Lazy journalism by Aakar Patel: India’s alleged cultural apathy towards science

Now I have a love hate relation with Aakar Patel (and it’s a one way relationship at that). While I do like a few of his articles and admire the fact that he can take a contrary position and furnish good arguments to substantiate his stance, I do have issue with some of his articles -like the ones he write for Pakistan’s The Express Tribune (particularly this). But then I guess he is trying to go international and I for one wont begrudge him some ambition. But what really got me all worked up is his commentary on India’s culture of scientific curiosity or lack thereof – “Why science is not in our culture?” 

Let look at his arguments one by one

Jay Leno builds and maintains his own cars, called hot rods. Hundreds of thousands of Americans do this.How many Indians can do that? I can’t think of many.

He takes this as an example of our lack of curiosity and hence an evidence of science not being in our culture. Well it seems 2/3 of American teens don’t know how to fix their cars either. I don’t know how many Indian teens can fix their cars but I believe the number is far worse. But it has nothing to do with our culture and everything to do with the biggest problem that faces India : poverty (no fair skin is the second biggest problem but big companies are working on it and soon you can have not just have a fair face but also a fair vagina). Car owning is a rather nascent phenomenon in India, just 5% Indian households have a four wheeler of any kind and this number includes trucks too while the corresponding figure for America is over 90%. A typical American teen would be taught how to fix cars by his/her dad and this tradition passes on. Most of the Indian car owners probably bought their cars in their 30s or 40s. My father bought his first car in 2000 and he was almost 50 then. That’s a little old for any man to get under the car and fix things, let alone teach anything about it to his son. Which is why even I don’t know how to fix cars. Secondly, a car is a rather priced possession here in India and no one would have the courage to tinker with it unless they knew exactly what they are doing. Also the fact that labour cost of repairing a car is way less compared to America means most Indians can get away with believing that their cars still have carburetors.

American high schools have a class called Shop, in which teenagers learn how to work machines like lathes. This is one of the most popular classes there.

Well for one shop classes or Industrial Arts is slowly disappearing from American schools. For another setting up one of those labs is expensive, very expensive. In India, where the government doesn’t have enough money to set up required number of schools and most that exist are in bad condition, an Industrial Arts Lab is a luxury that most schools (and their students) can’t afford. I agree with Mr. Patel that these skills are important but at the moment sending all children to school is far more important. However we do have smithy and carpentry in our Engineering colleges where such skills are far more needed.

 No big budgets are needed to push science in a culture, in my opinion.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion but it doesn’t have to be right.Mr. Patel doesn’t however give the basis for his opinion. I remember my school (and it was a cheap one with fees of around Rs. 100-150 per month) did a rather hatchet job of it. We had a chemistry lab but only the teacher demonstrated some pedestrian reactions and no student was ever allowed to perform any experiments; not that they had any chemicals reagents either. A few good science educators I know prepare their own models, reactions, circuits and robots to fuel interest of their students but all of these cost money, a fair deal of money if you want to replicate it at a national level. Most beginners robotics workshop charge Rs 5000 and above for a 2 day (10 -12 hr) workshop and even the most basic robotic circuit would cost around Rs. 1500 and that’s not accounting for the fact that students are very likely to destroy a circuit in their first attempt (I am giving an example from electronics because that’s what I am familiar with). Not to mention we need far better science teachers in each school. Mr. Patel has obviously never visited a small town or village school and thus the delusion.

The sheer cost of tinkering prevents many from fiddling with electronics or cars. And that is probably why we are so good in computers, because once you have a PC you can code whatever you want and if it crashes you just rewrite, no monetary loss on failure. That is also why I got drawn to computers as a kid.

Whatever field you work in, think about what aspect of it is pioneered by South Asians, who are a fifth of humanity.

America got it’s independence in 1776, India in 1947; that’s about 200 years of head start that Americans had. Under British rule, our education system suffered massively. So it is unfair to expect us to have contributed at par with the West.

Our peasants and labourers still use equipment that Europe gave up hundreds of years ago. Not because it is cheap, but because there is no thinking of qualitative improvement. If it works, that’s good enough for 10 generations or 20.

We don’t need for efficient equipment because labour is cheap. If we were to adopt more advanced machinery more people would be unemployed. Besides there is active hostility on the part of labourers to introduce any equipment that might reduce labour. I know of executives in plants getting beaten up because they wanted to bring in new machinery. Frankly, this is basic economics that Mr. Aakar Patel is not aware of, as long as labour is cheap there is no incentive to buy expensive machinery. Also I am not sure how this has anything to do with scientific temper.

..This is because they [Europeans]  had the incentive to build ships strong enough to sail the ocean and to carry the cannon (which they also refined) with which they conquered the New World and larger but weaker nations like India. Why didn’t we think of drip irrigation? Why did we wait for Israel to occupy arid land and show us this simple but effective technology?

