What is Scientific Temper?

Scientific temper was a phrase much in Jawaharlal Nehru’s vernacular. He reiterated it not only in speaking of science, but also in exhorting his countrymen in diverse contexts. The phrase is an attractive one and has both brevity and comprehensiveness, for temper indicates all the hues of man’s thinking, nicely qualified to the plausible and rational with the adjective scientific.

We might pause to define the phrase, or at any rate to envisage its implications for the citizens. It would imply certainly a willingness to consider all facts and not merely facts which are in consonance with one’s own thinking or comfort. Going further, it would mean an active search for such information by study and questioning. It would also imply a trust that events are shaped by the fruits of man’s labour, and a healthy skepticism towards all claims of supernatural participation in his affairs. In fact, the scientific attitude is simply one of an adherence to facts, an ability to revise opinions and a rational skepticism to claims for non-material intervention.

Nehru’s Vision

Development of a scientific attitude among the people was an important part of Nehru’s vision of India. He recognized, however, the extent of the transformation required of contemporary Indian society before his vision could materialize, and this was sufficient to despair even an optimist like him, for a scientific temper is conspicuously lacking in the country, even among those with an ostensibly scientific training.

Scientists lay aside the mantle of incredulity and deductive logic when they get home and kick their shoes off, relaxing into every kind of obscurantist fad and fallacy. Doctors still see no contradiction in their patients visiting Tirupathi or the local temple for cure of physical ailments; indeed they do so themselves. Modern agricultural scientists have little conviction of the benefit of inorganic fertilizer in their kitchen gardens; fertilizer is something to be doled out to the farmer, or to be used in speeches.

Daily newspapers and magazines yield rich dividends to the seeker after obscurantism. Practically every major newspaper has an astrological corner with predictions for the week to follow; “you could come into a large sum of money this week. The health of your family members may require your attention.

You may meet influential people who will help you”: Modern India’s oracles of Delphi! The Child of a scientist will still get married in the small hours of the morning so as not to offend the plants in their whizzing courses. Practically every scientist will take a day or two off in the year to perform the annual ceremonies of his dead parents and, if questioned will blame the insistence of some relation who is well out of reach.

There are auspicious days for travel and certain specially lucky days and numbers. Where in the midst of this welter of irrationality, even among scientists, is the hope for the creation in the people of a scientific temper, an open attitude of mind rooted in the questioning of dogma and authority? Is the attempt possible, or even worthwhile?

No other Way Out

The answers have to be in the affirmative. Indeed, the questions are simply rhetorical; there is just no other way, whether for the scientists or any other Indian, for the scientific attitude as a way of thought of people – scientists and non –scientists alike – is not merely desirable but essential if we wish to have a strong base for secularism in the country (since antisecularism or parochialism is the very negation of the scientific attitude), if we wish to find quick, permanent solutions to the multitude of problems we are faced with such as food, public health and family planning, and if we wish to raise the living standards of our people. How, then, can we effect a large-scale promotion of scientific temper? And what have we done in the past and what are we doing now in this direction?

What are we doing?

India has not has a tradition of objective, rational and scientific thinking. Nirad Chaudhuri has pointed out in an article in Encounter a year ago that even the coldly-sober Arthasastra of Kautilya seriously  lists in the last chapter  the  methods  and drugs which spies should use to become invisible, and the otherwise scholarly Laws of Manu describes the appropriate sorts of rebirth for each wordly sin. India never went through the renaissance, which engendered the rationalist tradition in Europe.

The industrial revolution that had established itself in Europe for decades was just beginning to creep into this country when the Independence movement started. The latter, however, soon became strongly linked to revivalism through the personal beliefs of Gandhi. There can be little doubt that by this means he was able to mobilize enormous numbers to the national purpose, but he also set in motion various factionalisms, which remained submerged during the intense drive for Independence, but have reared their ugly heads since then. Nehru represented a positive gain for independent thinking, setting himself up against all types of reaction.

One remembers with gratitude the strong ridicule he heaped over the absurd Ashtagraha episode. He was the only national leader to do, but we suspect that the impact his ideas had on the country as a whole was probably small. While it may have set at bay some obscurantist and religious forces, these were only biding their time, and their resurgence was markedly noticeable even in the brief regime of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The personality of the present Prime Minister, while certainly of rationalist conviction, has not yet had time to make its impact.

While such father figures undoubtedly influence the outwards manifestations of rational thinking in India, a greater pre eminent effect must derive from the impact of modern technology. It is impossible for a worker in a factory to insist that his neighbor should not be an untouchable. Large-scale industrialization, already begun, should eventually prove to be an important aid in the development of a scientific temper among the people of the country. There have been other efforts too.

Organized bodies have come into existence with rationalist aims, and without political overtones. These may at present be drops in the ocean but deserve passing comment. The Indian Humanist Union was founded in 1960 at Lucknow and has just started a small journal. Its purpose is to propagate rational and scientific humanism within a tolerant religious affiliation.

The society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper arose out of discussions in Hyderabad in 1964 by a group of scientists drawn from many nations, which were fully reported in an issue of the intellectual monthly, ‘Seminar’. There are branches in several cities in the country trying to spread rational belief, and take a stand against the fetters of traditional religious dogma.

