The blind spot of science
Our prejudices about names are often coloured by the spirit of our times. A name like Mahan Maharaj, for instance, is likely to conjure up images of a saffron-clad Hindu chauvinist. We are a little abashed then when a man bearing this alias turns out to be a first-rate mathematician who was recently conferred India’s most lavish science laurel, the Infosys Science Prize, for his sterling work in geometry. Surprise gives way to curious wonderment when it is further revealed that the man is a monk, and that too a saffron-robed one!
We may find the idea of a mathematician monk oxymoronic cool, but Mahan Maharaj, who till recently taught mathematics at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University, Kolkata, is at best an interesting throwback to a time when the pursuit of rarefied disciplines such as Philosophy and Mathematics were intimately linked with asceticism—the idea that a life untarnished by worldly indulgence is in harmony with the quest for pure truth. Pythagoras, Hypatia, Blaise Pascal, Spinoza, and Paul Erdos are a few notable exemplars of this ethos. However, it is Mahan’s blithe remark that “science by nature is apolitical” that one finds a little baffling. It sounds blithe because scientists have long maintained that science is a dispassionate inquiry into the nature of objective reality. Unlike religious and political beliefs, scientific truth, they aver, is unblemished by prejudice. And when critics point out the dangerous fallouts of scientific research, such as nuclear weapons, they argue that science in itself is artless and amoral—it is what we do with it that makes it good or evil. It is also a little baffling because despite several persuasive critiques of this naïve view of science in the last five decades, the scientific fraternity has doggedly stuck to its dogma.
It was environmental activists like Rachel Carson who in the 1960s exposed the nexus between science and the desire for pelf and power. Around the same time, in his ground-breaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science historian Thomas Kuhn made the controversial claim that science cannot be understood on the basis of its alleged objectivity alone as this so-called objectivity is coloured by the cultural and political beliefs of its practitioners. So there cannot be, he claimed, a definitive method for judging the validity of knowledge, including science. Knowledge sociologists such as Bruno Latour and David Bloor further embroidered the critique by showing what scientists believe as valid knowledge is influenced not just by overarching political and economic factors, but also by everyday practice of science.
Unfortunately, most of this critique, written in the specialist’s jargon, has remained beyond the ken of most scientists. If anything, rather than provoking a dialogue, it has triggered what are now known as the Science Wars. If scientists find it difficult to accept that science is not objective, it’s not hard to imagine the stand of pure mathematicians like Mahan. However, in recent times, some sociologists have challenged the view that mathematics, like Caesar’s wife, is above suspicion. One group, inspired by Bloor’s work, is refuting the view that mathematics is a pure white rabbit pulled out of the hat of physical reality or the human mind. A second group of iconoclasts wants to parse the social system in which mathematical knowledge is created and deployed by investigating matrices such as funding, jobs, pecking order and communication.
This might as well yield further insights into the contentious issue of science being the true arbiter of knowledge. But the question is whether it would persuade scientists to get off their high horse. In 1959, British physicist-novelist C P Snow had bemoaned the widening chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists. Snow was on the side of scientists. The situation today is not very different except that the roles have been reversed. In a world increasingly addicted and servile to science and technology, only a miracle can bring the two opposing camps to the same table.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)