Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indian attitudes to Science Education

My early exposure to science was not very good. We had a bad science teacher from 6th std to 8th std. No practicals, but lots of chanting in the class room. He taught Newton's third law by singing. "Action and Reaction are Equal and Opposite", he sang and asked all of us to join in. We had no idea what action or reaction was. But we joined in the chant because he beat you if you did not shout loud enough. Now, that has left me with a lifelong scar - I still hear the singsong in my mind when I read about Newton or watch rockets taking off - "Action and Reaction are Equal and Opposite".
Later in my life I took Physics at college and attended an interview in IIT Madras for Master's in Physics. They asked me how a bottle rested on a table. And I answered that the force of gravity on the bottle was balanced by the opposite reaction on the table. It was a wrong answer, because although action and reaction are equal and opposite they act on different bodies. They made fun of me for some time for that. It was sad that the teacher who taught me Newton's laws was more interested in singing than on the actual meaning of the laws.
The way science was taught was the way Thirukkural (Tamil poem) was taught. We all dreaded Thirukkural at school, particularly in the 10th std because they had fifty of them as "manappaada paattu" meaning we had to know them by heart for the examinations. In the examination, we were asked inane questions like this - "Write the Kural that ends with 'Arivu'". And we would all be looking at each other and mouthing the kurals at the examination.
This, of course, ruined all interest in Thirukkural for all of us - it was seen as one of the peculiar torture mechanisms preferred by adults.
Newton's laws were taught almost in the same fashion. If there were lots of laws by Newton, they would have asked us "Reproduce the Newton's law that ends in 'Opposite'" and we would all be staring at each other. As it is, in exams they asked us to write the laws verbatim.
What saved me, from a lifelong hatred of the exact sciences, was the books at my home that my father bought. One of these books was called "In the Name of Science". I don't remember the author.
That book talked about a peculiar problem that farmers faced in the 17th century. They could pump water using suction pumps but each pump could only push water to a height of 34 feet. So for a deep well, they needed multiple stages. This was a problem posed to Torricelli (I don't remember all the details). At that time there was this saying "Nature abhors a vacuum". If nature abhors a vacuum then a suction pump should be able to pump water to whatever height. Torricelli thought about this issue and had a key insight. What if air had weight? If air had weight and we are living under a ocean of air, then, Torricelli reasoned, probably the weight of 34 feet of water was all the entire atmospheric weight could sustain. (This is called now as atmospheric pressure). To prove that this is true, Torricelli chose a test tube full of mercury. Mercury was 13.6 times denser than water. So, in a meter long test tube, atmospheric pressure can only sustain around 2.5 feet of mercury. Torricelli tried to see if this was true and well, he found it was true and thereby created the first artificial vacuum. In the process he also invented the barometer.
This story was narrated in the book with beautiful illustrations. The book continued on into other experiments such as the one where 8 horses could not pull apart a vacuum sealed sphere.
This book caused my first interest in science and I looked for more such. My father bought a few Russian books; even a Tamil translated book on the Special theory of Relativity. I had no idea what they were talking about but read them anyway.
One of the Russian books talked about a experiment by Galileo. If you had a heavy object tied with a long string suspended from an axis, you have a pendulum. A pendulum swings back and forth and it has a time period and an amplitude. It is natural to suspect that if you pull a pendulum far enough and let it go, it will swing faster. Well, Galileo found that this assumption was wrong. The time period of a pendulum's swing ONLY depends on the length of the rope.

This was an experiment I could do - I got a rope, a iron ball and then tied to a nail and tried swinging at different points. I did not have a stop watch so I counted manually. It sure seemed Galileo was right, and I did not make any dramatic discovery that overruled Galileo.
Now, you would think that I went on to become a scientific whiz kid. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. This post is about why I did NOT become such a whiz kid.

The Examination System
While I kept trying to read about Astronomy, and tried to build my own telescope by stealing lenses from the school science lab, I still had no clue why I was doing all this. I wanted to observe the moon up close (I still have not done that). I took some chemicals from the school lab and tried to burn the house down. But I did all of these without knowledge of the scientific method and what it means. School should have taught me that, but instead they were giving lots of details about the chemical equation of Hydrogen Sulphide.

In 9th std, we got an excellent science teacher, finally. His first class (I still remember it) was a lecture on Pavlov and his dog. For those of you interested in this experiment, here is the wikipedia link.

