02 June 2023

Sabotaging a nation's future

The government of India recently issued new guidance on schooling.  If implemented as described and made permanent, the changes will be disastrous for the country's future.

The theory of evolution -- the core and basis of all modern biology and most medical science --  is to be dropped, except for the small minority of students who "major" in biology.  Some other key scientific concepts, such as the periodic table of the elements and Faraday's contributions to the understanding of electricity and magnetism, are also being dropped.

Science is not only the basis of all real human understanding of reality, it's the basis of technology, which in turn is the basis of any nation's prosperity, progress, quality of life, military power, ability to handle environmental issues, and pretty much everything else that matters.  Any nation that neglects or rejects science will be a failure, no matter what else it gets right.

There is no ambiguity about what the problem is here.  India's current ruling party, the Bhartiya Janata party (BJP) has an explicitly religio-nationalist ideology, similar to that of Russia's Putin regime or of the increasingly dominant fundamentalist element of the Republican party in the US.  The religion whose supremacy it promotes is Hinduism, not Christianity, but in practical terms that's a trivial difference -- the real-world effects are the same.  The new education guidance in India also de-emphasizes teaching about democracy and governance.  The whole thing is strikingly similar to what we see in those states of the US where fundamentalism dominates.  The post also notes that Erdoğan's religio-nationalist government in Turkey ended the teaching of evolution in schools in 2017, and mentions several other countries -- all of them Islamic -- which have banned it.

Indian government officials are quoted as uttering and defending statements like "no one ever saw an ape turning into a human being" -- the same kind of ignorance we hear from creationists in the US -- and Indian scientists are warning that "this overall move to expunge some of these foundational topics will facilitate a climate ripe for superstition and unreason to fester".  Indeed, superstitious rubbish of all kinds, from homeopathy to "spiritual farming" to claimed medical benefits of cow urine, is running rampant.  Most countries have problems with silly beliefs among some elements of their populations, of course, but under the BJP, even scientific institutes are being made to waste money and time on such garbage.  Indian scientists are pushing back and protesting, but with the government against their efforts, it's a tough fight.

Americans don't need to look overseas to see the real-world results of this kind of thing.  Average life expectancy in the US has been falling for years, and our country has now dropped out of the world's top fifty countries for life expectancy.  However, the real story is the exploding gap between "red" and "blue" areas of the country -- the latter still have life expectancy almost on par with western Europe, while the former are quickly falling behind, a trend which accelerated during the covid pandemic due to mass rejection of vaccines and other precautions.  The stygian depth of ignorance and stupidity prevalent among anti-vaxers is the poisonous fruit of long neglect and rejection of science education in so much of the country, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have paid with their lives for it.

India matters because it is the world's largest democracy, and the democratic world can't afford to keep leaning exclusively on American leadership as heavily as it has done over the last few decades.  The Trump period showed that isolationism and authoritarianism have a substantial constituency in the US.  Something like that could happen again.  The whole democratic world needs to be as strong and advanced as possible, especially other large democracies like India and Brazil, so that it can continue to flourish even if a future Trump-like government here takes the US out of the picture for some period of time.  We can't afford to have the development of a country as important as India suffocated by the kind of nonsense the BJP is promoting.

This also reminds us that it is an error to attribute the damaging effects of religion exclusively to Abrahamic monotheism, and to whitewash it in the east or elsewhere.  The present battle between science and nonsense in India looks astonishingly similar to the same battle in the US.  The struggle of science, reason, knowledge, and evidence-based thinking against superstition, ignorance, belief, and dogma is one struggle, all over the world.


Blogger NickM said...

I have to agree absolutely and totally. The tendency toward religio-narionalism is very worrying in countries like Turkey and India because they aren't shiteholes like Shoddy Absurdia. I dunno to what extent you can access BBC TV Infidel but the "Modi Question" is well worth a watch.

Could you answer a question about the USA? I heard recently that the electroal college system was an idea from the slave states because they wanted representation in a presidential election based on total population rather than population of those who had suffrage? Is this correct? I don't want to put you out of your way with a lengthy response so a link would be fine.

03 June, 2023 02:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM: In some cases popular opinion counts. Last I heard, Iran still teaches evolution in its schools despite being a flat-out theocracy, because the public there wouldn't stand for the humiliation of the country completely downgrading itself to medieval "shithole" status. In the case of India I suspect there will be a lot more push-back in the south of the country, which is more educated and developed than the north.

Turkey may be a write-off at this point. I don't know whether secularism and democracy there will survive another five years of Erdoğan. Liberals and the educated will probably start trying to leave.

