Study reveals public acceptance of evolution is high in India/ Study finds majority of Indians accept evolution

A study done by group of evolutionary biologists from Central University of Punjab, Bathinda revealed that the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is very high among Indians. The study found 68.5% of Indians accepted that human beings developed from earlier species of animals, as propounded by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. While the figure is marginally less than Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, and Japan (over 78% in all these countries), the figure is significantly higher than that in many other countries including the United States and Turkey (less than 40%). 

According to this study published in the latest issue of Journal of Scientific Temper, public acceptance of evolution was found to be highest in Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala (all above 78%) while the least was found to be in Haryana (41.3%). Males were marginally more likely to accept the evolution compared with females (72% vs. 69%), and non-religious people compared with religious people (74% vs. 67%). Surprisingly people who identified as ‘rightists’ accepted the evolution more than those who identified themselves as ‘leftists’ (66% vs. 61%) in political spectra. The study also identified teachers and students (over 73%) as most likely to accept evolution while employed adults (59%) least. The questionnaire survey included responses from 1706 persons from 12 states. 

The survey also included another question on the respondent’s belief about whether the age of earth is older than 10,000 years or younger than that. The study revealed a very high public acceptance of old earth (90%). In response to this question as well the rightists (83.6%) eclipsed the leftists (76.8%).

At the international level, the trend is quite clear that religiosity is inversely proportional to public acceptance of evolution. Countries where religious belief is high (Turkey, US etc.) tend to be least likely to accept the evolution, and vice versa. However, the case is very different in India. According to 2011 census, 99.8% of Indians associated with religion, while merely 0.2% were irreligious. Lead author of the study Dr. Felix Bast conjectured possible reason for high public acceptance of evolution in India despite the fact of high religiosity is that Hinduism does not conflict Darwin’s theory of evolution to a large extent. According to 2011 census, Hindus encompass 80.3% of Indian population. Many concepts of Vedas and Hinduism support the scientific consensus of geology, climate science and evolution to a large extent. For example, according to Rigveda, the age of earth is 1.97 billion years, which is very old compared with that of creation myth propounded by Abrahamic religions (according to creationism-also called Intelligent Design, the age of earth is around 6000 years). Current scientific consensus of the age of earth is 4.543 billion years. A number of evolutionary biologists in the past as well were baffled about the surprising similarity between evolutionary theory and Hinduism. British evolutionary biologist JBS Haldane, for instance, suggested that Hindu concept of dashavatara– the ten incarnations of lord Vishnu- is a rough idea of vertebrate evolution (fish-the vertebrate to tortoise-reptile to boar-mammal to man). Vedic concepts of pralaya and mahapralaya too surprisingly capture the cyclic nature of global climate (glacial-interglacial cycles).

Vehemently opposing Darwinism had traditionally been a tactic in conservative parties around the world, especially by the republic party in the US. Barring a few incidences lately including anti-evolution comments by HRD Minister Dr. Satyapal Singh, opposition to Darwinism had never been employed as a tactic in India by any party for the political gains. Pseudoscience concepts such as creationism is never taught in schools in India while the case is very different in conservative states of United States where creationism is taught in parallel to evolution. Surveys in the US too (for example, one in 2007) indicated that among American population Buddhists and Hindus (more than 80%) are far more likely to accept evolution than other religious groups, in line with Dr. Felix’s argument.

“Message of this finding is clear; theory of evolution is as much Indian as British. Rather than treating Darwinism as Western, we should continue to embrace it as similar concepts already exists in Hinduism.” Said Dr. Felix. He added that he is fascinated with the works of former BJP MP Pradeep Rawat to popularize theory of evolution; Mr. Rawat has opened up a first class public library in Pune housing thousands of world-class books on evolution.   

Dr. Felix Bast had been working for the popularization of science and scientific temperament among Indian population for the last many years through his science writings in magazines and outreach talks in libraries, schools and colleges throughout the country. He has also founded a charity foundation for this purpose and the foundation frequently donate popular science books in regional languages to the public schools and libraries. Coincidentally, the date on which this article got published (20th August) is observed as National Scientific Temper Day in India to mark the death anniversary of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. It was also on the same day in 1858 that British scientists Darwin and Wallace issued first printed exposition of the theory of evolution.

News related to this report appeared in The Hindu and The Indian Express on 29th August 2018


What caused Kerala floods? Karma vs. Science, and the straw man fallacy

In the immediate aftermath of Kerala floods, I was flabbergasted to see many media reports on the statements of famous scientists and environmentalists that the recent flood episode is completely man-made and sublimely resorting to the retributive argument akin to Karma; “they caused it, therefore, they deserve it”. Instead of feeling conscience-stricken and helping the fellow citizens, making such irresponsible statements and ‘armchair philosophical preaching’ seemed to be very heartless and cruel. These science-sounding insults seemed as if a wind aggravating the fire; supporting host of other religious ‘karma’ backed arguments such as Keralites eat beef or they let women enter the temple (Sabarimala), therefore, they deserve it.

