboration and in the resultant landmark discovery was the fact that they were never afraid to criticize or insult each other. It was only through such provocative and incisive debate that their ideas could quickly mature and be brought to fruition.
He makes it sound like irreverence is one of the dominant reasons why Indian science is faltering. Methinks he mistakes correlation for causation. Excessive deference certainly impedes progress, but I am not sure that this is really an important factor in the hurdles that Indian science faces…
In the last part of the article, Mashelkar sees cause for optimism. He cites the founding of several new institutes of science education and research. Such new institutes have always been quite fashionable in India. But Stalin’s quip about quantity having a quality of its own does not really apply to scientific research. Simply investing in dozens of science institutes is not automatically going to catapult Indian science among the front ranks, and may even dilute its effects.]

[Manasi Pahwa's correspondence: Letter #2 from Peter 21 September 2008 Dear Manasi Pahwa
Thank you for forwarding a copy of your letter to the Trustees to me. Since you clearly are qualified to write about the subject, and since you, for the most part, keep to the tone of civil discourse expected of a scholar, I am happy to write a brief reply…
My discussion of the topic in the book is based on this article. Note that both the article and the book were written as contributions to historical research, an activity supported by the ashram in its role of a scientific research institution. The article therefore contains no expression of devotion and treats Sri Aurobindo's experiences as the subject of scientific and historical research. As noted above, in both publications I present myself as a historian addressing an audience of scholars, and not as a devotee giving expression to personal feelings for the benefit of other devotees… Yours very sincerely
Peter Heehs]

It is difficult to reconcile Heehs’ insistence on civility in discourse while he reserves his right to irreverence as a 'scientist'. [TNM] 

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