In that lecture he explained the reflex actions that guided most animals and humans and the principle of classical conditioning. He quote from the dreaded Thirukkural - the poet says that men should share their food as even crows call each other when they see food. The teacher said that crows called out on seeing food out of reflex and not out of nobility. Otherwise they would not be fighting with each other when a couple of more crows reach the scene. This was the first time we actually had a science teacher lecturing anything. He just talked for 45 minutes, without referring to a book or dictating notes.
He taught us for 9th and 10th, and my liking of science grew a lot in those years. Yet, we were faced with a dilemma - his lectures were essentially useless to us, when you went to the examination and the questions went like "Define reflex action". You lose marks if you even swap words in the definition.
This is why, in spite of good teachers (and they are few) our examination system is royally messing with our heads.
Slowly, the examination system squeezes out any interest in the actual subject you may have. People blame religion for a lack of interest in science, but it is our own examinations that makes us lose interest.
When we got into high school and then later college, there were practical classes, in which you go into the lab and perform experiments. These sessions were made as dry and devoid of fun as possible. You needed to have an observation notebook. Then you had a practical notebook. The practical notebook was awarded points for neatness - it needed a brown paper cover and a label on top. Then each experiment had an objective and other sections. We all copied from each other and from seniors making the whole system worthless.
Again and again and again, we measure the refractive index of glass - we knew it was 1.5 by 9th std, but we had to perform experiments whose sole objective was to find out the refractive index of glass. We did not know why so many experiments were devised for finding something that everyone knew. This resulted in some "backhand work". In Physics lab there was an experiment called the Newton's Rings. It was complicated and hurt the eye and its purpose was - you got it - to find the refractive index of stupid glass. In my class, we devised a method by which we would sit at home and work out the 32 readings using a calculator which would result in the answer, 1.5. Someone took it too far and showed the answer to the professor without coming to class. Unfortunately, there was no electricity on that day and it is not possible to perform Newton's Rings without a powerful mercury lamp. He got caught.
We had a micro processor lab in engineering college. I always got into trouble with the professors because my "observation notebook" was not neat. It was a programming lab and I actually wrote the programs in the notebook. Why would my notebook be neat if I am trying out different assembly programs? Incredibly, in one of the electronic labs, the professor wanted to "discipline" us. The labs were more about discipline than having fun with electronics.

I blame the system utterly for making science education so meaningless. Even after three years of Physics I had no idea what the scientific method was. If someone had asked me the difference between the Renaissance or the Age of Reason, and the period preceding that I would have been unable to answer, even though I had a science education all my life. In fact, I bet most people reading this blog would have the same problem.

Indian Society and Science
Our society treats science the same way we treat all knowledge - it should be "received" and accepted without questioning. In the case of science, many educated Indians reject that it is a fundamental shift in looking at the world.
I had an argument about astrology with a couple of colleagues. One of them said that a long time back Indians had identified the planets as nine (nava graha) and that this was getting confirmed by modern science. I pointed out that the nava graha of Indian astrology included the Sun, the Moon, Raghu and Kedhu (eclipses). These are not planets. Raghu and Kedhu don't even exist. Thus Indians knew only the five visible planets that most of the ancient world knew.
I am not going to rant about astrology more here, but the key problem in Indian understanding of modern science is two-fold:
1. A belief that modern science is no different than ancient knowledge - that the means of acquiring it and the means of making new findings are similar to, say, alchemy.
2. A belief that modern science is somehow "western" and thus a patriotic rejection of its ideas.
This is why you see people insisting that the ancients knew about everything or an attempt to explain "scientifically" homams, yagams and so on.
There are also two other reasons for our rejection of scientific values:
1. An inferiority complex about being colonised causes us to be suspicious of giving "credit" to white people.
2. Our own "rational" movements have not helped the cause. They have called for a wholesale rejection of religion and examining every action through a rational prism. I think this is not practical - it is possible to acquire scientific knowledge and also accept religion. Our rational movements have started out on a crusade against any aspects of religion (meanwhile inventing their own religions, holy people and rituals). Most sociologists and psychologists accept a role of rituals, myths and legends in human life - rationalists are thus going against the spirit of science itself, in some ways.
My point is not in finding a middle ground between science and religion. I don't accept portraying them as opposing poles. They are in different dimensions and cater to different roles in human life.

The Scientific Method

Modern scientific method originated in Europe, with the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. It is a specific event in human history. Even though we link it with the exact, "natural" sciences such as Physics or Biology, science includes all quest for knowledge, its synthesis and analysis. This quest, after the 16th century followed specific methods of hypothesis, empirical observations, theory formation, predictions, repeatable tests, and most importantly, peer review. This method is the defining change that has brought us all the progress of the past 4 centuries. Just as economic historians identify the explosion of capitalism as an event that started 3 centuries back, the advent of modern science is traced to the beginning of the 17th century.
This event happened in Western and Southern Europe. Historians trace the Renaissance to specific social conditions around the city of Florence, Italy. It spread to regions closest and then most of Europe, soon after. Simlarly the advent of the Age of Reason was caused by social conditions.
One key thing to note is that the scientists engaged in advancing the method were self-aware that they were part of a new age of human history.
We have to realize that the scientific method represents a clean break from the previous periods of human history and is a unique idea.
We ought to be proud of this "human" legacy - it is not a western legacy (in spite of all efforts by the West itself to take ownership).
One of the best ways to understand what science is, is to learn what science is not. There is a classic book by the mathematician, Martin Gardner called "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science". This book defines pseudo science and covers several examples of it in a very interesting fashion. If our current Chief Minister or the media had read this book, they would not have run around with Ramar Pillai and his "Mooligai Petrol" 10 years back. Anandha Vikatan published an editorial calling "anti-Tamil" and "elitist" the professors in Delhi and Madras who rejected Ramar Pillai's work.
If, our education emphasized the role and the history of scientific method even a little bit, we can place ourselves in some context within scientific knowledge. We can distinguish it from alchemy and pseudo-science. Instead we have people hiding in homes with all curtains closed during a solar eclipse.