First of all, consider the facts; Kerala received 3100 mm of rain in August 2018, which is more than 257% of average rains Kerala gets in this month. What causes episodes of extreme rain and fluctuations in the monsoon? It is well-known that global oceanic thermal fluctuations caused by Southern Oscillations of El Nino and La Nina is the prime factor responsible for changes in monsoon pattern and intensity. These factors are indeed directly connected with global warming, which is a global rather than local phenomena. It is highly probable that the recent heavy rains in India are completely man-made in this sense. However, ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s statement that encroachment in the Western Ghats caused rain and floods seemed to me a rather imaginary mental confabulation than science. In June 2013 Uttarakhand too got extreme rainfall, the ‘cloudburst’ (although the amount of rain in that month, 540mm, seems far less than the intensity of recent Kerala floods). Does it make sense to argue that encroachment of Himalayas caused the cloudburst and flash floods in Uttarakhand during that time as well? Uttarakhand is one of the most sparsely populated states in India (189 persons per square km). Landslides too caused widespread havock in recent Kerala calamities. Landslides are natural sequelae during heavy rainfalls in slopped landscapes when soil gets completely saturated with water. Common sense informs me that it is not connected with human encroachments to a large extent other than massive valley-wide deforestations. Consider Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh; landslides happen almost everywhere no matter the area is encroached by humans or not. When Pacific island of Kiribati started losing much of its land to the rising sea levels, Kiribati haters argued that they deserve it, because who asked them to ‘encroach’ such a fragile tropical island? The country is now negotiating with Fiji to relocate their whole country. Maldives too is looking for countries where it can be relocated into. We will be loosing our entire Sundarbans too, Mumbai need to be relocated too; reason for all these is global climate change, not local environmental degradations.

We should realize that there are no authorities in science. Science progresses by disconfirming hypotheses rather than confirming one’s own beliefs. Gadgil is partly right that encroachments did cause environmental degradation in the Western Ghats, which is rather a fragile ecosystem. However, extrapolating that argument as all-encompassing ‘theory of everything’ or ‘the holy grail’ of environmentalism is not science. Encroachments of Western Ghats is a serious issue in ecology, but that is unrelated. Attacking this unrelated issue and allude to it as the prime cause of flash floods is diverting the topic of man-made climate change and suffers from ‘straw man fallacy’. Anti-vaccine campaigners often use the argument that autism is such a devastating disease, and, therefore, vaccines are unethical. Alluded in that argument is that vaccines cause autism which is incorrect; yet another example of ‘straw man fallacy’. Of course, most of the large-scale human activities, including building the highways, construction of dams and even agricultural expansion have ramifications on the environment. Very high population density of Kerala (with 860 people per square km, one of the highest in India) forced its people to build houses on the banks of its rivers, 44 in total, like elsewhere in the world. Many of the houses were built on geomorphic low-lying areas and flood plains and is partly responsible for the heavy loss to people and property during the floods. However, this situation is same when high-intensity rain falls in heavily populated areas elsewhere as well, be it past episodes of flash floods in Chennai, Mumbai, Srinagar and so on. But instead of taking a collective responsibility of entire humanity on causing global warming which resulted in monsoon anomaly, ablution of all the sins by resorting to consequentialist ‘karma’-backed arguments such as “Keralites got what they did to their environment” does no good in these times of distress. Such science-sounding arguments are nothing but ignorance akin to authoritarian pseudoscience that comes in a white-lab-coat of an experimental scientist and masquerades the public as ambassadors of real science. Remember, there are no authorities in science. Science progresses by refutations and falsifications, not by confirmations and dogma.

AWSAR and the Sagan effect

Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research (AWSAR), a new initiative from the union government launched on this independence day, is aimed at fostering science communication skills among the researchers of the country. The scheme introduced by Department of Science and Technology-National Council of Science and Technology Communication (DST-NCSTC), will award original articles written by Ph.D. students and Post-doctoral fellows about the research that they are doing and comes with a cash prize and certificate. For Ph.D. students, one first prize is for Rs. 1 Lakh, one second prize for Rs. 50,000, one third prize for Rs. 25,000, and 100 consolation prizes for Rs. 10,000 each. For postdoctoral fellows, one first prize for Rs. 1 Lakh and 20 consolation prizes for Rs. 10,000 each. 

The scheme is indeed praiseworthy; perhaps first such an initiative from the union government. However, there are multiple caveats and shortcomings of the scheme that need to be addressed. I have been into science communication over the last many years through multiple media platforms; including science outreach talks at village libraries, schools, colleges, popular science articles, blogs and so on. Over these years I have noticed a very peculiar ‘side effect’ of this endeavor, a ‘pain in the neck’ indeed.  If you do public dissemination of science (even if you publish and make discoveries alongside), colleagues will treat you as a journalist rather than a scientist. There is a name for this, ‘Sagan Effect’; Carl Sagan, the famous American astronomer and science communicator, was famously victimized by this mentality. Albeit working for many years as a contractual faculty at Harvard University, he failed to get a permanent position there. Many of his applications for research grants were overturned. He even failed to become a fellow of the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences. The reason for all this was that the perception as a public ambassador of sciences lead his colleagues to consider him as a second-grade scientist (but later assessments of Sagan’s research output makes him a far higher achiever than his colleagues). Also, if you achieve a certain recognition in the field and some of your discoveries get into the headlines of newspapers, peers consider you as someone who is after media glory, the ‘headline grabber.’

This is the typical fate of most of the scientist-science communicators around the world, including Prof. Yash Pal, “Carl Sagan of India”. Prof. Yash Pal failed to become fellow of Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore- the most prestigious among India’s three national science academies. The Sagan-effect stems from the stereotypical image of a scientist as someone like Isaac Newton: a media-shy, introvert, speaks and writes in esoteric language full of technical jargons that no one understands, and a lifelong bachelor who has devoted his life to the science! 

