By Zubeida Mustafa
IT IS a pity that science which is the antidote to irrational thinking and obscurantist behaviour is being slowly strangled to death in Pakistan, that is if we presume that it had a modestly glorious existence in the past in this country.
One cannot brush aside the giants this country has produced in the years bygone — the names of Nobel laureate Prof Abdus Salam and our genius of chemistry Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui come to mind immediately. As the grip of religion tightens on society, science is receding further and further in the backwaters.
A number of recent events confirm this sorry phenomenon to any objective observer. A fortnight ago, the inter-provincial conference of education ministers took a very important decision that was hardly noted by many people. The education ministers observed that the facilities for laboratories in schools in the rural areas were “largely insufficient” so the weightage given to practical examinations had been reduced.
Hence the ratio of marks for theory paper and practicals in the science subjects has been revised from 75 per cent-25 per cent to 85 per cent-15 per cent. Now anyone with a minimal knowledge of science knows that practical demonstrations and exercises teach a young mind more physics, chemistry and biology than pages and pages of theoretical texts.
If the labs are in a bad shape, should not the honourable ministers have decided to work to improve them? It is criminal to deny science education to children just because they live in the rural areas where the government has failed to equip schools with good laboratories.
Another instance of the negligence of science was demonstrated recently when a colleague who had been assigned the task of checking up on the performance of the PIA planetarium in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Karachi, informed me that the shows had been discontinued ages ago and a land dispute between the Expo Centre and the planetarium had put paid to all hopes that the planetarium would flourish again.
Another shocking news item was carried by this newspaper of Dec 13. Datelined Lahore, it stated that the federal education ministry had decided to “unburden” the minds of children at present studying in classes I to III by dropping science from their course of studies. So our children are to be denied the thrill of learning about the wonders of science from an early age.
It is not at all clear how a child’s mind is burdened by watching water boiling and steam being formed, or the germination of the seed which everyone of my generation had learnt about as a child as we eagerly jumped out of bed every morning to go and see how the bean and the newly emerging shoot were doing.
The final blow came when I watched Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, valiantly fight a losing battle with three religious scholars on a television channel trying to prove that natural phenomena have scientific rather than divine causes. I knew it was a losing battle however convincing Dr Hoodbhoy sounded because a few days earlier I had listened to him give his keynote address at a school conference pleading the case of science. As he had lucidly explained the natural phenomena that cause an earthquake, I had been forced to listen concurrently to a running commentary from a teacher sitting next to me who kept contradicting him softly for my benefit. Her final statement that left me baffled was that it was God who created the mysteries of science and to Him they should be left. Man should not be interfering with them.
One hopes that some intelligent policymaker in Islamabad who enjoyed studying science in school will understand the utility of teaching science to our children. Science forms the foundation of technology and if society has to progress it will have to teach science to its students so that they are equipped to create technology for the benefit of industry, agriculture and much more. While this is important in itself, the most important aspect of science is that its study involves a spirit of enquiry and its strength depends on the questioning of every traditionally held belief. By studying science, whole generations learn to think logically and rationally.
Dr Viqar Zaman, a professor of microbiology, writes in his book, Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist, “We must not think that science has only provided material benefits to mankind. Science has been a powerful ally in the struggle against racism, social injustice and religious bigotry. It has drawn people away from superstition, quackery witchcraft, black magic, demons and devils.”
This would also explain why science has always clashed with traditional thinking. Remember Socrates who was forced to drink hemlock. He was punished for saying that wisdom consists of knowing how little we know and the world can be best served by truth and virtue. Then there was Galileo who challenged the commonly held belief of the day that the sun goes round the earth. For that he was pronounced guilty of heresy. He had to retract his theory. But that didnt change the truth.
Are our policymakers afraid of teaching science to our students because they fear that it will encourage the youngsters to ask questions in their quest for the truth? We hope not. Intellectual freedom should be allowed to flourish for thus alone can man question the veracity of matters. The need is therefore not so much to teach science in a manner that students will understand the natural phenomenon. It is the need to train the thinking process of students that is important, and science alone can do it.
To create a science-friendly society in Pakistan it is important that science is made accessible and easily understandable. While the subject should be introduced as early as possible in school, science should be made interesting. As a start, the planetarium should be revived immediately. It is also important that a small science museum be inaugurated at the premises of the planetarium to get the Karachiites interested in science.
That is the need of the hour. And let every person who has a scientist within him take the “Scientist’s Oath” (quoted in Dr Viqar Zaman’s book) that says, “I vow to strive to apply my professional skills only to projects which, after conscientious examinations, I believe to contribute to the goal of coexistence of all human beings in peace, human dignity and self-fulfilment.
“I believe that this goal requires the provision of an adequate supply of the necessities of life (good food, air, water and housing, access to natural and man-made beauty) education and the opportunities to enable each person to work out for himself his life objectives and to develop creativeness and skill in the use of hands as well as head.
“I vow to struggle through my work to minimize danger. Noise strain or invasion of privacy of the individual, pollution of earth, air or water, destruction of natural beauty, mineral resources and wildlife.”