Friday, November 24, 2006

science and the state

emergence and development of new technologies can make human habitats disease-free, happy, more intelligent, increase longevity and human capabilities in the years to come.

- president apj abdul kalam
source: the hindu, page 8, november 23, 2006

so much for the simple claims of science. so much for substantiated claims of science, eh? that was a "scientist" speaking, one who is the pride of the country, not to mention merely also the institutional head.

that was a neutral, not-all-politically-loaded statement - especially considering that it was made after the government decided to suspend all bt seeds and decide whether or not to permit them only after they were able to test it properly. that was something that didnt happen the first time around because while the seeds were still in the labs, monsanto quietly sold them to indian farmers in the black market.

what was the man thinking of!

for a scientist, the statement was totally ridiculous, not to mention thoroughly unprofessional. for one who happens to be the president of a country, its again absolutely unprofessional and unethical for him to peddle monsanto products (i mean... monsanto?) like this.

this is the technocracy in india. first that we chose a scientist to lead the nation, not based on his diplomatic skills or social awareness or political performance, but simply for the reason that he headed the nuclear program (incidentally the same one whose scope hes mutedly lamenting today.)

one aspect is that the best way to stifle and silence a person is to institutionalise him. by making kalam the president, the concept of the "hindutva" bomb was cemented. to question his work or ethics, is to question the state and therefore anti-nationalist. since kalam wears the presidents mantle, he cannot openly wail or criticise the program. and if the expert on the subject says its a Good Thing, that's about the official final word on subject. the conscience of science is effectively killed by politicising it.

there's another, more scary aspect. which is, that we as a society have completely bought the claims of technocracy and scientific supremacy. that we stand in such awe of technical expertise and the western model of development that we are ready to blindly follow the dictates of any person who can give us these, or any person who even just claims the ability to do so. kalams presidency is a measure of how technocratic a society we are, and the power we have given to science.

"the basis of advanced technology is innovation and nothing is more stifling to innovation than seeing one's product or ruled out of consideration on flimsy premises involving public world opinion." (emphasis mine)

- dr. harold agnew, los alamos laboratories weapons division.

when science is so closely linked to the state, you have eugenics - a politically touted scientific conclusion of being the superior race, dubious hiv trials in poor developing countries, the us refusing to "believe" in global warming, and so on. and each time, each act is justified by science for the politicians. the claims of science under the technocracy are illuminating. each scientific "breakthrough" promises everything from a happy, healthy life to immortality. naturally, since they are of such (unquestionable) service to humanity, they may use whatever means they wish to, to reach their ends.

power in our time has more intelligence in its service, and allows that intelligence more discretion as to its methods, than ever before in history.

- conor cruise o' brien

that reputed, trusted scientists like kalam can pack such agenda when they speak in innocuous gatherings like a convocation of a sports center, is worrisome and frightening.

brownskinspeak, feminist issues

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Monday, November 20, 2006

conference on hiv stigma

the 3rd international interfaith conference on hiv/aids was held this weekend. i had attended it, since i was told that the topic was stigma and discrimination. although i walked out in disgust after about half a day, i must say it was a unique experience!

the venue was crowded with saffron- and white – clad men and women. they came from diverse faiths – zoroastrianism, hinduism, islam, jainism, christianity. the inaugural function however, also had people from the government aids control society. supriya sahu (whom i consider the only good feature of the program!) from tansacs, ashok kumar - the apsacs project director, and the union health minister – anbumani ramadoss – had come.

the minister spoke fluently about how the government was shifting from abstinence advocacy to safe sex advocacy, and touched on particular states and their success or failure in dealing with health challenges. the one jarring note in his speech was when he described the fait accompli in checking polio (until 2005) as solely the work of the government, and then demanded the faith based organisations’ help in starting the trench work for hiv. the government seemed to be quickly taking credit for work done, but enlisting other people for doing the work. quite a few people took grave exception to the minister’s suggesting that they advocate safe sex, and several said so later, but no one took him up then.