The fact that AWSAR is not open for established scientists makes the efforts to foster science communication futile to a large extent. Is science communication a job only good for students and postdocs (thereby alluding them as “second-class” scientists)? An appreciable hallmark of first-class scientists is that they write in recondite fashion? We should get away from this mindset that synonymizes those who write popular science articles with mediocrity; the only way is to open this scheme for all irrespective of the age or educational status. Many of the greatest writers never had any formal degrees (many were school dropouts), including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and so on. Of course, established senior scientists are in a better position to explain their research to the public. However, let us not forget that science writing is an art. Simply stating out the facts in non-technical, accessible language is prosaic and dull. AWSAR guidelines also insist that writers should be registered in an approved institution. How about citizen scientists and science journalists? Over the years, the importance of citizen scientists- who have no regular positions and doing science as a hobby- have become increasingly evident. For example, a team of citizen scientists lead by Shanti Pappu from Tamil Nadu recently published a landmark paper in the British journal Nature about the existence of middle paleolithic culture in South India from almost 140000 years ago, effectively causing a paradigm-shift in archeology and anthropology. There are several hobby-clubs fostering science- especially biodiversity conservation- in the country; I was fortunate to be part of one such a society (Bombay Natural History Society). A hallmark of science is that there are no authorities in science; an unemployed citizen can also write science article and get it published, or rebuke the claims published by established scientists in reputed journals. To make the scheme successful, AWSAR should completely be open for all citizens of India. 

Another problem with AWSAR is that the scheme insists the students write about their work, and the evaluation criteria mention that their technical publication records will be taken into consideration while evaluating the entries. First, top science communicators in the world hardly confine to their field of research. They tend to be polymaths reading across the fields and writing about everything in an integrative fashion. Consider Carl Sagan, a synergistic hodgepodge of all fields. Famous Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (Kuiper belt of the solar system is named after him) once famously said about Carl Sagan: “Some persons work best in specializing on a major program in the laboratory; others are best in liaison between sciences. Dr. Sagan belongs in the latter group.” Or consider other famous science writers including Bill Bryson, Carl Zimmer, and Matt Ridley- all have written on subjects across the science integrating with arts and philosophy. To make the scheme effective, AWSAR should foster writing such holistic, integrative popular articles rather than mundane explanations about one’s own narrow research works. Equally important issue is that writer’s scholarly publication records should not be considered while evaluating the merits of the entries. If that is the case, citizen scientists and passionate science writers will be left out. Science research and science writing are entirely different; being an accomplished scientist does not automatically vouch for their science communication skills. As this scheme takes technical publication track record in consideration, the scheme would simply filter and award dull articles written by regular students who have a long list of technical publications, invalidating the spirit of the scheme. My first popular science article got published (a Malayalam article, published in Shastrakeralam, a popular science magazine in Kerala) when I was in 8th grade in high school. Does that mean my article was inferior? Of course not. Sad to note that such articles will not be considered for this scheme. 

I am surprised that due diligence was not paid while formulating detailed guidelines ( of the scheme, this shows the bureaucratic laxity. For example, even in which languages the entries be made is not clear. Is it only in English? Or two of the official languages of the country, English or Hindi? Guidelines instruct “Times New Roman” as the font, so presumably only in English. To make the scheme effective, the scheme should be open for all 22 scheduled languages of India. I was fortunate having grown up reading popular science magazines in my mother tongue (Eureka and Shastrakeralam) and reading a number of science classics translated in Malayalam, all published by Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad. The situation is very different in other states; for example in Punjab where I live now, there are not a single known Punjabi popular science magazine, or any translated versions of famous science books (of course, there are a few popular science books written by Punjabi scientists). Like Sagan effect, another peculiar groupthink common in India is that writing in regional languages (or reading it) is a social stigma; only English is fashionable for scientists. Perhaps the same groupthink is behind restricting AWSAR only for English entries. In my perception, science outreach will only be effective if it penetrates the masses, for which the only way is to communicate through their regional vernaculars. English may be the language of science, but not the language of the Indian citizen. Popular science articles are not written for scientists, but for the masses. AWSAR should be opened up for entries from all languages in India, including English and Hindi.

Another major issue with AWSAR is that only original, unpublished entries will be considered for the award. This condition makes the entire effort of writing articles for the competition virtually ineffectual. Organizers expect some 4000 entries for the competition each year. What if you write a great article and get an award? Setting aside the prize money and certificate, how the public gets benefited unless the article reaches the masses? If the scheme gets 4000 entries, what is the use if none of those 4000 entries reach the real public? Even if the organizers publish the selected articles in a book format, chances are extremely low that these get penetrated to the masses across the country. A far better approach would be selecting a few best popular articles published in the preceding year, by a team of experts. Instead of fresh entries, the scheme should only consider published popular science articles in any print media (newspaper, magazines etc.). Of course, to get an article published itself is an achievement. Experts can pick articles from leading popular magazines in the country including Resonance, Science Reporter, Dream2047 and a list of high-quality popular science magazines from regional languages. Of course, best popular science books should also be rewarded. Instead of bifurcating AWSAR into student and postdoc categories, the scheme should be opened for all and be trifurcated into ‘published popular science articles’, ‘published popular science books’ and ‘science orators’ (to recognize individual efforts in oral dissemination of science).

If the scheme is aimed at promoting science communication among the scientists in the country, then there are far more effective approaches to be considered. The best way to promote science communication among scientists is to incentivize their efforts in those directions. As of today, efforts in science communication are not considered either for direct recruitment or for the promotions of scientist positions in the country. For example, consider ever-evolving UGC’s rules for Career Advancement Scheme for the faculties across the universities in the country. As publishing popular science articles or popular science books carries no weight in CAS (or for intramural awards such as best researcher, best faculty, best scientist etc.), why would the faculties write popular science articles? Instead, publication of only technical articles is rewarded, which has lead to a host of associated problems, including the ‘publish or perish’ mindset, leading to the proliferation of predatory publications and data fabrication incidences across the country. The government should be pragmatic and urgently intervene to make science communication both in English and regional languages professionally rewarding to the scientists; only then science communication and outreach would become fashionable and appealing to the scientists.

