The culture that is (some of) Indian science

The organisers of a major Indian science conference distanced themselves Sunday from speakers who used the prestigious event to dismiss Einstein’s discoveries and claim ancient Hindus invented stem cell research.

The Indian Scientific Congress Association expressed “serious concern” as the unorthodox remarks aired by prominent academics at its annual conference attracted condemnation and ridicule.

The distinguished gathering of Indian researchers and scientists hosts Nobel laureates, but in recent years has seen Hindu mythology and faith-based theories edging onto the agenda.

At this year’s congress, the head of a southern Indian university cited an ancient Hindu text as proof that was discovered on the subcontinent thousands of years ago.

“We had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell and test tube technology,” said G. Nageshwar Rao, Vice Chancellor at Andhra University, referring to a story from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

Rao, who was addressing school children and scientists at the event, also said a demon king from another centuries-old Hindu epic had two dozen aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern-day Sri Lanka.

“Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets,” added the professor of inorganic chemistry.

Event organisers tried to hose down the remarks, saying it was “unfortunate” the prestigious event had been derailed by controversy.

Here is the full account, via Anecdotal.  My point here is not to make fun of India, which I am a big admirer of.  Rather, successful science requires many, many cultural dimensions, not just a few, and those dimensions must be applied consistently.  India has an active and mostly successful space program, is a world leader in cheap and effective heart surgery, and in general the country is teeming with innovation, including in the culinary realm I might add.

So many of you take the cultural prerequisites of science for granted, and yes Max Weber still is underrated.


What country doesn't have cranks? Creationism, flat earthers, isreal did 9/11? Rather bizarre you want to make sweeping cultural judgments based on the remarks of one irrelevant man. And of course these cranks have been around for decades (with more or less same claims). Its just that their coverage in western media increases exponentially when BJP is in power and used as proof that india has lost it to the hindu extremists.

The Indian Prime Minister himself says these kind of nonsense in science conferences

Exactly - this motivates even scientists to legitimize the religious ideology of current government of Modi. This is happening in all institutions where people make ridiculous statements to curry favors. From trying to rewrite history, subvert Supreme Court and CBI, blame Raghuram Rajan for causing Bank Crisis! And lot of fake news, media prosecution- It's an all out effort to brainwash a population not capable of seeing through the tactics. Very dangerous stuff not picked up by Western media.

'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". '

There are cranks all around the world, but the Indian Science Congress Association is a century old respectable institution.

The US equivalent would be a flat-earther as a speaker in the AGU fall meeting.

It's turtles all the way down dontcha know ...

Excerpt from Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835, Minute [we would write Memorandum, now] on Education in India:

The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach [...] European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse, and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

That's a bit rich from Macauly given that in his day people were expected to believe much of the tosh in the Old Testament. And indeed in the New.

You calumnify Macaulay baselessly. Read the Minute:

Observe that Macaulay does NOT call for teaching Christianity or the Bible-- he wants the Anglo-Indian government to finance only secular education (rather than economically-useless Hindu and Mohammedan religious instruction) and to provide stipends only to students of secular subjects. Macaulay states that the Anglo-Indian government of 1835 does not and-- Macaulay insists [point 31]-- ought not fund Christian missionaries or teachers!

Macaulay wants to leave all forms of religious instruction open but privately funded. He advocates that the government should underwrite only secular education.

You miss the point: Macaulay's advice that missionaries be kept out of India is well known (at least to me). But Britain was full of bloody fools who took the OT and NT quite literally, at least on Sundays. They were as worthy of a mocking as the Hindus: "geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter" isn't much dafter than Moses leading a couple of million people across the Red Sea and then parading around in a desert for forty years, or the episode where the sun stood still, and so on and so on.

Quite impressed to see this comment coming from one in Great Britain.

Since we are still discussing what science is, I wonder about its cultural prerequisites. In This Idea is Brilliant, John Brockman, publisher & editor of Edge, writes
"Science, then, is the reliable acquisition of knowledge about anything, whether it be the vagaries of human nature, the role of great figures in history, or the origins of life itself."

I like his definition but then I wonder whether the reliability of new and old knowledge should be assessed individually or collectively. Brockman wrote his definition to introduce Edge Annual Question for 2017 (What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?). The question was posed to individual scientists working in several fields as if only each one could judge the reliability of the proposed term or concept (indeed, specialization in narrowly-defined fields implies that only a few peers could judge most proposals). Since the number of suppliers of those terms and concepts is quite large and they compete for the attention of those that demand knowledge for their own purposes, Brockman's definition is not sufficient because it has to make clear what particular process produces reliable knowledge.

