Learn to discern


Following paragraph is long. All its sentences are questions. Questions I could raise in ten minutes (to type, it took longer) reclining in my holiday easy-chair, absorbed amidst the muse, media and materialia that engulfs me. Questions pertinent to my well being. Read on.

Are nuclear power-plants dangerous? How many died directly due to the harmful radiation from the Fukushima accident? How many died due to the tsunami that caused the accident? Are the annual deaths due to nuclear power plant blasts and leaks more than those caused by road accidents and smoking? A Tamil weekly claim there is no safe limit for radiation; is that correct? Isn’t the distance from the source of such radiation a matter of concern at all? Is IGCAR Kalpakkam the sole reason for the handicaps in the children residing in the villages? As a preliminary proof for this, do we have evidence that the number of handicapped children in the villages surrounding Kalpakkam is significantly more than that in villages afar? Do we have medical evidence from other parts of the World that such handicaps can only be caused and have occurred by nuclear radiation? Does nuclear radiation, akin to Godly justice, ensure slow death? Continuous exposure is the sole reason for the harmful effect of nuclear radiation? Does that mean, continuous exposure to any radiation could be harmful for us? Exposure to radiation from fluorescent lamps? Television? Laptop screens? Sunlight? Do these mosquitos die by breathing in the repellant smoke? Do they have noses? How would the mosquito eyes perceive the smoke? Would it be harmful if we breathe that smoke? How to know the safe limit? What is the difference between “split-AC” and the ordinary room air conditioner? Does the “split-AC” repeatedly cool only the same air circulating in the room? What is the normal room temperature we should maintain with the AC for our comfort? Is there a suitable air temperature that warrants proper functioning of our body? Do we require endosulfon pesticide for crops? Are those crops harmful when consumed? Is the profligate cellphone menace the sole reason for the dearth of the local sparrow? Are the bees next in the line of fire? Are our brains harmed by cellphone radiation? How does the touch screen of an iPhone function? Why aren’t we “shocked” when we touch it? We could see what is behind that touchscreen; what material is it made of? How does Anacin know the place of my headache? Would it work in dogs? Would dogs get head ache? Does wearing white dress during summer comfort us? Why then do Bedouins wear black dress in the desert sun? Do the white hairs due to my aging have a connection with the thermoregulation of the body? She is leaving to offer milk in the anthill for snakes; do snakes drink milk? Then why have they not evolved as marsupials? Offering milk to snakes yields what direct use for us? How to conclusively prove the causality of that use? The “boom-boom” bull with the beggar at my doorstep keeps nodding its approval for all that is said; would it nod if I ask “would you like to eat this bitter-gourd?”

No, I am not going to answer these stream-of-consciousness-like questions in this essay. You would bless me for that.

Am considering a related question and its possible answers.

Could I satisfactorily answer all these ordinary questions that arose on an ordinary day to me with the Science and related subjects that I learnt in my school? Could you?

If we haven’t undergone Science education in college or graduate school, how many questions can we answer using our high school science education? If we cannot answer most of these questions, why? What do we then mean by we are educated?

It is not that the Science we got as education must provide answers immediately to all these questions. In fact, some of the questions require facts that we need not remember. Importantly, some other questions may not even have a unique answer. That understanding should have stemmed from our education.

Years of Science education should prepare us to generate such questions as routine thinking. It should have enabled us to seek the answers through a scientific approach. Temporary solutions should be discerned and discarded, ascertained and generalized. We could have forgotten the facts and information from our Science education. We should have imbibed the scientific temper.

Science education may not entirely be the outcome of daily experience but it should not remain within tomes to deny the thinking required to conduct daily life.

The plight of an educated individual bereft of insight and confidence, chided in every other life instances for the fallible education, has several reasons. We shall strum one thread.

During the BCs, when Ptolemy, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, ruled Egypt, Euclid constructed Geometry. One of the prospective student wondered openly to Euclid, what is the use of his new found Geometry. Story goes, Euclid turned to one of his students and asked him to fetch some coins from his home and gave it to the doubter. “Here is the use you sought,” Euclid said to the doubter, “and good bye”.

Be it Science or Mathematics or such fields, getting educated in them is not for just earning wealth. This has been understood in the past as a basic tenet of education. Pichai puginum karkai nandre, better it is to learn by any means, even begging; what Avvayar, the Grandmother of Tamil, promulgated by that is not the education that promises monetary wealth.

What we could understand is our hoary past exemplifying the true value of education is not the cause for its present state.