(Dr. Felix Bast is a science writer and a faculty based at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. He can be contacted at

Do cats make you more entrepreneurial?

Yes, says the new research.

I have written about the fascinating story of a tiny microorganism (a protozoa) Toxoplasma gondii earlier (PDF here). This organism has only one agenda in its life; to get inside the body of cats-their definitive host to complete its sexual life cycle. How to get in there?

When T. gondii infects rats, it induces changes in rat’s behaviours by hijacking its minds. While rat’s normal behavior is to run away from cats, the infected rats ‘dances’ in front of cats, pretty suicidal indeed. Of course, rats get killed by cats; this would enable the microorganism to get back to their definitive host!

Earlier research have revealed that almost half of the human population are carriers of T. gondii. Half of us have it, and chances are high that if you are like me, having grown up with cats in home, you probably have it too. Most of the earlier papers were rather professing the negative effects of protozoa on our behavior (lower cognitive response times leading to higher traffic accidents). This new paper is different though.

The paper published in Proceedings of Royal Society of London-B involved saliva-based antibody detection test and grouped the cohort into those with T. gondii and those without. The conclusion backed with rigorous statistical tests was that those with this microbe are more risk-takers than those without. Is risk-taking a good attribute? It depends on the context; in business, indeed an appreciable trait. 

“People who tested IgG positive for T. gondii exposure were 1.4× more likely to major in business, 1.7× more likely to have an emphasis in ‘management and entrepreneurship’ over other business-related emphases, and were 1.8× more likely to have started their own business compared with other attendees (n = 197).”

Extrapolating the finding further, risk-taking is good attribute in curiosity-driven research, if you are a scientist. Why? Because of Equal-Odd’s rule! Risk-taking (within limits) let you explore unchartered corners of the world. In many other spheres of life, heedless risk taking is a dangerous trait though. For example, adventurous sports, unsafe sex, substance abuse and so on. We need to find the sweet-spot, just-right amount of risk-taking. Swedes would call it Lagom.

Elements of AI: MOOC Review

Recently I took a MOOC offered by the University of Helsinki in collaboration with Reaktor; its called “Elements of AI”. In one sense if the government of Finland is showcasing one MOOC to attract the global attention, this is the one (with more than 24000 enrollees!). I came across about this offering through an article saved in my pocket app (which is linked with my kindle!).


Why did I take this? I keep on taking multiple MOOCs over time to become a ‘polymath’! I love to integrate different disciplines and work as a liaison between fields. In my public outreach talks, I emphasize this attribute: do not confine to your narrow fields of studies and try to read across the fields. I also ‘preach’ the importance of lifelong learning. I think the actions speak better than words. In a sense, this MOOC certification is a platform to inspire my students and friends that being a teacher (or having a job) is not a static end; of course everyone should take courses, read interesting things, and should keep on learning new things (if not, whatever your jobs be, they are virtually useless!). A monster list of places where you can read is here. And here. This is my first course on AI, so I was quite excited about it as well.

The course was super-fun; I learned to make AI decision trees to solve a number of games, like Tic Tac Tow, River Crossing Cargo, Towers of Hanoi and so on. There was a fun intro on probability, Bayesian statistics, ANNs and non-linear regression, which informed me of a number of great metaphors and analogies that I can use in class.

Elements of AI is quite different from traditional MOOC; there were no videos. It never occurred to me that without videos and fancy animations (or even a single element of multimedia) one can run a successful MOOC. I think the pages were designed with html5, and was very fluid, with Scandinavian design elements. Examples were all about life in Helsinki, and with all Finnish first names.

Loved the course. When I shared the certificate over facebook, I got so many comments ‘congratulating’ me! Was it an achievement? Not quite. It was more fun. I don’t really care certificate, but the real reason I shared it on Facebook was to inspire others (irrespective of age, educational background) to enrol and take this fun and very informative course. After all, inspire others that learning is a lifelong endeavour.  “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”. A similar quote from Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” “Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Simply put, lifelong learning is the key.

Why Chandigarh is boring while Bathinda is an exciting city?

If you had ever been on an international flight travelling across various countries, you can easily make out whether those countries are developed or not. My strategy is to look out for the pastoral fields and arrangements of buildings. Well-demarcated fields with perfectly cut rectangular shapes (= developed countries) are indeed a pleasing scene. Wander around a Scandinavian neighbourhood, or a residential village in the south of France, you will see villas perfectly lined up. Very systematic indeed. Scenes in developing countries like in India are diametrically opposite; mostly chaotic pastoral fields, chaotic residential colonies.


You don’t have to go abroad to feel the difference; just visit an upmarket residential complex or a gated colony in India. I live in Bathinda, Punjab, a smallish township. Contrast is quite extreme within the town’s two angles; Mati Dass Nagar- where I lived for past many years, is quite chaotic, while Ganpati Enclave- an upmarket gated colony, is systematic.

The point of this post is aesthetics; which among these sights is more beautiful? Of course, beauty is a relative concept and is highly subjective (lies in the eyes of the beholder!) Systematic neighbourhoods- the products of westernized urban planning, or the chaotic neighbourhoods that lack any conscious planning? Compare city of Bathinda, a generally chaotic old city- a stereotypical Indian township, with the city of Chandigarh, a perfect embodiment of urban planning (which indeed was planned by the French architect Le Corbusier). Many would say Chandigarh much more beautiful than Bathinda; or Ganpati Enclave far pleasing to the eyes than Mati Dass Nagar.


