India's 'pop scientists' slay superstitions

The sun went "out." Darkness fell. But contrary to rumor, astrological evil spirits were not at work.

A small army of amateur scientists made that clear to their rural audience when the total eclipse hit here in August - assuring people the world was not coming to an end.

Known as the popular science movement, the organization includes some 45,000 engineers, doctors, teachers, and writers who think it is just great - flawlessly logical, as Mr. Spock would put it - to spend their spare time talking ecology and E=mc2.

In Kerala, India's most educated state, making science fun and practical is not something only nerds do.

"By asking people to question the rationality behind old practices and beliefs, they are trying to use science as an instrument of social change," says Dinesh Agarwal of the United Nations mission in New Delhi. "Most scientists in India are working in isolation. They aren't organized as they are in Kerala," he says.

There is, in fact, nothing in South Asia quite like it - a voluntary association designed to "create an understanding of science" for both young and old, and in the local language. Members hold weekly and monthly meetings. Some perform street theater on topics like Halley's comet or deforestation and biodiversity. Others publish magazines for children, teens, and adults, with articles on Leonardo da Vinci , the caterpillar-to-butterfly chrysalis, and why rainbows happen.

Several years ago, reports filtered to the press that some districts in this southern tropical state had achieved an incredible 100 percent adult literacy rate. The science movement's rank and file was credited with having gone into the villages to teach people to read. Now the group wants to help complete a state project to put computers in 25 percent of the households in Kerala - making it the most wired state in the country.

Practical suggestions

Yet most of the work is low tech. On a high school veranda here in Kolenchery, a small hamlet inside a banana and spice plantation, civil engineer G.S. Ramakrishna blows on a slip of paper to show local residents why airplanes are buoyant. Later, the science group cooks Sunday lunch on an enclosed "smoke-free" stove, known as a chola, that has been promoted by the group. The stove uses 45 percent less firewood and is much easier on the eyes than the smoky, open fires housewives used to use in Kerala - before the science movement made them an issue.

Partly, the emphasis on science comes from the special chemistry of Kerala itself. The isolated coastal state on the southwest tip of India has a history of liberal education brought by Portuguese Christian missionaries. By the 1950s, Kerala's liberal and rationalist traditions had turned it into a kind of balmy, secular Marxist model - a place where women, for example, enjoyed greater rights than in many parts of India.

For the left, education was a form of liberation, and science was education's handmaiden - one of the tools used to deconstruct the caste system that segregated people into high and low social status. In 1957, the state erected a library in every township. While the literacy rate in India is well below 50 percent, in Kerala it is well above 85 percent.

So in 1962, amid the euphoria of space programs, the Sputnik satellite, and a general assumption that technology was the panacea of the future - it wasn't surprising that two dozen Kerala science writers started the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), or People's Science Movement.

At first, the KSSP core simply wanted to end local superstitions, a lack of knowledge about scientific method, and the habits of local newspapers that played up myths and old wives' tales in order to make sales. Kerala's best and brightest began talking up physics, astronomy, and theoretical math. They published more than 100 books. "We were dedicated to publishing the latest scientific trends," remembers M.K. Prasad, a KSSP founder.

But by the 1970s the idea of science amid the palm trees became so powerful that it also partly fell prey to various political socialisms. The science group broadened into a movement - but it also focused less on pure science and theory, and more on serving the masses through projects like the smokeless stove. For the first time, the KSSP became controversial by opposing big money issues involving the building of dams and factories, basing their positions on environmental- impact statements.

KSSP's success also caused some to question whether its evangelical ardor about science as having all the answers wasn't naive. "No one looks at science with such starry-eyed optimism as formerly colonized countries," states Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. "The KSSP sometimes fell into that. I think we do better taking an instrumental view of science, like the Japanese."

Changing with the times

Yet some of the movement's ideological biases are changing. For many years, for example, the Marxist left discredited Western ideas like child-centered education or nonquantitative testing as being bourgeois fascination. The left in Kerala blocked early efforts to develop computer literacy on the grounds that computers would take away jobs. Meanwhile, neighboring states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were becoming the Silicon Valleys of South Asia.

Yet now the strictures on computers are off. And last year much of the street theater and core focus of KSSP was on introducing Montessori concepts to local schools and on testing students in ways that emphasize more than rote memory.

In some ways, these pop scientists are the kind of people who will tell you that no Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. Ignatius Gonsalves, bureau chief in the city of Cochin, says the movement, along with local rationalist societies, has tried to question local myths. "The average elderly villager still believes that the moon is a god," says Mr. Gonsalves, "and these groups want to do something about it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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