S m i t h a said...

lol.. i nodded to death reading this. refractive index of glass, those were the days!

but i've to disagree with ur views on "rational" movements. their wholesale rejection of religion is not without precedent and very practical. this is bcos in india, whichever wake of life one is from one is told that god is beyond human understanding, and that unquestioning faith is a virtue. the heart of the scientific method is the notion "question everything". reason is strongest antidote to faith.
so ridiculing religion in a public forum serves to see both the hurdle and the means to overcome it.

can you elaborate on the different dimensions/roles that religion and science serves? and the roles of rituals, myth & legends?

Ramiah Ariya said...

I did not say rational movements in India have no precedent. Also note that rational movements in the West have not had much success either.
The scientific method is just a method of procedure. "Question everything" is more of a bent of mind or a moral. It cannot be considered part of a formal method that includes repeatable testing and peer review.
Do we really need an antidote to faith? Let me explain briefly here and then write a much longer post on this topic.
From my point of view, freedom to practice a religion personally or collectively is enshrined in the declaration of universal human rights. We have no right to judge other people based on their personal beliefs as long as they don't affect us. It is as simple as that. I don't see religion as a hurdle to be overcome, as there are many, many religious people who practice their beliefs without hurting anyone else.
As for the role of rituals and myths, a formal text book in sociology covers much of its role in human culture. Again, I will elaborate later. There is enough material here for a separate post than in comments.
But I am interested if you have a counter to the human right angle above?

Anonymous said...

Its not just with the science, every other "subject", as we call it, suffers from this attitude. How many of the 12th pass outs would know what is differential calculus or integral calculus is for?

Brindha said...

Well written. I totally agree with the sordid state of teaching in most schools in India, particularly in the 80s when I was growing up. Practical experimentation was never a source of joyful learning. At my lab, I can see most Indians struggling with results interpretation and logical analysis, while being extremely good theoretically. Hope things change, particularly the exam system as you rightly point out.

S m i t h a said...

oops, too late for a followup?
well, i think the scientific method(tsm) is a more powerful concept than anything else... bcos it is really working towards the truth, and is not satisfied with just philosophy or myths and empty words. TSM is truly the only method that we know of to understand the natural world. it is not rigid and changes with what we can observe and experience. even a theory that is correct most of the time and has been quite useful will be questioned against new observation that is made. Newton's gravitational theory considered kosher for 4 centuries is not used in satellite communication systems bcos Einstein's theory gives the more accurate results.
so yes, i believe "question everything" still applies to TSM.
i dont think u share my view of faith corrupts everything! in my view, faith in god has no use. it is not mandatory to be good, it encourages to be satisfied with authoritative answers, against reason, rigid, assertive and fictional.
and i ask abt rituals & myths, bcos like faith once we've known its colors there usually is no need for it anymore. we should record them for posterity but definitely not take decisions based only of them(like BJP's Hindutva agenda). zeitgeist should take precedence here. it only gives a delusional purpose to life.
that leaves us the human rights issue. after TSM, freedom of speech is what i respect most. im not trampling on anyone's right to practice religion. im just worried that they'll bring it into my home and tell me how to live my life. somehow faith/religion/god makes people forget the value of life and strap explosives and fly jets into buildings. no atheist will die or kill for a god that he doesn't believe in!
*sigh* i need to elaborate & post these thoughts on my dead blog.

S m i t h a said...

we certainly need an antidote to faith!
a superb article on how religion as a fundamental idea does not work for the good of society. the author does not talk abt science & its +ve effects but he drives the religion nail home.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Smitha, You obviously feel a passion for this debate. I approach this from a different point of view and I have a set of arguments too. I do not have a big problem with religion, although I am an atheist myself.
I got out of the Tamil discussion forum Karuthu.com because of the rancorous nature of this debate (plus, the admin was posting as an user and abusing his power).
Why don't we do this? I will post a new blog post sometime later, describing my thoughts on the science vs religion issue. Whatever you comment in response will be added to that same blog post. We can continue the discussion in that form (with me promoting your comments to the main post). I promise not to edit or otherwise modify your comments.
What do you think? It is an interesting enough subject and I am willing to debate back and forth.
If you are fine with that, I will create this new blog post sometime in the next month.

S m i t h a said...

that does sound like a fun idea. lets do it!

Rajesh said...

That was nice to read but I would say "Life is like that"
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