Chandigarh, a typical block


Bathinda, a typical neighbourhood.

Beauty is traditionally equated with mathematical symmetry and predictability. Taj Mahal is symmetrical, so as Mughal gardens around the world. Western gardens have symmetry too, so as their urban and country planning. However, with symmetry comes monotony. If you wander in a typical housing neighbourhood in Copenhagen or Oslo, most of the houses and apartments look very similar and familiar. You can predict what to expect in the next block (for the same reason, biking to explore neighbourhoods become less exciting). Things that I can predict are less exciting for me. I prefer an element of unpredictability and uncertainty. Why do people go hiking in the mountains? Or explore uncharted landscapes like Antarctica? For the same reason. Unpredictability isn’t quite the same as being adventurous. In one sense, you are getting out of your comfort zone by wandering in unfamiliar neighbourhoods of developing countries. There is an element of risk for sure. No one ever consciously prefers uncertainties, but that is not my point. Being predictable and being less chaotic comes at a huge price, which is being monotonous, mechanical and boring. In one sense, the neighbourhoods of Scandinavia and south of France are very artificial; in nature, you could never find such an organized, planned dwellings. Chandigarh is well-planned, but very artificial and a boring city. Chaos and imperfection are the norms of nature. The strange beauty of imperfection and transience had been revered for a long time in Japanese culture; they even have a name for it, wabi-sabi. Visit any zen garden (or pre-Moghul Indian gardens), chances are high that the garden is very unpredictable and lacks any symmetry.

In terms of personal productivity too, these two extremes have revealed surprising trends. People who tend to be well-organized, systematic, punctual and have spotless desktops were found to be less creative and less productive than those folks who are chaotic, disorganized and with messy desks. Many creative geniuses, including Einstein, Mark Twain, Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ernest Hemingway and so on, are famously chaotic and unorganized. Many companies are embracing an element of chaos to increase the productivity; Amazon warehouses are the famous example. People who plan things ahead and always in time for schedules tend to have more cortisone levels (a stress hormone), generally less successful and die earlier than people who are inherently lazy and tardy for meetings.

Bottomline is that elements of uncertainty, unpredictability and chaos are indeed desirable attributes in any system. Many folks like myself find a strange beauty in chaos. Science has revealed that being disorganized is a creative personality trait. Always remember Wabi-sabi, an amazing concept!


Dr. Felix Bast


This explainer article is aimed at introducing SWAYAM- the new flagship program of the union government. I am privileged to have been one of the faculties whose course proposal had been approved by the UGC for the development of a SWAYAM course in the first phase of program (Course “Biostatistics and Mathematical Biology” is expected to be released in early 2019).

The Sanskritized Hindi acronym SWAYAM stands for Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds. SWAYAM is a type of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform offered by MHRD, Govt. of India, technically supported through a subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation, USA. Perhaps you might have heard of correspondence courses offered by open universities such as IGNOU or distance education wing of a number of universities. MOOCs are a very similar concept; instead of postal correspondence with the university faculty, students access the course materials (teaching video, lecture handouts, books, assignment etc) through the internet. All you need is a computer or smartphone with the internet where you can access the course from anywhere in the world for free of charge. If you pay a nominal fee and pass the examination, you can even get recognized course certification from the university offering the MOOC. Note that SWAYAM offers only individual courses, not whole degrees or diplomas. SWAYAM is accessible through or through an Android app available at Google Play.

A major advantage of MOOC is that it let you take classes from leading faculties from top-ranking universities even if the student could not manage to get admission there. SWAYAM typically offers courses by faculties from Central Universities, IITs, IIMs, IISERs etc; physical enrolment in those institutes are severely restricted by highly competitive national-level entrance tests like JEE, CUCET, CAT etc. Even if you couldn’t qualify CUCET for instance, SWAYAM lets you take courses from faculties at Central Universities, free of charge. In one sense, SWAYAM opens up “cloistered academic hegemony” and makes the high-quality courses accessible to anyone disrespecting their economic status, educational level, gender, nationality, caste, religion etc. SWAYAM brings an egalitarian, socialistic approach to the education sector. There are no entrance tests for SWAYAM courses; all courses are open to all. As a MOOC, SWAYAM has several advantages. The student can access courses from anywhere (while travelling in a bus, at night, while having meals etc.); this is convenient for those who have jobs, parents on maternity/paternity leaves and so on. In comparison with traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ classroom instruction, MOOC let the students watch the class video as many times as they like. This is important while learning new concepts, as studies have affirmed that frequency of revision plays a crucial role in etching the concepts in our long-term memory. Students can pause the class to take notes and rewind/forward as they may prefer. A disadvantage of MOOC is that it demands a computer or smartphone with the internet connection. As mobiles and internet connections are becoming more affordable to weaker socioeconomic sections, the impact of this disadvantage is expected to abate in near future.

MOOC is an example of two-way learning. As in a traditional classroom, students can pose questions to the teacher and can get their doubts cleared online. Students can also interact with other students through discussion forums. In contrast, one-way learning (or self-learning) let the students access contents only, without any interaction. For example, DD Gyan Darshan, YouTube, TED, Radio, TV, a textbook etc. Another example of one-way learning is e-PG Pathshala- a precursor of SWAYAM. I strongly encourage the students to check out e-PG Pathshala portal ( and access contents of thousands of courses offered there. A disadvantage of e-PG Pathshala is that as it is one-way learning, students can not interact with other students or with the teacher. A number of contents at e-PG Pathshala are now being converted (‘repurposed’) to SWAYAM courses for this reason.