the apsacs director’s speech was a better example of the rest of the conference. we heard about how they had created and aired a serial on the subject of hiv stigma and related issues, since
“women folk and the general public tend to love whatever soap operas come on TV”.
his implied contempt of women’s intelligence was unaffected by the asha mitra program that he proudly announced, where women were trained to go out and spread awareness about HIV. he also made a wonderful statement :
“women be bold [sic] to say no to sex without condoms”.
thus neatly shifting the blame on to the victims’ shoulders. the reality is that most women in india do not have negotiating rights especially where sexual relations are considered. amongst prostitutes additionally, there’s a very sharp survival threat: i’ve heard firsthand that clients offer to pay upto 300/400 rupees more if the woman is willing to have sex without a condom. now who’s abusing their negotiating power again? convenient!

after the inaugural session was the technical session. where sadly, not one person actually spoke about the spread of the virus or how it worked – education which most of the faith based organisation (fbo) representatives were desperately in need of. still, a doctor from apac made a good presentation about how fbos were important in the fight against stigma and discrimination in hiv and how they could help.

in the morning, the fbos were relatively harmless. after lunch was when i lost my temper. the worst sort of attitudes were pronounced, and totally sweeping condemnatory statements made. gems included:

  • a call for scrapping of legal age of marriage
  • a call for capital punishment
  • stigmatizing hiv infected people as being morally bankrupt
  • declaring that hiv infected people had given in to improper thoughts, deeds and words and thus deserved their (god-given) fates

oh, did I mention Gandhi was declared a great man for having “made his wife clean toilets”?

it was a an hour of the most vicious, ignorant, intolerant and rambling nonsense that i have ever heard in a while. if all that these people had learnt from their assorted faiths was to be so hard, and so condemnatory, i must say, i would rather rot in hell than ever come under any of their influences.

they were quite liberal with their venom. they disdained to speak much about hiv(!) but focused more on the shortcomings of youth. and what things they had to say! – i do fervently hope that not too many of them actually have children. one wondered if they were going to any minute take off to schools and colleges with automatic rifles.

if any group of people ever highlighted the need for awareness and a social conscience, it was that gathering. if any people ever emphasized the hypocrisy of our society that acts holier than thou and seeks to hold victimized people responsible for their injuries, it was them.

a friend and i had gone together, and were all set to explode as soon as the open forum was declared at the end of the session. but quite prudently, the organizers decided that there would be no such opportunity. (must have realized just how terrible the session had been). so we both stood up and walked out in disgust, tore up the registration forms and left.

i offer my sincere apologies and great big hug to the hiv positive people who were in that room and listening to all this crap the whole day. im sorry that i didn’t do more.* im ashamed of our attitude and ignorance.

*a personal aside follows.

feminist issues


Sunday, November 12, 2006

the scientific mind , emotions and ethics

i recently saw the movie "12 angry men". it was excellent. it created the opportunity to discuss so much about so many things. one amongst those, was this business of scientific, logical thought.

the concept of science as we know it today - mostly based on what has come out of the west - claims logic to be the supreme tool of the scientific mind. logic is elevated to such a status that people even proudly define the sum of their existence by solely that which they have logically worked out. in my opinion "cogito ergo sum" has certainly done its bit to help science limit intelligence and the scope of human existence, not to mention its adding to the tensions that the fragile relationship between science and ethics is fraught with. if science is on terms of the barest civility with ethics, it accords emotion pariah treatment.

it was this last thing that the movie brought out so well - that the scientific mind is still at the end of the day a human mind, with whatever wisdom, maturity, prejudices, ideals, ethics and impressions the owner acquires through lived experience. science tends to focus only on the facet of rationality and treat it as an isolated entity. a lab coat can cover only so much of a person - the rest that is at best ignored (and unfortunately mostly battered) by science is very real. so a scientist is actually given a very unfair deal. like any stereotype, this one is a very damaging one to have to conform to. given the increasing power of technocracy, i think its imperative that this be addressed.

science demands of its followers that they forget their emotions and feelings. it requires that the entire experience be completely mechanical and devoid of the human component. even if a person feels profoundly unhappy about what theyre doing, theyre expected to behave mechanically. such a system automatically breeds the completely farcical justification of any means being valid for a "worthy" end. (after all, this is the system that systematically breaks the person to build the Scientist.)

the taboo on emotion is manifested in different ways. for example when a conservation biologist is writing a paper on an animal, (s)he will omit to mention in their paper the open secret of how the animal is cruelly and slowly killed for commercial use, rather than write it and risk the charge of being "too emotional". or the words will be sterilely packed in expressionless phrases - the doctor will merely state that the patient "exhibited symptoms of prolonged sub-clinical depression" rather than say that the patient had been grieving inconsolably for the last 3 years.

