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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Anonymous Pink Panther said...

Could you please clarify a few things? I'd be much obliged.

(i) Do you think that genetically modified seeds should be banned? And its research discouraged/prohibited?

(ii) Could you please state a few scientific discoveries that in your opinion were unethically made, i.e. by an experimental process which you deem immoral? Also state those that, in your opinion, should never have been attempted, irrespective of the means.

(iii) Do you consider cloning-research a menace to society? Or perhaps innocuous but immoral? Why?

Even if you don't want to answer all three, please do answer as many as you can. Thanks.

11:43 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

Blabber!! First, can you please point to some quotes of Kalam where he had spoken in terms of GM seeds(or as per your writing Monsanto?)...Please do give links or reference wherever you claim something!!...Taking a speech out of contest and finding reference where there exists any, is what commies excel in![I dont think you are one!]

And dont please for heaven's sake forget that "the that reputed, trusted scientists like kalam" got their reputation and trust, only through the Science.

Please refrain from misquoting someone and trying to prove a non-existing case!

7:14 am  
Anonymous frookster said...


Eloquent as you are, you fall short of driving home your argument. I still can't see how what Kalam said has anything to do with Monsanto. You really need to establish context. Kalam has always promoted science and what he states are indeed the ideals of science.

India is far from a technocracy. One scientist makes it to President and you've got alarm bells ringing? Hasn't Kalam been a positive influence as President? Especially, on the youth of this country.

I am still stumped by how the statement he made is "ridculous, not to mention thoroughly unprofessional". I don't get it.

What are these claims of technocracy that you speak of? If anything, I still see my countrymen and women still buying BS wrapped as "spiritual" upliftment. If anything, we still lack appreciation of the scientific method. Kalam's presidency is not a measure of how much we are in awe of science. It is the first sign of recognition for the field.

In Eugenics and Global warming, you have your strawmen. It is a known fact that we have scientists fighting the "unbelievers" in the US government. The people the government is using to promote their "Global Warming is hogwash" propoganda, are questionable at best. It is climate scientists who are leading from the front, calling the government's bluff. Eugenics is another example of bad science. I can only go by what little I know about it, but I do know how people who promoted these ideas were expelled from the scientific community.

Do not confuse the intents of science with the intents of politics. The fact that politicians are using bad science to further their agenda calls for more education of the masses.

In the end, I still don't get your argument against Kalam or the fact that we as a country are a technocracy. You write well, unfortunately, you occassionally also write crap.

4:14 pm  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

Just clarifying a point. The man in question, APJ, is an engineer, not a scientist. The difference is not so subtle.
The first atomic bomb involved a lot of original scientific work. India's bomb needed more engineering.
I'm not saying APJ doesnt deserve the position he has. I'm just saying that his contribution is primarily not as a scientist.
APJ built his reputation as a manager (of teams of engineers); not on the basis of his work in science.
Think about it. Have you ever wondered why when you buy any device, the user manual usually sucks? Because the person who writes up the manual is usually the one that the engineering team can spare: the one who is of least use to the team. This is the person who gets to write official reports. This is the person who gets sent to meetings. This is the person who is the face of the team. This is the person who attends board meetings and writes papers for the consumption of people who hold the money purse (the corporate sponsor or the government) while the rest of the team (the ones who know their job and are competent) actually do the work.
Think about it. The guy you see talking on TV and telling you how much of a technological breakth rough this is the guy who the team least needs for the actual work. :)
What credentials do I have to spout such heresy? I'm a scientist and an engineer.

5:22 am  
Blogger m. said...

hi all.

awfully sorry. ive temporarily entered the world of zilch net access again. since im in a crashing hurry now, ill swing by here next week (by which time i should be back online).

gracias and adios.f

9:22 pm  
Blogger Eroteme said...

Dear M,
Don't you simply love to rake up a storm? :-) Anyway, people have already demanded answers to several questions, so I'll hold mine for later. It is quite easy to buttonhole someone. :-) But keep writing, as I always find them interesting and reassuring to know that someone does delve deeper into the issues of the world around us.

8:31 am  
Anonymous Meenu said...