Major MOOC providers in the world are edX (, Coursera (, Udacity ( and Khan Academy ( Anyone anywhere in the world can enrol thousands of courses accessible through these websites free of charge. Courses include that taught by faculties from top-ranking ivy-league universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and so on. I urge everyone to search for interesting courses and enrol in a course or two. If you pay a nominal fee and pass online examinations, you will get official course certificates from those universities. For instance, an MSc student from a local college in Kerala would like to take Mathematical Biology course, which is not offered in her college. She can enrol this course offered by the University of California, Berkeley, USA through Coursera. If she pays a fee and passes online tests of the course, she can earn course transcript from UC Berkeley. However, note that course certificates from foreign universities cannot be used as part of the degrees from Indian Universities.

SWAYAM becomes relevant in such situations as it offers credit transfers across all universities and institutes pan India. The student mentioned earlier can take my course through SWAYAM free of charge. If the student pass end of course examination which is part online and part offline as explained later and pay a nominal fee, the student can earn a course transcript from CUPB (Central University of Punjab, Bathinda where I am based at). She can use this transcript as part of her existing MSc course. All courses offered through SWAYAM are fully recognized by the government of India and are valid in the country, which is a major advantage. As per the recent circulars from UGC, all universities in the country should have at least 10% of total courses offered from approved SWAYAM courses.

SWAYAM courses typically have four components called ‘quadrants’. First one is teaching content which could include teaching video, PowerPoint presentation, animation, video of blackboard teaching, podcast (recorded audio), screencast, interviews and so on. All these depend on the concerned subject and the pedagogical strategy adopted by the teacher. This component also includes e-text, which is a self-explanatory text material or lecture handout comprehensively covering the subject matter. The second quadrant is references or further learning resources, which typically is a webpage with curated hyperlinks to relevant quality contents across the internet. The third quadrant is the discussion forum, which is typically a webpage where students can interact with one another and pose questions. The fourth quadrant is assessment, which could be quizzes, descriptive examination, assignments, term-paper etc. There are two types of assessments, ungraded and graded. A student typically earns 20% of total marks through graded tests and graded assignments accessed and submitted entirely online. You can attempt these online tests from anywhere, for instance at home. Other 80% of total marks is earned through proctored examination at select centres across India through a mechanism in collaboration with IGNOU.

Similar to classroom courses that are divided into various units, SWAYAM courses are divided into various modules. Each module covers a section of the syllabus. Typically, a module consists of 40 minutes of video, broken into three smaller length videos. Duration of SWAYAM course is usually 15 weeks.  The total number of modules in a course depends upon total credits of the course. For example, a 3-credit course will have 30 modules (2 modules per week) while a 4-credit course will have 40 modules. Each week will begin with a brief introductory video of around 2 minutes in duration introducing contents of that specific week. Module videos and assessments of the week will be released on scheduled days. Each week would conclude with a brief sum-up video of around 3 minutes reviewing concepts that are covered in that specific week. Video lectures in all SWAYAM courses have been repurposed by the MHRD to broadcast it via SWAYAM-Prabha TV channels. There are 32 DTH channels available through SWAYAM Prabha, divided based on subjects. For example, channel 9 covers all life science subjects. SWAYAM Prabha channels are comparable to DD Gyan Darshan. However, note that there is no two-way learning. SWAYAM Prabha brings the high-quality contents of SWAYAM over the air to millions of households without internet using GSAT-15 satellite.

SWAYAM program is a ‘vertical’; it contains hundreds of courses from grade 9 onwards till post graduation level to suit students from different age groups. While UGC-SWAYAM (to be renamed to HEC-SWAYAM shortly) offers non-technology postgraduate courses, NPTEL-SWAYAM offers technology graduate and postgraduate courses. CEC-SWAYAM offers non-technology undergraduate courses, IGNOU-SWAYAM offers diploma and certification-level courses, and NCERT/NIOS-SWAYAM offers grade 10 and grade 9-level courses. In addition, courses offered through SWAYAM can be accessed by anyone to improve her/his knowledge as part of the Life-Long Learning philosophy absolutely freely. For example, an unemployed person living in a remote village with no formal education can enrol in computer programming course to learn to code and creating software/apps. For her/him a formal certification and credit transfer might not be important; all it matters is to acquire the knowledge.

SWAYAM, as in any other MOOC, also facilitates the modern pedagogical concept of flip-class (also called hybrid/blended learning) for existing physical classroom teaching. Consider my own classroom teaching at CUPB. I can ask my students to access my MOOC (watching my classes, accessing course materials etc.) at home/hostel. During the scheduled periods in the classroom, instead of teaching the contents once again-which is now redundant, I would facilitate discussion about the subject, solving their doubts, attempting assignments/ ‘home’ works. Here, ‘home’ work would have been flipped to ‘class’ work, and venue of teaching flipped from classes to their homes; thus the name ‘flip class’. Obviously, it would mean more efforts by the teachers (not merely taking classes but also helping the students to solve assignments, immerse in their discussion etc.) For the same reason, many teachers are against the idea of adopting flip-class concept in their classes. However, a number of recent studies suggest flip-classes to be more effective than traditional classes. One reason for this is that the students learn most of the concepts either themselves or from peer-group discussions- a fact established by decades of educational research. While the role of the teacher is limited to facilitate self-learning and peer-group discussions, traditional classrooms over-emphasize teachers; it is more teacher-centric and promotes rote-learning. Traditional classroom teachings are mostly one-way ‘didactic monologues’ (like preaching in radios) which are an unproductive strategy as confirmed by numerous educational studies. In contrast, flip-classes are student-centric and foster peer-group discussions. As teacher-student one-to-one interaction is far higher, ‘flip-classes’ let the teachers identify the specific weakness of individual students and tailor-make her/his teaching strategy to nurture the learning, a concept known as ‘personalized learning’.

