Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his numerous follies, strongly believed in two wonderful concepts; freedom of speech, and a concept he had coined, a nation with a “scientific temper”. That term, a “scientific temper” is a wonderfully succinct way to describe a broad concept. By speaking of a nation with a “scientific temper”, he wanted to speak of the people of a nation who would be able to think independently, understand and practice the scientific method in their daily lives, analyse and not take statements at their face value, and avoid simplistic reasoning. Of course, it has been easier said than done to create that atmosphere in a nation where superstition, religion, rumor, myth and innumerable beliefs abound. Interestingly, I was reminded of the concept of a “scientific temper” by an unlikely source.
One of the pioneering biochemists, science advocates and science policy advisors of our time, Bruce Alberts talked about this concept in a talk of his recently. While talking about science policy, research and much more, he also talked a bit about some of his efforts with City Science, an effort to improve science education in schools in San Francisco, which he hoped would not just improve science education, but would get kids to think about everything. Now, this effort isn’t just about getting kids to learn their science books better, but it is about bringing about a fundamental change in their way of thinking, enabling them to question, analyse and reason better in all aspects of their everyday lives, making the scientific method a part of it. He used a simple example of just one of the types of lessons that the kids learnt which illustrated the concept beautifully. I thought it would be just the kind of story to share on this blog.
This was a lesson for five year old kids in kindergarden, showing how this concept can be inculcated in kids very early in life. A bunch of five year olds were allowed to run around and play in their schoolyards wearing clean white socks. When they returned, each kid was told to collect all the little black and brown bits of dirt, grass, seeds and whatever else from their socks. The kids were then asked to sort out the dirt, separating the seeds from the dirt. At this age of course, the kids knew that seeds were something plants grew from, but couldn’t easily tell seeds from just regular, largish specks of dirt. But they were allowed to come up with their own ideas of what would be a seed and what would be dirt, and they created their own little piles of “seed” or “dirt”. Now, at this stage, you would think the teacher would just come in and correct the kids. But no, the exercise was taken further. First, the kids were asked to look at their seeds and dirt under a 5$ “microscope”, where they could get a clear idea of the shape and dimensions of their dirt or seeds. Then they could draw out the different patterns they saw, making their own guesses for dirt or seed from this, and perhaps intuitively looking for a regular pattern into which all seeds could fall into. Finally, in order to prove their hypothesis, the kids were asked to plant their “seeds” or “dirt” in seed free earth, keeping a record of what they planted, with a small drawing of what each speck planted looked like. If their separation was correct, the dirt would never grow into grass or a plant, but a majority of the seeds would grow in a few days into grass or sprouting plants. Then, the kids could see for themselves which specks were dirt, and which were seeds. So, with this fun little experiment, the kids were introduced to the concept of forming a hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis. They could easily have just been shown seeds, and dirt, and told which was what, ending the lesson. But by allowing them to go through this process, it enabled them to understand that just an idea, however appealing it might sound, wasn’t necessarily true. It inculcated the idea of the “testability” of a hypothesis, and the concept that a statement that couldn’t be verified or tested wouldn’t fall under the scientific domain. It also showed them something about “falsifiability”, the fact that if something convincingly failed the test (say all pieces of dirt classified as “seed” not growing into plants) could suggest then that the idea could be false. Of course, this didn’t go into the limits of falsifiability and suchlike, but this is pretty good for five year olds isn’t it?
The broader idea here is that by doing this early in a child’s life, it would enable the child to understand the scientific method better, better enable the child to question simplistic statements or “theories” (thereby differentiating scientific theories from popular “theories”), and would help the child grow up into someone more rational and someone less likely to be swayed purely by emotion or passion.
So, coming back to Nehru’s scientific temper, I think these are the type of initiatives that we need, starting with kids at a very young age. There certainly are small efforts here and there, by wonderful NGOs or other organizations, but most of the efforts are few and far between. With education in India itself, most of the effort (or argument) appears to be for better colleges or research institutes or more IITs, but the biggest hole lies in our schools. It is a white elephant no one wants to touch. But only when that hole is plugged will terms like a nation with a scientific temper mean anything.