There are other indications of ferment in the country. Student unrest, and the frequent disturbances of law and order, are not merely signs of indiscipline but embrace  an element of genuine questioning of established norms and a groping towards values which are preached by their elders but never practised. There are reasons, therefore, for viewing the future with optimism; the first steps have been taken, and one can only hint that the changeover will not be cataclysmic.

Responsibilities of the scientist

We may now consider briefly the responsibilities of the scientist and the educated non scientist and the educated non-scientist in respect of the promotion of scientific temper in the country. Both are of course part of the common social fabric of Indian society, and if a distinction is made at all, it is only because the  scientist uses in his work, or at any rate is expected to use, hand, while the layman doubtless conducts his everyday life on some rational basis of cause and effect, the degree to which he does so is largely a matter of individual predilection rather than of training.

We have stated that scientists themselves often display a lamentable back of a scientific attitude of mind as soon as they leave the laboratory. The business of day-to-day living is considered a thing apart, subject to different laws and rationalities. We have earlier cited some examples of this. A scientist may be expected to use the analytical and deductive method of reasoning to a greater degree than his lay neighbor in the small matters of everyday living, but with the larger issues of society and its values he is generally reluctant to concern himself as not being his business.

There is some point in this. The parameters involved in such wider questions are so many, so varied and sometimes so intangible that the attempt may be abandoned even before starting. A scientist may doubt whether these factors can even be enumerated, and assuming that he was able to do so, whether any kind of opinion will at all the possible.

Any yet a scientists owes it, at least to his neighbours and friends, to make the effort, for it is to him that they will look for an opinion on questions having direct or indirect bearing on science. His conduct and behavior will, therefore, unconsciously set a pattern to his circle of friends.

In this respect a scientist occupies a privileged position; he should realize it and accept the responsibility implied in it. Most  Indian scientist should cultivate a much greater constructive interest than they have so far taken in the policies of the government in such matters as science teaching, technical education, outlays on research and the like.

This is obviously a difficult task. Being a good scientist just in the professional sense is in itself a full-time job. There is not only the constant grind to keep up with the avalanche of scientific literature in one’s own field, but also the distasteful but necessary business of conveying what one has found in one’s work to one’s scientific peers, without which the pursuit itself will be of little avail: all the awful all and sundry, sitting through seminars and conferences and the rest. And yet the scientist must accept his heightened social responsibility, if only for the reason that the knowledge he has helped to acquire may be misused to his own great detriment.

There are important topical questions such as the making of the atom bomb in India, or the outlay on science and technology in the next plan. These are matters on which he should have an informed opinion based on analysis and deduction of factual knowledge. He must take the trouble to obtain his attitudes, whatever they may be. The scientist should not forget that science in the larger sense is today the only activity, which can create true wealth. It has come to be the prime mover of society and world affairs, changing radically our basic attitudes and our concepts and values.

For the educated but professionally non-scientist Indian population, vast in numbers if not in percentage proportion, the challenge lies in developing the willingness to work out one’s basic concepts for oneself, discovering and eschewing those which are in conflict with the demands of obvious commonsense and reason. This would be the primary debt that they owe to education which, after all, should be training in rational thinking and in inculcating a scientific outlook.

There is no difficulty in this; all that is required is conscious effort it is true that the day-to-day worries and problems of living, rising prices, concern for the health of one’s family, and the education of children, are all serious, stultifying forces in the true exercise of the mind and reason, but the effort will simply have to be made if life is to have any meaning at all. A man’s opinions are derived from many sources. His basic ethical values are probably those derived from early religious training.

There may also be the beliefs and values cherished in his own class, group or family. Experimental studies have shown that the attitudes and concepts, which he develops later, will reflect his discussions with friends, and all-too-often will be simply the opinions of some one of strong personality whom he admires. Anyone who thinks reasons and attempts to find out facts will dominate a group of non-thinking people.

One of the ways, therefore, in which a man can develop his own rationalities, is by conscious study and debate with himself. He would also benefit by energizing and activating any discussion group in the society to which he belongs and thus airing his opinions for discussion. It is better to have an opinion, however wrong, than no opinion at all. The important thing is to give up passive attitudes, and keep one’s mind active. Only in this way can we expect to develop an informed  society, which is our only long-range guarantee of a better and more rational life of our people.

The scientific or rationalist attitude comes with maturity, but a beginning must be made early. A practical question is how an average citizen, when of rationalist conviction, can inculcate ethical values in a child without bringing in the easily understood concept of an all-powerful ‘God’. Religion is woven into the wrap and weft of every living culture, a child is certain to be exposed to it in this daily living.

We believe that rationalism and reason rather than fear and placation of the unknown must and can be made intelligible to a child. This admittedly requires more patience than leaving the job to God, but the parents will discover that it is in the final event most satisfying, both to them and to the child.


The exercise of scientific temper or scientific humanism is not relevant only to denizens of a sophisticated and intellectual nation, to whom the fruits and perils of science are obvious. It perhaps an even more important role to play in an emerging nation. It can induce thought, awaken society from the apathy into which it has fallen, and make the vast population a moulding and creative force instead of a crushing dead weight. In this transformation, every educated Indian has a special part to play. This is the hope –our only hope – for the future.

Co-Author : K T Achaya
Courtesy :  Angels, Devil and Science
- A Collection of articles on scientific temper

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