"for a scientist, the statement was totally ridiculous, not to mention thoroughly unprofessional.",err..what? can you explain it a bit more?

An adverse statement made without knowledge or examination of the facts!!

"..While the rest of the team (the ones who know their job and are competent) actually do the work.". you mean an engineer can't be competent as a manager? If one goes by your statement for a manufacturing industry, a person who designed a machine isn't competent compared to the person who is actually creating the product!!If the same rule is applied for IT industry, all the managerial level people(like the consulting team, the business analysts) aren't competent compared to a techy person who develops a software? A professor in Engineering department isn't competent,since he isn't "doing" and is "just" teaching?

This is as deprecating a comment as one can make about something one really doesn't know about.I have a feeling, this is a statement that can be made by a person with a proclivity of Dilbert principles(Innate inclination to denounce the leaders/guiders/mentors?).

Your point of view is akin to John Galt's in Rand's magnum opus.Galt is disgusted with "non-productive" members of the society who according to him are individuals who don't make mental effort. But the directions of your view and that of galt's are in opposite directions.
(I am talking to an engineer, so you should be able to know what I mean when I say direction of views.(I am considering that they are vectors here)).

I completely disagree with the above said galt's or your view of dividing people into "productive" and "non-productive" based on mental or physical effort. I say, a productive person is one, who takes up his role(either as you said "actually work" or "face of team") with complete knowledge of his duties, rights and responsibilities and puts his best and makes a mark of his own in the quality of work one does.

Credentials:My diverse roles as an engineer,a manager and a technical architect.My ethics.


2:20 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

mp: does the word "usually" make any sense?
"the person who writes up the manual is usually the one that the engineering team can spare:"
A statement made with knowledge AND facts.
And I didnt mention managers as people who axiomatically did not know their trade as engineers. I just stated that people who manage successes shouldn't be getting the credit for having engineered them or vice versa.
All I'm saying is that Kalam's acievement as a manager of a team of engineers is not proof of a great scientific mind. I didnt say he was a bad engineer. I just said that his managerial achievement is not proof enough of his scientific credentials. It doesnt automatically make him a bad scientist, but it doesnt automatically make him a good one either.

I know it takes effort; but do read what I HAVE written, and not what you THINK i meant when i wrote it. (Just a polite request. Please feel free to ignore it.)

8:42 am  
Blogger m. said...

i'm back.

pink panther: (i). yes. yes. and i also think monsanto should be made to pay compensation to all the people theyve harmed through their rotten GM seeds and to the families of people they helped murder with agent orange.
(ii). ive already written about medicine and its ethical track record. i think ive also mentioned pavlov and skinner several times. ive also spoken about hiv trials and the process of finding medicines and vaccines.
(iii). yes i do. the reason would be a comment by anonymous on this thread - that even if the knowledge as such were amoral, its application would be fraught with ethical grey areas, the very existence of which would be used as an excuse for several atrocities.

krish: nonsense!! (that was to reply in kind.) the quote was from a speech in which he was glorifying BT and nanotechnology. the page 8 business would qualify in the common tongue, as a reference. your disinclination to follow it up doesnt make it invalid.
as for kalam having acquired fame through science, why of course. the institution will (obviously?) glorify its figure heads.

frookster: and what he states are indeed the ideals of science. i would consider that a person who claimed to offer all that would be trying to attain the status of godhood rather than scientist. those are exactly the sort of vague, qualitative claims that science is supposed to distrust and pride itself on not making.
The fact that politicians are using bad science to further their agenda. what does it say for science that it can be manipulated thus? rather than blindly upholding what we wish were true it might be more constructive (not to mention truer to the "scientific ideal") to honestly accept when were making mistakes and set them right.

sriharsha salagrama: if it were so clearly established that kalam were only a puppet and not the brain, i wouldnt be so worried! :)

eroteme: i intend to.

meenu: it was about as well thought out, carefully considered and substantiable a claim as "im the greatest!".

