When my six-year-old son watched a video about human evolution at school this year, he argued that it was wrong: humans had not evolved from apes, he had been told. He and his schoolmates decided they must have come from another planet instead. His teacher and I found it tough to convince him of the truth.
I blame India’s junior minister for human-resource development, Satyapal Singh, who made widely publicized statements earlier this year that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong because no one had actually seen humans evolve from ape-like ancestors. Singh’s senior minister, Prakash Javadekar, quickly rejected the statements in the press, and thousands of Indian scientists circulated an online petition asking the junior minister to retract his comments. But it was too late: many children, mine included, had already been exposed to Singh’s thoughts through friends, parents or otherwise.
Absurd claims from government officials are all too common. In 2017, Rajasthan education minister Vasudev Devnani said that cow dung wards off radioactivity, and that being near the animals prevents colds and coughs. In 2015, at the prestigious Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, one presentation suggested that around 7,000 years ago, people on the subcontinent possessed aeroplanes capable of interplanetary travel and that this was documented in religious texts and poetry. Days after the death of Stephen Hawking last month, India’s science and technology minister said the physicist had proclaimed that the Vedas, India’s ancient religious scripture, had theories that explain relativity better than Einstein did. Both the Indian-born president of the UK Royal Society and a scientist representing the Stephen Hawking Foundation immediately disputed the claim, and columnists in the Indian press excoriated the statements.
Against this backdrop, the national school curriculum is under revision, with comments invited until the end of the week. I worry that current standards for science teaching leave our children susceptible to anti-science influences. Strong education is, of course, essential to building a strong scientific workforce, but it is more important than that. Even if the textbooks themselves are correct, students are not learning the information or analytical thinking they need to make reasonable decisions about life or health.
Last year, thousands of Indian citizens marched in support of science, particularly for better funding for research. They should now push for something more fundamental: a school curriculum amended to better teach scientific facts and approaches, and to build a society that can benefit broadly from these.
I am hardly the only person calling for this kind of activism. In February, Nobel laureates at an event in Panaji, Goa, expressed serious concerns about science being attacked in India by fake news and scientifically unproven religious views. They implored Indian schools to train students in scientific thinking.
The potential benefits of science literacy and critical thinking are huge. If students understand how generations of marriage between close relatives have left them vulnerable to recessive genetic disorders, they might favour genetic testing, and not rely simply on matchmaking by astrology. Incidence of a condition called Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews, for example, has plummeted as more people seek genetic counselling. Even a simple blood test could prevent fatal complications.
Those who speak up for science should not be dismissed as playing politics, or being against religion, or unpatriotic. We can safeguard our national science curriculum from religious myths and still embrace common cultural values. The Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means ‘the world is one family’ and which appears in Indian scriptures, is of even greater significance today and is consistent with evolutionary theory.
And we can inspire students with historical triumphs, such as the development of astronomy in ancient times, as well as with Indian nationals such as Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose advances in number theory and infinite series rank him among the world’s greatest mathematicians. There is much to be proud of. In 2014, India succeeded at its first attempt in sending a space probe into orbit around Mars, a mission monitored from Bangalore. Last year, Indian surgeons completed a successful uterine transplant, and Indian astronomers discovered a supercluster of galaxies, which they named Saraswati for the Hindu goddess of learning.
But invoking wonder and awe is not enough. The new curriculum must also help schools to serve poor and vulnerable populations. My son had both a competent teacher and a scientist parent able to challenge his mistaken beliefs; few children have those advantages. The World Development Report 2018 found that more than 80% of 8-year-olds in rural areas of India are unable to read a single word of familiar vocabulary (such as ‘the’ or ‘cat’) when given a short piece of simple text; as a result, they are especially dependent on what they hear from adults.
We need to develop activities that invite exploration without specialized equipment. Instead of litmus paper and pH meters, teachers can use turmeric spice or extracts of hibiscus flower as acid–base indicators. And showing how science and technology can apply to real-world problems, such as sanitation and clean water, can also help students to engage with the material.
There are encouraging signs: the head of the committee charged with crafting the new education policy is the highly respected space scientist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan. I wish him luck.
This article represents the personal views of the author, not of his employer.