The present form and function of education is the outcome of what was prescribed during the Raj; education system is to train than to learn, to inculcate submission than discern, to remain the generic accountant and succeed than to pursue creativity as a way of life. That even today we approach our school education as a means for direct monetary gains only seeks to promote education as training in expedient technologies sans scientific thinking required to promote perceptive life in Nature. It is not wrong to gain a livelihood through ones education. But such a link between education and livelihood is only recent and it indirectly perpetrates a dangerous idea. If education is for livelihood then learning whatever knowledge doesn’t yield wealth is a waste for humans. Get educated (trained) in expedient knowledge fields to get a good job; that would do. Rest of human knowledge is a mental exaggeration. Archaic tomes. Time wasters.

What is defeated is the real use of education.

Science education is basic. It promotes scientific thinking. Scientific thinking is a mental state. To learn that is not to become only a scientist. Its basic provision is to inculcate a scientific temper in all of us and by exercising it, to get clarity and mental poise in our daily life.

Here is an example of scientific thinking applied in daily life.

El Greco is an Italian Renaissance painter. The humans and angels in his paintings usually were elongated than in reality. An example is the Adoration of the Shepherds. Observing these paintings, several decades back, a British ophthalmologist proposed that El Greco suffered from an eye disease that made him see people this way, elongated and stretched. Hence, he painted that way.

If we are alert, we could spot the fallacy of such an argument. Such mental agility is what we identify as scientific thinking; agility our school education should have inculcated.

Do we have the smarts to become a scientist? If we could catch the flaw in the above ophthalmologist argument, we might have it. If we don’t get it even after it was explained, we perhaps don’t have it in us to become a scientist. Thus said Sir Peter Medawar, discussing this example, in his Advice to the Young Scientist.

For argument sake if we agree with the reasoning of Ophthalmologist. Let us say one such eye ailment makes the painter see all in double. Following the reasoning of the Ophthalmologist, if this painter is commissioned to paint a Mono Lisa, he would paint a Duo Lisa. Now, if the painter happens to see his handwork, with two Lisa, due to his ailment he would see them as four. He would obviously realize his mistake. This reasoning holds for El Greco too. If he had seen reality as stretched and painted them as stretched, when he looks at his painting again, the already stretched images would look even more stretched. He would realize he had drawn them stretched, not the way he saw them. El Greco painted figures as stretched, not because of any eye ailment but because he wanted to draw them that way. Period.

No I couldn’t spot it immediately. I could only understand the flaw upon reflection. Reflecting for a while on any such claims makes most of us realize our scientific thinking.

For cultivating such a scientific temper and thinking, we don’t have to constrict ourselves into a niche and claim I am an artist, a scientist, an El Greco or an ophthalmologist. Suffice it to appreciate the World with a discerning scientific spirit.

Education and exams, schools and scholastics, geared towards degrees and jobs, propelling towards a material end with such knowledge marginalized as text book lessons hinder the development of scientific thinking in the young.

Learning science is difficult. One should do such learning straight-jacketed and serious, leaving humor outside the classroom along with our footwear. Peppering the learning of science with other creative human endeavors and examples from life experiences would only result in its dilution and distraction. In the end it would prove even more difficult to learn science. Such presumptions, like the pictures of Gods on our exam pads, have proven hard to be unglued from most practicing academics. Damage to the academic fabric is inevitable while freeing the practitioner from such presumptions.

To understand and discern science and such academic pursuits, one should gain confidence by learning the field, learning to do it and doing it. Let me teach and you listen often proves authoritarian scorching curiosity and free-spirited thinking. Education is futile on a brain devoid of wonder.

On the other hand, the difficulty in biting shouldn’t deter us from tasting the rock-candy of science. The fundamental of scientific thinking is our questioning mind that continues to doubt and discern the answers as provisional. It is a mind that is in peace with insecurity; insecurity about the impermanence of the answers, the provisional layers of understanding of an onion reality. To gain this mental state – a continuous process requiring constant effort – a major want is to strip what is said off who(ever) said it; strip a thought free of authority, to its nascent state and question its merit. If Nature includes all of us, understanding it is possible for all of us. Is it not possible for a part of Nature to interact with the rest of it? As Badal Sircar in his Evam Indrajith play alludes to, only Question remains. How big it is depends on the mental capacity of one who asks it. The answer could then be what remains.

To learn a subject is to reflect upon its concepts for enough time, with the resulting clarity augmenting our self confidence, which in turn directs us to lead a discerning life, realizing all along such an education is a joy in itself. Has this objective been forgotten or has its necessity faded?

The discerning temper and no nonsense thinking that should have resulted from our science education, we have often observed in our village old lady. Even as we feed her through free television, goading advertisements for using “turmeric and Ayurvedic herb based” cream to get as shining a face as the lotus petal, she is already aware that instead she could directly apply turmeric paste on her face while bathing.

Be it a “split” AC or the regular one, using it to cool a room means, the heat taken from the room has to be added to the world minus the room. To cool us we need to heat others is a scientific understanding that if explained, is easy to grasp for that old village lady who hasn’t undergone any “useful” education.


[The Tamil version]