an ideal is a concept we feel a strong emotional connection to, that the intellect also approves of and hails as exemplary. the pursuit of knowledge is as much an ideal as any other. at least as it started out, science was a structured discipline to be used in this pursuit. the quality of science as it exists now is questionable because at least from the recent past, science, as the tool of governments with unethical agenda, has been forcing its brightest sparks to ignore their experience, knowledge, judgment - and emotions.

right from the willingness to seek more facts about an issue, however troubling the new truth may be, emotions do sway and influence the scientist and his study. science denies several painful dilemmas that the scientist faces by banning the existence of emotion.

automatons cannot perceive right and wrong and be discriminating. an automaton is incapable of evolving or adhering to an ethical code. history holds many examples of people dedicated to science and seriously lacking in ethics. maybe torn between loyalties, in a conflict between science and ethics, so many scientists have caved in and betrayed the very ideals they started out to uphold, eventually winding up in an emotional crisis and unable to come to terms with the blood on their hands.

the first examples that spring to mind are the scientists involved in the building of The Bomb. oppenheimer, appalled at the result of his final blind rush in the name of science, campaigned vociferously against the hydrogen bomb, and ravaged by politics and politicised science, he finally gave up with a broken spirit. haunted by what he had helped created, bethe refused to be part of the project to build the hydrogen bomb. many of the others, like pauli, went into severe depression. after the war, einstein (whose work was the basis but who was hardly actively involved in the building of the bomb) wept and apologised to the visiting japanese physicist hideki yukawa.

"In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."
- Oppenheimer

in a more contemporary context, we see abdul kalam today desperately voicing pacifist sentiments after having fathered indias nuclear program. a broken old man hugging children and asking for peace in almost desperate naivete.

i would call these intellectuals the casualties of science. men crushed by the juggernaut of science drawn by beasts like pavlov and skinner. if this is what science does to intelligence with a conscience, isnt it high time we re-examined the scientific stereotype and what it demands?

feminist issues


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

tagged for feminism

aishwarya had tagged all contributors on sthreeling for the feminism tag ("5 things feminism has done for you"). sorry for the delay a., here it is at last:

1. feminism has made me a happier person in a lot of ways, and added to my sense of self worth. there are days when, even if my whole world has fallen apart and nothing's going right, i still think "i'm a woman", and feel this absolute rush of joy!

2. i love the emphasis that feminism places on honesty and ethics in analysis. one of the things that bothers me about mainstream academic/scientific thought is that it seems to be conducted in ethical and moral vacuums.
as noam chomsky once remarked, "the intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if i didn't betray it i'd be ashamed of myself."

3. i think i've become more responsible and more socially aware a person. there are so many things that i did not perceive before - so many worlds i didnt know coexisted with mine. after my introduction to feminism, i've also become more aware of silence being as political a gesture as active dissent or assent. i've learnt that brute force (or power) is different from strength.

4. feminism has taught me a lot about myself. my first encounter with feminist writing reassured me that i wasn't insane, and that amongst other things, it was in fact normal to be bothered by violence and misogyny. ironically that first book also shook me up and churned my mind. it took a while to be able to accept the things i was reading - and not feel like a criminal!

5. feminism has been mind and soul food, and so intellectually a very deeply satisfying experience! it has helped me clear up my head and be surer about what is important to me, how much freedom and responsibility i can handle comfortably, the codes i live by, my tread-carefully-here mental landscapes ... assorted things like that. one of the things i like immensely about feminist theory is that it doesnt "talk down" to the reader.
and its very interesting and leads somewhere- unlike the writing of kant, russell, aristotle or rand. (general public to pliss ignore the last sentence : its a very specifically directed dig at Some People. har har har!)

also posted on sthreeling.
. . .

psssst. if you still haven't noticed - look to the right. a proper index. and all.




Friday, November 03, 2006

tamil nadu forestry department

for your weekend's dose of chuckles please do see the tamil nadu forestry department's site, and once you've recovered from the bilious green, give it your full attention.

Things To Notice:

the location of the indira gandhi sanctuary. (long live blind spell-check corrections!)
a happening new section in the gallery ("accidental deaths" - yes, truly.)
a quiet commentary on the hell their phones have been giving them.

tis a winner even in the world of GOI sites.


my life


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