Science at the grass roots

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN an article ‘Neutrinos and Angels’ he wrote for a national daily, Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan’s leading scientists, quotes the late Carl Sagan, America’s well-known astronomer, astrophysicist, and science communicator.

Sagan told Bible Belt Americans: “Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonise about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.”

These habits of thought Dr Hoodbhoy describes as the “cancerous growth of claptrap masquerading as science”. He further advises Pakistanis “to listen again, and yet again to” Sagan. How right he is.

I would, however, add that we should also draw some lessons from social scientists — Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan comes to mind immediately — who go a step further to analyse the basic causes of such evils and suggest feasible solutions. This is important because to root out superstitions and this ‘claptrap’ one must eliminate the factors that are creating the conditions in which they thrive.

Why do the likes of our televangelists with their bizarre pontifications on science and religion find popular acceptance in our society? The fact is that a socio-economic environment has been created in the country, courtesy the concerted and organised efforts of the right-wing religious parties that operate in a very organised manner at all levels, especially in educational institutions and the mosques.

Take education, the first safeguard against fanaticism and irrationality. It has been neglected woefully by all governments leaving the field open to the right to indoctrinate the masses and manipulate public thinking.

The biggest tragedy has been our failure to address primary education in the public sector. In fact most of our problems can be traced to this failure. It is what is drilled into a child’s head at a young age that determines his mindset as an adult. If a science culture had been created in our schools, things would have been different. Show a child the germination of a seed or let him toy around with the tuning fork and his curiosity will compel him to seek answers to the questions that crowd his mind.

If there are schools which take education seriously and understand the importance of teaching science correctly, they are in a minuscule minority. Beside their high fees make them beyond the reach of the majority. Then can we really hold the people responsible for their lack of education and for falling into the trap of the pseudo scientists? I would not blame Shan, a teenager from a katchi abadi, for telling me that we do not fall off the earth which is rotating because “Allah wills it so”. That is science for him. But after I talked to him about the law of gravity in simple language that he could understand, he was so fascinated that he wanted to know more. And Shan is only one of the 60 per cent of our population that subsists on less than two dollars a day.

With the rot going so deep, what corrective measures can be taken now? Several generations of teachers are products of a system that promotes rote learning in students and is afraid to teach them to think critically. They have never outgrown the naivety so cultivated. The religious parties aspiring for power, the preachers posing as fake scientists and the media vying for cheap popularity and ads have exploited the ignorance of the masses.

A number of students who have entered universities and professional colleges think no differently. As adults armed with a little knowledge (that has proverbially been pronounced a dangerous thing), they pose a threat to rational thinking as well as to peace and stability. A lot of violence can be traced to them.

Mercifully, the majority that does not go to universities generally abjures physical force. At the most it seeks relief in rituals and amulets as a panacea for the evils that plague our society. If in the process people manage to achieve their desired goal — even if by pure coincidence — it is enough to reinforce their faith in their strategy. Who can deny that the poor are overwhelmed with crises demanding corrective measures such as disease, joblessness, hunger and oppression by the powerful? Since the state does not help, they seek their own remedies.

The fact is that the majority of our people have no control over their own lives. The state does not offer its citizen facilities for good education for his children, healthcare for his family, protection from criminals, social justice and economic security.
Poverty denies a person the luxury of choice.

The solution lies in promoting mass education that actually reaches the people at the grassroots. It would also help if the secular-liberals would participate in this process to neutralise the claptrap of the right. Focused informal interventions in schools could help create a culture of science. For this the help of the teachers will be needed.

The non-governmental sector is now trying to do just that. Every school system worth its salt has a teachers’ training centre attached. Some guidance from the scientists should help. They could show teachers how to popularise science in schools. It would also be an interesting experiment to have scientists themselves visiting schools — where the children of the common man study — to talk to them about the wonders of science.

Source: Dawn

10 thoughts on “Science at the grass roots

  1. I think we can do a little more to introduce young minds to the wonders of science by showing them science videos such as the COSMOS series by Carl Sagan in their school auditorium. There are, ofcourse, many such videos available. The NGOs can easily arrange it by providing a large screen and a DVD player. There should also be 'a science moderater' in attendance who would explain the background and answer the young students' questions. I will go one step further and try to persuade atleast the private TV stations in Pakistan to do the same and to produce and show science-based programs. I also endorse the idea of real-life scientists visiting the schools and colleges to offer inspiration.


  3. You are so right in pointing out the lack of real education in Pakistan and its effects. What else would you expect from the kind of people who have hijacked the counry for their own use. Thanks to the NGO's that at least some low income children get access to education. However, the intrusion of religion in all aspects of life in Pakistan makes even the so-called educated unable to have independent thinking. It is hopeless to expect the 'Wadera' governments to worry about educating their potential domestics.

  4. My beef is with the television media in Pakistan. While they are minting money and are prominant in political discourse, there is no interest in using this powerful media for education. They are good at keeping the people involved in soaps (the new opium for the masses) but don't expend any effort in educating the masses. Au contraire, they promote ignorance by producing faith healers, quacks and other self-appointed experts in front of the camera. If they wanted to they could get educational programs from other countries practically for nothing. These programs are extremely well done, holding the viewers' interest. They are informative and cover a wide range of knowledge in easy to understand format. I wish the government would mandate a minimum of educational content (not religious, please) in the private TV programming, for the privilage of using the nation's airwaves.

