Last week in India: Two scientists who coauthored two papers, along with many others from India as well as abroad, have spoken out against the conclusions of those papers even as they refused to distance themselves from their findings. As bizarre as this sounds, it may have happened because the two scientists were not prepared to weather the government’s potential backlash towards the paper’s conclusions, or they wish to ingratiate themselves to the ruling dispensation. Either way, their obeisance to the official party line is fascinating proof that the scientific enterprise – for all its promises of benevolence as well as objectivity – doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally determine how its discoveries will be digested by society at large.
As C.P. Rajendran wrote, ethical obligations demand that the duo have their names removed from the papers, but how would ethics matter to someone prepared to publicly dispute the conclusions of studies that he has painstakingly helped construct? These men, particularly Vasant Shinde, have more than sullied the people’s impression of science itself; they have lent their authority to news publications that have wrongly reported (examples here, here, here and here) the papers’ findings to feed a political narrative whose triumphalism has already rendered many other tenets and conclusions of scientific research unreliable.
The scientists haven’t only contravened the truth-value of an idea they helped move closer to the truth, but have, in the process, handed a dozen more bricks to the nationalist mason as he builds his theatre of the absurd. Now what prevents a person from anticipating two truths in the future pertaining to, say, the ability of homeopathic medicines to cure cancer or an archaeological quest for the mythical river Saraswati – one delivered by the paper and its robust methods designed to negate the influence of cognitive biases and the other by the paper’s authors at a press conference, in the presence of journalists who simply don’t know to expect better?