The bottom line is that SWAYAM offers unprecedented learning opportunities to crores of people. Enrolling SWAYAM courses are completely free while formal certification requires a nominal fee. Anyone who can access Facebook or WhatsApp on their phones can access high-quality SWAYAM courses offered by faculties from CUs, IITs, IIMs, IISERs etc., opening up the quality education to the masses. Hopefully, people will spend their free time learning something exciting through SWAYAM instead of squandering their precious time in WhatsApp, Facebook etc. Let me conclude this write-up with a famous quote from Albert Einstein: “Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. Once you stop learning, you start dying.”


(Dr. Felix Bast is a science writer and a faculty based at Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. He had been selected for this year’s “Teacher Innovator Award” from Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD), Govt. of India for his contribution towards the development of MOOCs.)

(An abridged Malayalam version of this article appeared on 12th July, 2018 in Deshabhimani, Malayalam newspaper: All editions, on 13th July 2018 in Malayala Manorama, Malayalam newspaper: All editions, and on 16th July 2018, The Hindu, national newspaper all editions)



The first vacation turned out to be the most fulfilling 

June 2018 had easily been one of the most fulfilling vacations in my life. By the way, this is the first academic vacation implemented at my workplace. A snippet of things that I did during this period:

  1. Talk @ St. Pius X College, Rajapuram: My alma mater on World Ocean Day, 5th June, followed by interaction with UG students. This college is always special to me; it is from here that I (surprise!) *happen* to get university first rank for B.Sc 🙂
  2. Sampling expedition to Shirgaon Mangroves, MH. A revisit to algal blooms by Ulva paschima, a species discovered by myself!
  3. Talk @ Pallur village library, Mahe on 19th June (Part of reading-week observations) inspiring young children to read more popular science books and choose higher education in basic sciences! 
  4. Talk at Govt. Teacher’s Training Institute and model UP School, Kannur on 21st June (part of reading-week observations), inspiring teachers-to-be and 7th graders to never lose curiocity! Organized by KSSP (Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad)
  5. Talk at Govt. UP School, Macheri, Eachur on 21st June (part of reading-week observations), inspiring 7th graders to read more science books and sharing my story of voyage to Antarctica! Organized by KSSP
  6. Enjoyed village history quiz competition on 22nd June at Korom Devi Sahayam UP School, Payyanur and distributed prizes!
  7. Talk at SNDP Higher Secondary School, Aluva, Ernakulam on 26th June, inspiring plus-two students to choose their higher education in basic sciences! Organized by KSSP
  8. Talk at MES College, Marampally, Aluva, Ernakulam on 27th June, inspiring students to choose curiocity-driven basic scientific research for career! Organized by KSSP
  9. Talk at Union Christian college, Aluva, Ernakulam on 28th June, inspiring students to choose curiocity-driven basic scientific research for career! Organized by KSSP

Absolutely fulfilling vacation to cherish for next one year. I’m now heading back to my workplace (Bathinda, Punjab) with a lot of fond memories. To look forward to repeat the experience next year, of course a level higher 🙂

My sincere thanks to Dr. Anilkumar, CV Rajan sir, Anand Kadambur, Muraliettan and all Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad colleagues. Thank you all!

The frog in a well: Why it is unwise to be a party affiliate?

Of course, I am not apolitical; I do not have, however, a lifelong allegiance to a particular political party. I also refuse to be someone like the one Aristotle satirically idolises: “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” I have been vocal about various policy-related decisions of successive governments at different levels in India, mostly through social media. Among the things that I appreciated include good governance by Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, effective managerial skills of PM Modi and his decision to replace flowers for books as souvenirs, austere way of life of Tripura CM Manik Sarkar, Yogi Adityanath’s decision to distribute backpacks with Akhilesh Yadav’s images, social welfare decisions of Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, and so on. While I love the personal freedom, free economy and other libertarian policies of advanced capitalism, I also love pro-multicultural, pro-science and egalitarian policies of socialism.  In a way, the apolitical appreciation of good governance and criticism of bad governance is like descriptivism in linguistics; descriptivists merely describe the integral features of languages without being judgmental, while prescriptivists prescribe and promote one language over the others.

Over the years, I noticed an emerging pattern that I must confess did not come as a big surprise after all. The majority of my contacts identify themselves with a particular political party. They ‘like’ the posts appreciative of their party politicians, while they do not ‘like’ if the posts are critical of them. Only a few of my contacts act as if they have no political allegiance. Why, what is wrong if you swear your allegiance with a party, you may ask?