  5. Science has always been a fountainhead of knowledge based on theories and practicality. Science has played a vital role in rectifying the wrongs committed by the humankind because of ignorance.It is the need of the hour to make the kids familiar with the science right at the primary level so that they may be able to navigate through the ocean of life smoothly. It is the responsibility of the incumbent Government to take some practical steps in this regard.

  6. We're on the same page. Sending our scientists to speak in schools could have a good effect but I am not sure that it will be so in every case – or even for most cases. The problem is that so many of these "scientists" are proudly unscientific. They attempt to relate whatever they know about their field to religion and faith. This is nonsense because the scientists actually responsible for discoveries and inventions used perfectly straightforward rational arguments and techniques. Some speakers are no better than the doctors who recommend sacrificing a kala bakra, or reciting a certain dua to their patients. With so much scientific quackery around, I'd rather that young people just browse the internet and find good scientific stuff themselves.

  7. It has always been a pleasure to read your articles.

    The sad state of affairs of the social sciences is no better, whereas this is the builder and binder of society, specially during the transitions we are going through for the last few years.
    I wrote about education in Vision 2030, which was 'launched' in Aug 2007.

    I was Project Director and, as happens in such enterprises, ended up writing most of the document. I was against its publication at the time as not enough typo correction had been done.

    In 2007 the draft had been sent to all major papers, MNAs/MPAs, parliamentary committees and many NGOs … silence.

    Then the CJ was sacked in March ( 8th?) and the next day Dawn carried excerpts from Vision 2030 on its back page in the top half .. prominent headline.. Vision 2030 insists on unfettered democracy and the rule of law. I was asked by the Dy Chairman of Planning Commission to explain the quoted excerpts ( I was Member at the time), as the President was furious.

    I explained that Vision 2030 is trying to define, and identify what Pakistan might look like 25 years down the line. It is not restricted to present regimes and times, except as a benchmark for assessing possible futures.

    Both of them calmed down when I pointed to another place in the Document where I had repeated he well-known wisdom that we need 'good men and women in our judiciary, but not too good as they can become unjust'
    Very few have read the document, which was lost in the transition from Musharraf to Gilani in 2008.

    PS. I presented the salient points of the Vision 2030 document to a group of Social Democrat deputies in the German Bundestag, November 2007.

  8. The topic itself tells as which lines and words will follow each other.

    Science and Scientists have done a remarkable job to educate us correctly based on their tested knowledge. Too many Shan (Allah wills it so) existed on this earth a long time ago.

    Just imagine life on earth without cloth, paper, electricity, roads, train, medicines, shelter, communication etc. etc which are the products of science.

    Earlier a woman who gave birth to a girl child was abused by her in laws for not bearing a boy. Neem Hakim cooked their food very well and prescribed the cure: the man should re-marry. But as Doctors researched that it is the man’s sperm that determines the sex of the child – the woman’s dignity was restored. Similarly too many discoveries has solved many problems and have undone the NEEM HAKIM.

    Science is not at grass roots but even beneath roots. The famous scientist MARIE CURIE discovered Radium or Radioactivity. She was born in Poland so one of element discovered by her was named as Polonium. She belonged to a family of Nobel Prize Winners. She won prizes in multiple sciences – the first lady to do so. She died of Aplastic Anemia caused by radioactivity during her experiments.

    During the days when too many Shan’s were on earth it was not so easy to speak scientifically. The gentleman who declared earth is rotating round its axis as well as revolving round the SUN was crucified. But now all salute him. Just imagine how difficult it was to penetrate into the minds of Shans.

    The apple fell on the ground and Newton started pondering over (rather than to eat) this phenomenon and GRAVITY was discovered.

    Similarly another gentleman was sitting beside his mother in the kitchen. The utensil’s lid started moving due to steam pressure in it and the Railway Engine was invented.

    With the help of Internet and computer now we can know or get any information. Education is cheap via INTERNET.

    The strange and wonderful discovery of WHEEL is another example!!!!

    So far it is unknown as when, where and by whom the first WHEEL was WHEELED.

    The weapons which are said to have been developed as SELF PROTECTION from dreaded animals are now themselves DREADED WEAPONS and life on earth is always under danger.

    Let us all salute to our worthy Scientists!!!

  9. I've worked in science communication for over 7 years in Pakistan. I host/organize Science ka Adda (science cafe) at T2F…have produced a UNESCO funded science TV series and am producing a documentary film on Abdus Salam. LinkedIn profile:

    The odds against science communication in Pakistan are enormous. Other than Hoodbhoy, I can't think of anyone who I'd recruit (if I had the means) to do grass-roots science popularization – because they don't accept evolution. Others think evolution is seriously flawed. The only two Urdu science journalists in Pakistan are creationist. The list of buffoons I'd like to keep as far away from science-popularization as possible, just goes on and on and on.

  10. i am Gen Mgr with the NCHD in Shangla,a rural distt of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,the second poorest in the province.The population is peaceful and hospitable, willing to educate their children.It has a literacy rate of 25%,with 3.7% for females.NCHD has Human development units in all distts of Pakistan,AJK ,GB and FATA.It would be worthwhile to seek their assistance in co-ordinating such efforts between line depts and assisting agency.Their Head Office is located at 15th Floor Shaheed a millat Sectt Islamabad.The Chairperson is Ms Nafisa Shah,MNA from Sind.I am ready to assist in Distt Shangla,a cool summer resort.Restarting after winter break,academic session will continue until mid december.My numbers in shangla are 0996421015,0996850164.

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