By Bilal Karim Mughal
10 March, 2015
Lately, Pakistan seems to have started taking baby steps towards shining on the scientific horizon. We have a Nobel Prize in Physics to our credit, 5-year-olds with IT certifications, and an ever-increasing number of doctorates being produced.
On the other hand, the majority of our children remain deprived of even primary education and a blessing called the Internet, (or even electricity). We have been seeing records and amazing things happening in Pakistan’s educational arena: most as, youngest-to-achieve-this, youngest-with-this-certificate, talks, seminars, conferences, electric rickshaws, and electricity generating systems being built in universities, and so on.
Technologies, especially indigenous, student-made technologies are the backbone of any country’s economical, technical, and educational advancements. However, being sharp in building electronic circuits, and developing technologies and software is just one small part of being a 'scientist'.
The more important part is to be a scientist at heart and mind, and that is the area where we, as a society, lag.
Of course there are exceptions, but they are very few.
Although Pakistan is producing far more PhDs than ever before, the number of students (especially women) being enrolled in universities and other institutes of education is climbing up every year, it remains evident that our society still collectively lacks the ability and courage to think critically, even though our students very well remember the definition of scientific method.
Why do we keep seeing highly educated people, software developers, entrepreneurs, and students who can build advanced technical projects but still believe that man never landed on the moon?
Why do these highly educated people who are able to counter their teachers and counterparts with a barrage of critical questions during classrooms and technical seminars, easily buy into any propaganda spewed in the name of nationalism, patriotism, favourite political party, etc.?
To me, the answer lies in the way we teach science to our children.
Our schools, colleges, and universities focus the least on developing scientific attitudes, instead emphasising command over the technicalities of science – being adept at knowing how machines and equations work; how things are rather than why things are the way they are and why they cannot be another way.
Thus, 'knowledge' is taught and spread around without a deeper understanding of its logical underpinnings.
I mean, even the things we call 'derivations' are hardly 'derived' by students in the examination hall, they are reproduced from memory. Instructors at schools, colleges and tuition centres put up two or three formulae on the board, and write out the chain of equations leading to the desired final equation. Students memorise this chain by heart and scribble them out in their exams.
The implications, fallacies, thinking, and questioning gone into all these scientific concepts is absent from the curricula. We teach our children the scientific theories, but not what it takes to formulate a theory.
In fact, hang on, we do not even teach them the literal difference between ‘theory, law, and a hypothesis’, with most people confusing 'theory' with 'hypothesis', and even more who think of a 'theory' as merely a hunch.
Science is considered too boring a subject by many. The potential and power of science transforming the world is not yet fully known to the so-called scientists and science students of our country. Our reasoning remains at the stage where we still have people aplenty saying, ‘Yaar, Darwin Ki Theory Toh Bus Theory Hai Na, Proved Thori Hai’. (Darwin’s theory is just a theory, not proven fact).
Such ignorance cannot be excused by saying ‘biology isn’t my thing’, because even if interdisciplinary excellence is not mandatory, the foundations of all sciences are similar, and that should enable one to think critically and formulate logical arguments.
I was once holding a public astronomy session with my friends in Karachi where a man approached me with his children and started asking questions about the Special Theory of Relativity. After I walked him through it, he was mesmerised by the phenomenon. And then this exchange happened:
Me: Einstein was a great man.
Him: Really? Do you know he was a Jew?
Me: And, so what if he was?
Him: You wouldn’t have called him great if you knew he was a Jew.
What brand of science are his children likely to learn if their father loves science but hates scientists for their religion (or irreligion)?
There is a distinction between being technologically sound, and having a scientific attitude. As Carl Sagan puts it, ‘science is much more a way of thinking, than it is a body of knowledge’. What we generally do is regard technology as science, and keep on living with the same biases.
With an education like this, there is no wondering why we chuck arguments which appeal to the mind out of the window, in favour of half-baked 'theories' which affirm our notions and let us remain in our comfort zones.
On any given day, myth; word-of-mouth; personal narratives; political speeches; analyses manufactured with predetermined conclusions; quacks, palmists and dark magicians; and pseudo-intellectual arguments win over rational discourse, even for students who are studying in scientific disciplines.
Logic as a tool is not only useful in science, but can be used to objectively analyse almost everything (and more importantly in our case, everything that is aired on the media). The ability to differentiate between baseless arguments and assumptions, and arguments supported by facts, should not be that difficult to acquire at all.
Our students should not be studying physics while believing that there is no scientific proof of a moon landing.
Our biology students should not be mocking Darwin; rather they should develop an insight into the theory of evolution, and the proofs it has in its support.
Reasoning, objectivity, being free of bigotry, and accepting your mistakes whenever facts are presented to you are the key towards developing a scientific attitude.
Technology is a gift of science, but if there is no development of scientific attitude, then it may light up your lives in the literal sense, but not enlighten it.