I assume that Tyler's reference to cultural prerequisites aims at the particular collective processes of producing reliable knowledge. I have been wondering about those prerequisites since Sowell published his Knowledge and Decisions in 1980 (he talked about authenticated knowledge and different methods of authentication, one of which would be the process of science --see chapter 1). I hope Tyler tells us about recent progress in producing reliable knowledge.

I had forgotten about Sowell's book. It's anti-science in the sense that he opposes reliance on experts who seek solutions to problems in the social or economic realms. His point is that such solutions are unknowable, at least not until ex post. Sowell relied on Hayek's famous essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society, in which Hayek argue that knowledge is unevenly dispersed among society and, hence, decisions are best made locally. In my low country community, knowledge about global warming is mostly learned in church or by watching Fox. Hence, solutions that are proposed by experts in faraway places have little if any weight.

I just came here to say Hephaestus invented robotics. He even created some automatons that looked like young women =)

Savages gotta be savages. Yet, America keeps supporting them.

America keeps supporting Brazil? Didn't realize that.

India! It supports Indian savages.

“Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets,”

'Vishnu Chakra' was a type/brand of fireworks which we kids used to light come Diwali. Certainly chased away the flies.

This is a common belief among many South Asians/Indians of both political stripes, both and before Modi. However, it was always a way of allowing scientific ideas and pursuits to exist in the context of a overarching cultural and spiritual belief system. In that, it was less about science per se than it was 'history' or 'archeology' of science and religion. In some ironic way, it was about strengthening the connection between the Enlightenment and Science to earlier notions of science and rationality in Indian history and culture, not weakening it.

Strong and intelligent Christians, Muslims and Jews can use all sorts of motivated reasoning to allow both their religious beliefs and scientific work to co-exist. I suspect the same does and should occur for others.

However, what is new here is that a scientific institution is allowing these thoughts to come to the forefront. It would be like allowing one or two Evangelical neuroscientists or biologists do a keynote talk to their national convention on the weight of the soul.

That being said, the idea that Ancient indians, alongside their Greek, Roman and Egyptian peers, thought seriously about technology and robots is not that far fetched. Adrienne Mayor's new book is really fun in exploring those stories and beliefs

Theometry: overrated or underrated

Just don't laugh too hard. It's the same here in the States, only our religious nut gurus are relegated to the health care space. Smart, educated people paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars a year for "spinal realignment" and neti pots and echinacea and other such nonsense.

Why would you call neti pots nonsense? They are part of mainstream Western practice and are shown to be effective, for example:

Zealotry of the Hindu variety seems to present these ancient-tech screeds more than other religions. It perhaps betrays a cultural insecurity associated with being a former colony.

I'm confident about India's future, but stuff like this has to be defeated.

Help me out here. Does a space program or heart surgery demonstrate that a country has a solid science community? Do good engineers win Nobel Prizes? [citation needed]. What do university administrators have to do with science? The real question is why did the organization invite such people to speak? Science magazine (as propaganda for the AAAS, no doubt) recently has started to emphasize that not only is "diversity" necessary part of "science" but so is "communication to the community". They've confused the (local) industry with the profession.

ok so speaking as a woman
ve are curious dahling
tell us
what are the cultural prerequisites for science?

'and yes Max Weber still is underrated'

Well, if one wishes to ignore the reality that it is Catholic Germany that is economically prosperous and innovative. While Protestant Germany has shown that in modern times, it cannot match the Catholic work ethic and spirit of capitalism found in Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg.

Odd how a century changes things assumed to be cast in stone.

Wasn't much of Protestant Germany in the Communist East? That could explain the current discrepancy.

The ca 17 million Germans that lived in the DDR lived in a part of Germany that was considered Protestant. Of the ca 65 million Germans that lived in the BRD, easily half of them also lived in a part Germany that was considered Protestant.

However, the DDR was quite aggressively atheist, so it is fair to say that East Germany was considerably less Protestant than West Germany.

But the real point remains that Weber's observation about Protestantism and capitalism are simply wrong if one looks at German history over the last 75 years or so.

An Indian colleague once addressed a stunned-to-silence audience on the Indian acquisition of nuclear weapons... thousands of years ago.

where did this happen?

A long way from India!

Probably a reference to the Mahabharat (specifically, the Brahma astra standoff between Aswathama and Arjun, which was essentially a MAD scenario. It was defused by the latter backing fown, but the former being unable to do so and redirecting the weapon to strike at Arjun s unborn grandson, and in doing so basically being cursed to wander the earth forever with a bleeding sore to forever mark his act of utter evil/dishonor. It's thematically so similar to the Biblical story of Cain that there has to have been contact between the cultures that respectively originated these stories)

to put it in perspective:

This is straight facts you ignorant motherfuckers.

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