6:12 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

If it were commonly understood that kalam didnt deserve his reputation as a scientist for his managerial successes, it would be easier to take his statements with a pinch of salt.
It is called ARGUMENTUM AD VERECUNDIAM: The man in question may say ANYTHING he wants to: Taking kalam's word as the definitive guide to everything scientific would be a fallacy. While it is debatable whether or not a man in his position of responsibility should talk about BT cotton at all (which is what you are crowing about, m.) , it is even worse to let HIS opinion decide for YOU (the blind kalam supporters) what is or isnt right.

8:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

That's right. It's easy to criticize science and scientists, after enjoying the full benefits they have produced for society.

I wonder if you imagine that your knowledge of science is so vast that you have the temerity to not only humbug science, but also to make character judgements of scientists.

If you accomplish anything that makes a difference to the world at large - for the better - perhaps then I'd believe you have the locus to make such statements.

PS: Whoever it was who split hair about engineers not being scientists should go look up a dictionary. A scientist is a person who has expert knowledge of science.

3:15 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:02 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

dear anon:
Would aerospace engineers be experts in "rocket science"...?
On a seious note, though: Would you say that the thousands of jokers that graduate from engineering colleges in India every year are scientists? They have two courses each on maths and physics and one on chemistry as part of their curriculum. So they most definitely do not count as experts in the basic sciences.
Now to the applied ones. Let me begin by asking how many of these people are actually doing any scientific work or understand the scientific method. Because if you include the study of electrical technology makes one a scientist; you've just called a whole bunch of diploma holders, scientists as well.
It is much easier to get hold of an engineering degree than to be a scientist.
For the record, I'm not junking those engineers that are scientists. I'm just contesting the alleged validity of the statement that the former profession autoamtically makes one a member of the latter as well. I'm just saying the two words are not synonyms.

8:30 am  
Blogger Krish said...

Umm..Disinclination to follow up...poor understanding..doesnt matter..I guess you are indeed referring to this article

Now, I am at complete loss- when i first wrote that comment, I had read this article..n to make myself more clear and to test whether my english has gone to dogs, i read it twice..I could find no reference to Monsanto or Genetically Engineered Seeds..all he was speaking was about BT- which is Bio-Technology. GM Seeds and other Monsanto products are just a part of BT- I hope you can understand that..else i suggest you to be first clear on those before forming an opinion.

And ofcourse, I am least bothered by the institutions that would glorify their figure heads..but I am bothered as hell, when people who dont want the institution want the glorification of that Figure Head to justify their cause..I wudnt mind a scientist calling "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."- After all he is part of it..but the one claims to oppose it, invoking the same to support the claim is in my opinion, simply ridiculous!

3:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sriharsha salagrama: Excellent argument. I stand corrected!

krish: Again, very valid point. It appears as though eroteme hit the nail on the head. Some people argue for the heck of arguing. Or they just like to raise a ruckus.

5:38 am  
Blogger m. said...

krish: kalam's position is the reason that his statements are more loaded than anyone elses. as the president one would have thought he would be aware, that one of the technologies he was so wildly praising, had very dubious applications and had been rejected by the courts even as he made the statement. kalam, as the head of the country, is supposed to be upholding the judiciary (or he should at least take them up directly if he disagrees), not make these sweeping loaded statements.
it would be naive to say that there is no relationship between the statements he made and the current political events, because as the head of the country, he had to have been aware of this as well.
he is using his status as a scientist (harsha, overlook this will you!) in a completely different field, and his position as the institutional head to publicly pass pronouncements on subjects that he has no actual expertise in. i believe in the common tongue, thats called a con job.

7:36 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

@m:Oh Dear...this, I would call Paranoia!. It is akin to saying no one(not the least head of a country) can say that Fire or Wind is useful to us, because, Fire burns down property, Storms and tornadoes destroy life and they(fire and wind) indeed have dubious track record in their usefulness to humanity- I think (or atleast guess) you would agree to that statement only if a pyro-technologist or an expert in storm (or whtever tech) say that- wud you?- Please understand technology and science are completely different from application. I really see the apparent confusion at your end on these it nuclear or BT or whtever. Technology by no means is responsible for the application...the technology for wheels is no bad just because it is used in a Missile Launcher-please dont look it that way...coz whtever the technology, there are always ways to use it for destruction. Application is not the fault of technology. I rest my case!(if there was any) :)

9:02 pm  

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