A significant part of the hell we are going through right now is our aversion to science. For a long time, we have belittled science as “Western” and modern advancements as “our ancestors knew this thousands of years ago”. We are paying the price right now, for treating gobar and piss as medicinal material. We are paying the price for celebrating quackery and honouring idiots dressed like wise men.
We are where we are because we didn’t value what was valuable. Because we thought ancestor worship at the cost of hospital-building was a good idea.
So let’s talk about the tired old refrain “our ancestors were great at science”. And I am not even talking about the false claims (of which there are many). Let us talk instead about the merits of the claim itself. Let us ask if bravado at being “descended from sages and scientists” is valid.
In modern India, go into science mostly for one reason. And that is to ensure employment as an engineer or a doctor. More often than not, they aren’t driven by scientific curiosity. But since curiosity and a love of wonder is necessary to sustain science, we have come up with some culturally-sanctioned ways of justifying science as a career choice. One of these justifications is that India has always been home to scientists and that the reason we go for the science stream is because Sushruta invented plastic surgery and Aryabhatta invented math.
However, these justifications are hollow. Science doesn’t draw its value from being descended from scientists. That’s a somewhat religious way of looking at it. A religion’s founder may be a permanent source of validation for the followers of that religion. But science does not work that way. Einstein may have been a genius. But almost everyone studying science today knows more than he did.
Modern science has respect for those who pushed it forward, but it does not depend on their authority as a justification for relevance. Science makes progress on the merits of ideas. And those ideas are tested and verified and proven by many minds working within an adversarial system. Science is hard on itself.
Any scientist who tries to suggest a theory must be true because a great scientist from the past proposed it will be laughed out of the room. A scientific temper is more than just ancestor worship. It’s a commitment to facts and evidence.
And this commitment to facts works outside the lab too. It works in newsrooms, classrooms, and in living rooms. Be proud of your ancestors if you must, but don’t depend on them as a justification for doing science. They don’t matter in any meaningful way as far as the rigour of science goes. And most importantly, don’t let your ancestors’ preferences guide the course of future scientific developments. That’s not how science works. That’s not how anything works.