That’s just pure ignorance on his part. The Cholas who ruled from 300 BC to 1280 AD and pioneered the use of the Navy back in 6th century  introducing the concept of building exclusive fighting ships and built ships for different purposes like trap ships (called ‘Kannis’ which means virgin, yes they had a good sense of humour as well), destroyers, supply ships etc.  They were also the first to operate ships in fleet with the smallest fleet consisting of about 12 ships and the largest up to 500 or more. And their ships were strong, strong enough to have catapults and flamethrowers. And they were not ‘weak’ by any standard – they were known to defeat armies many times their size and at it’s peak the empire spanned across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Maldives. The Cholas also built extensive water supply network using a network of canals and a 329 feet stone dam over Kauveri back in 1st Century AD. They were irrigating 1 Million hectares of land (that’s equivalent to a country the size of Lebanon or Kosovo).

But through all of this, it is the constant outward looking gaze of their culture that made them inventors at the level of the individual.

Again, Mr Aakar Patel shows his complete lack of knowledge and a tendency for self depreciation at  a national scale. The Indus Valley civilization had Iron extraction skills back when others were learning the use of opposable thumbs. We also gave the world carburised steel and cotton clothing among other things. As for inventions at an individual level, Padma Shri Anil Gupta, one of my profs at IIM-A, is scouting the country for rural innovations and has found quite a few so far.

He [V.S Naipaul] says Indians go through an airport without noticing how it is that it works. The ideas that make it function as a unit. All this we leave to other people, the West, the real scientists. We, huddled together in our groups, are too terrified to explore the world alone.

V.S Naipaul, even on his worst days, is too full of himself. And I am pretty sure, Indian or not, you couldn’t just waltz into a control tower however strong your curiosity may be.

Now I could go on and on about the many contributions to science that India has made.  But I would leave it upon you the reader to explore that. I do however agree with Mr Patel that science has to be nurtured at the school level. Towards that the CBSE could train its teachers better so that they are more than just agents for disseminating information. But it is equally important that these students find good colleges and universities to pursue science once they get out of school. And here too we are lagging behind massively. Other than a small percentage of students that go to the IITs and IIITs (also NITs and the new established IISERs and a few good private institutions) most have to settle for hopeless colleges that completely fail to nurture their potential. It is no wonder than that a student who otherwise fails to make into a IIT or NIT often gets admission into a MS program at a good American university and does well too. The potential that can be unleashed if we were to harness all our intelligent minds is tremendous. Sadly, as of now, only a fraction of it is ever allowed to blossom.

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2 thoughts on “Lazy journalism by Aakar Patel: India’s alleged cultural apathy towards science

  1. Sir I agree with you that we have major concerns like poverty, malnutrition,unemployment,etc before we dive into topics like scientific culture but I would like to raise a point here. I am an undergraduate and I find that very few guys are really interested in their subjects and the remaining are studying for getting placed.Most of us are preparing for CAT/GMAT/GRE/IES so that we get placed in PSUs(motto-stable job+under the table income) or IIMs(motto-salary in dollar) and of course profs. are no different(but not all),I guess these students of the IITs n NITs are studying for eradicating poverty or for fulfilling the basic needs of their family members , no offence, but where is innovation, creativity.We run behind package, GPAs.
    Secondly if our government doesn’t have enough money to provide enough schools then i think, that should be our first priority over hosting commonwealth games or ICC world cup, of course they boost our soft power but at the cost of hungry and uneducated children, besides the money retrieved from scams and Swiss accounts would be sufficient to set up expensive labs at each and every school. So here I don’t agree with you that we don’t have resources.

    • Thank you for commenting Abhishek.I dont see anything wrong with wanting to be financially well off. How is that wrong? You need to understand that not every guy out of an IIT or IIM can be the next Steve Jobs. Not everyone is or can be innovative or creative and frankly the world economy does not have space for a thousand Steve Jobs. Besides most world problems, like poverty etc, don’t need too much innovation and creativity, they just need good intentions from a host of stakeholders who are at loggerheads with each other. That’s about it. If all our IIT/IIM grads decided to stay back in India and decided to do research, we wouldn’t even have enough money to fund all their research.So I am happy a lot of them are pursuing opportunities abroad.

      Secondly, we can’t wait for all poverty to go before we host a CWG or World Cup. Poverty is not going away any time soon. As for money in Swiss banks, we have a total (black+white) amount of around INR 9000 cr stored while the government spent 99057 cr on education in last year budget. So no, all that black money won’t make any significant difference. Oh and it we brought it back to India all at once, it would cause a fair bit of inflation.

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