On the Electoral College, that was part of the reason. There was a dispute on whether slaves should be counted as part of the population used to calculate number of electors (and Congressional representatives), which was resolved by the so-called "three-fifths compromise", counting each slave as three-fifths of a person -- the South had wanted them counted as full persons to maximize the Southern states' power, while the non-slave states wanted them not counted at all. There is a discussion here.

03 June, 2023 04:33  
Blogger NickM said...

Thanks. I had never heard of the 3/5s thing. It is truly bizarre. I assume there was some political horse-trading to come up with the exact figure. A sort of "high, low, close". It's like me on eBay.

As to Turks leaving... Well, I dunno about the "liberal and educated" but the barbers all seem to have come to the UK in the last coupla years. Tons of Turkish barbers and they're bloody good and reasonably priced so I ain't complaining. In fact a Mr Mazig cut my hair only yesterday!

There may or may not be a "brain drain" about to happen but the "scissor sluice" is a done deal ;-)

03 June, 2023 11:59  
Blogger Mary said...

The big question is what really drives religion..all religion? I’m not talking fear of death, hatred of the other, denial of science etc., but why is it there at all? Is it some atavistic vestige in our brains having to do with chemical responses or electrical activity of the synapses, from when we were barely just becoming cavemen?

I know indoctrination is powerful, although many people don’t seem to fall for it as they mature, but others succumb totally. There has to be a difference in their brains.

03 June, 2023 13:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM: I imagine the demand for barbers declines as a country becomes more Islamized, given their penchant for scruffy beards. So, they'll emigrate. :-)

Mary: That's a very complicated question, one I've written several posts about (and of course many of the smartest people in the world have written whole books addressing it). I think a big part of it is the fact that pre-scientific humans had to concoct explanations for all the phenomena around them that they couldn't figure out the real explanations for, and then ruling groups realized how powerful a tool for controlling others religion could be.

But no, I don't believe there's any inherent difference between believers' and unbelievers' brains. Hundreds of millions of people who grew up religious have abandoned it -- that is, they move from one category to the other. It's a matter of exposure to new information and a wider world-view.

03 June, 2023 13:58  
Blogger Annie Asks You said...

This is a solid essay about a deeply troubling trend, Infidel. I knew India was having its own problems with fundamentalism, but I find the ambitious extent of the scientific "nihilism" worrisome in the world's largest democracy. As you point out, we need strong democracies to combat the rising authoritarianism in too many countries in addition to our own.

I found it interesting to read the professor's condemnation, which referred to damaging American online content as one affirming source for the ignorance. The hope placed in the Internet to advance democracy has once more been turned upside down, as conspiracy theorists and religious zealots find one another across borders. It is noteworthy, as you also detail, that in this case it is Hinduism, not Christianity--under which this anti-science, anti-evolution mayhem is being foisted on the people.

So many reasons for concern--for the Indian people and for the world. I'm thinking of all the bright Indian physicians who come to US hospitals. And India has been the source of a huge amount of the generic medications Americans take every day. (There have been quality control issues there, as we know from the contaminated eye drops disaster in the US recently, but it's been a reliable source for years.)

It's incredible to think how short-sighted these "leaders" are. But, of course, it's familiar as well--as we scratch our heads about book banning and history revisionism.

How do you think this turn might affect US-Indian relations, which are critically important, and have been strained by several issues in recent years?

03 June, 2023 14:19  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: Thanks. Unfortunately, in India religious fundamentalism fits particularly well with a xenophobic brand of nationalism, since the dominant religion there is genuinely indigenous, and there has long been some degree of resentment toward minority religions from outside (Islam and Christianity). They forget that secularism is a big part of why India has been so much more successful than Pakistan, an explicitly religious (Islamic) state from the beginning.

One would hope that in the long run the internet will weaken religious fanaticism by exposing people to a broader world of ideas. That's happened in the West and in most of the Islamic world, and I suspect it's actually happening in India too. Religion tends to get more militant and frenzied as people turn away from it and its grip on society weakens -- we've seen that in the US too, where fundamentalism has become more militant as society has become more secular and the numbers of fundamentalists have shrunk.

Actually, even more doctors and other educated Indians may leave the country if things keep getting crazier there. The medications are more of an issue. India is the world's biggest pharmaceuticals manufacturer. I suspect the government won't interfere too much there, though -- it's an important source of export revenue, and even of national prestige to some degree.

I doubt education policy will affect US-India relations -- that kind of thing tends to be perceived as strictly internal affairs. But if Modi continues to become more authoritarian and if persecution of religious minorities keeps increasing, the US may have something to say about that.

03 June, 2023 16:00  

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