'Ignorance isn't a problem when it's a question of common citizens having forgotten (or never learnt) middle school science.'
'It becomes a problem when it's displayed by policymakers and people of some influence,' says Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The USA hosts the greatest scientific establishment in the world. It also has a president who says, 'You know what uranium is, right? It's a thing called nuclear weapons. And other things.'
That self-same president also believes that the world isn't getting hotter. He wants to shut down the US Environmental Protection Agency and he has appointed an EPA head who is on the record saying this.
President Donald Trump is not unrepresentative of Americans in his ignorance.
A large number of Americans believe that dinosaurs and humans roamed the Earth together.
Some also believe that vaccines cause diseases.
A few are convinced that LGBT persons can be 'cured' of sexual orientation(s).
Other people around the world have similar uninformed fantasies.
For example, one of India's neighbours has a mid-school science textbook which asserts, 'The Theory of Evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century is one of the most unbelievable and irrational claims in history.'
The same nation also has lunatics who run around shooting paramedics administering vaccines.
India is scarcely better off.
India's space agency has accomplished the impressive feat of putting 104 nano satellites in space with a single launch.
At the same time, India also had government funded programmes that 'research' the therapeutic properties of cattle urine.
There is at least one well-known yoga teacher and 'ayurvedist' who says he can cure HIV.
Recently a college principal said that women who wear shirts and trousers develop polycystic ovarian syndrome because they think like men (men don't have ovaries, but anyway).
And India has a prime minister who seems to think that the legend of Lord Ganesha proves head transplants happened in ancient India.
Ignorance, even ignorance of this level, isn't a problem when it's a question of common citizens having forgotten (or never learnt) middle school science.
After all, how does it matter if your plumber has never heard of uranium?
It becomes a problem when it's displayed by policymakers and people of some influence.
The vaccine-haters have put entire populations at risk because pockets of non-immunised vulnerability could lead to the comeback of deadly diseases.
Vaccine-deniers are the prime reason why polio has not been eradicated, for instance.
The 'cattle-urine therapists' and other researchers who pursue nonsensical causes funded by the taxpayers' rupee swallow funding that should go to the reduction of infant mortality, and the building of public toilets.
The college principal who insists women students wear salwar kameez endangers them in the lab, where they need to wear protective unisex garments.
The yoga teacher who says that HIV can be cured could be responsible for killing someone, who opts for 'alternate therapy' rather than anti-retroviral drugs.
He may even be responsible for killing many people if a HIV-positive person infects others, while under the impression that he or she is cured.
The ignorant US president could be responsible for driving entire species extinct if he does succeed in shutting down EPA.
He could be part of a cabal of contemporary politicians who push the planet into a death spiral by refusing to combat global warming, while there's still a chance of damage limitation.
He may even spark off a nuclear exchange if he decides to find out some of the things that uranium can do.
The prime minister who believes in head transplants directly manages the science & technology portfolio.
(S&T has always been managed directly out of the PMO. Why this is so is a different question and perhaps worth an 'entire political science' research paper in itself.)
Therein lies the problem.
There is a certain kind of blue-sky, undirected pure scientific research that is funded by governments.
Obvious examples at the moment would include the Large Hadron Collider or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.
If governments don't fund these programmes, nobody will.
If government policy is made by ignoramuses, those programmes may be replaced by touchy-feely stories of dinosaurs transformed by head-transplants and super-vaccines extracted from cattle-urine.
Scientists are often apolitical. American scientists have started fighting back, raising funds to make political statements and to support candidates who understand science.
Maybe it's time Indian scientists did the same?
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