Stereotyping is the major issue with this approach. I had been twice to London’s British Museum as well as Victoria and Albert’s Museum-the treasure house of all the looted things from the third world! These museums are indeed very well curated with clearly demarcated sections based on the genre. Look for the central section, art. You will see French, Gothic, Renaissance…where are the sculptures and paintings from India? Those are not stereotypic art as per the British, but anthropological artefacts! In this imperious mentality, third world art and literary works are indeed of inferior quality than the western. This exactly is what is called stereotyping, or judgmentalism. Like those British curators who considers every artistic form of the third world as inherently inferior to that from the West, if you identify yourself with a particular party (or worse, you become an official member of a party), you subconsciously consider all the other members of that party as your friends, and invariably you will have an emotional attachment to them. Just like other life instances, your emotion, rather than the reason, dictate things to you. You will fight for the ideology that you are part of, and even kill the opponents as well. The co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, once famously said, “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea because then he’ll fight and die for it.” Of course, you will end up justifying all the wrongdoings your party has committed, you refuse to acknowledge the problems of your party, and refuse to read or listen what the opponent writes or says. ‘Frog in a well’ is a famous Chinese idiom in use since time immemorial; it represents someone unbeknownst of the outside world, and perfectly captures the essence of issues of identifying oneself with a particular party politics. There is a name for this in cognitive psychology, confirmation bias. Suppose you identify as a rightist BJP party person. You will look for articles and media that affirms your affiliation, your allegiance. You will read only ‘Organizer’-the official RSS print media- or other rightists, or right-leaning sources (such as Republic TV channel), as each news item in those, endorses your preconceived mental constructs and expectations. In a way those stories and eulogies bolster your fantasy, which you fail to reason as the figment of the imagination. You are happy, of course like a frog in a well. Reading or watching apolitical media such as The Hindu, The Indian Express or NDTV makes you consider these centrists are not at all apolitical, but agents of the opposite political spectrum, the leftists. How about reading the real left-wing paper like “The People’s Democracy” that diametrically contradict your worldview? You are infuriated and call them anti-national and criminals! Now, if you were a self-proclaimed leftist, those exact ‘centrist’ media might seem to you right leaning. Like the famous ‘Checker’s shadow’ or other countless numbers of optical illusions, the pivotal issue here is that there are several cognitive biases subconsciously tweaking each decision that we make in our daily life, and the way we perceive our world.

James Randi, the famous American magician, once famously said “No amount of belief makes something a fact.’ This is known in philosophy as ‘objectivism’ (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a well-known work of objectivistic philosophy) the central premise of which is the consideration that the reality exists independent of our consciousness. The reality, or the objective knowledge, can only be obtained through inductive logic, i.e., scientific method.

Recently Bihar CM Nitish Kumar took an overnight decision to quit the grand alliance, and take the support of his opponent BJP to form the new ruling alliance in Bihar. This has sent shockwaves across India, indeed, and his opponents have called him someone who lacks integrity, and a political chameleon. What people do not realise is that human beings are dynamic individuals. A vast majority of the cells of our body gets replaced with new cells, and within a decade we all have an entirely new body. Look at your old photographs taken ten years or more ago. Those are not ‘you’ in a sense. Our beliefs too, as new pieces of evidence accumulate, a rational person keeps on modifying what he/she believes in, conceptually homologous with statistical method of Bayesian Inference. In a way, party ideologies and religious dogma are similar; both are not open for criticism and feedback-refinement. While scholarly scientific books keep on refining with new editions publishing once in every few years, ever wondered why there are no refinements for religious scriptures (such as Bhagavatgeeta, for Hindus) or foundational texts of political parties (such as Das Capital, for Marxists)? If we do not modify our prior beliefs with new evidence or information, we are not dynamic living organisms then, but a mere dogmatic sycophant slave who cannot even think freely with his own mind, or a frog in a well. These frogs love the comfort of their fantasy world; they invent clever news stories-the fake news- to support their propaganda. In the case of linguistics, puritanical linguists resist any changes in the language; but as we know, all languages evolve and opposing changes like the use of the word ‘literally’ in the figurative sense is futile. Then there is yet another type of persons who, no matter the politics, support whichever party is in power. They are the ultimate hypocritical sycophants who just want to get things done by whatever means.

As an apolitical person, am I against party politics and voting? Of course not. I do vote in the elections. Do I vote for individuals rather than parties? Seemingly an excellent strategy, however, might not be the wisest in participatory democracies like in India. The key NOTA (None Of The Above) makes no sense to me; in situations like two leading candidates with both of them being corrupt/criminals, I will vote for the third. If all are corrupt/criminals-which is highly unlikely, making NOTA win also makes no sense, as in such situations the person who got second highest votes will be declared a winner. Nevertheless, can I consciously vote for a person whom I consider as a corrupt person, for the sake for his or her party to win the election? I will not, but these choices come under the purview of ethics, which indeed is highly subjective, relativistic and even a myth. Shakespeare wisely stated in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Even though you vote for a ‘virtuous’ person, ultimately, a party or an alliance win and they will take all the policy-related decisions. With a dynamic party-alliance that often transforms its ideology from one spectrum to another without consulting the voters, there is no way of ‘rationally’ choosing the right candidate in the elections. However, I do vote for the right ideology as deemed appropriate at each time of my life, but I refuse to be a steadfast party-politics supporter. My political philosophy is clear: be appreciative of the good work, and be critical of the bad works. Softly leaning on a party might be okay too, but being critical of wrongdoings in that party is important.

On mindfulness

I still recollect an incident happened many years ago. I was in an aircraft then, an intercontinental flight. The person sitting next to me was wearing a liturgical vestment (he must have been a priest of some sort) and reading something on his iPad. I was reading something too, Carl Sagan’s The Baloney Detection Kit. Perhaps having seen the book I was reading, he stroke up a small-talk. He had shown the book he was reading, The Holy Bible, which according to him was the most valuable publication ever and an answer to all of the world’s problems. According to him, apart from superficial and materialistic goods of today’s consumerism, science did nothing to help the spiritual recourse of humanity.  The talk from that instance took a polemical course; he was cantankerously critical of science and blamed the science all the perils of modern life (he cited Chernobyl and Hiroshima to substantiate his claims). He argued that the only truth is God and the only salvage for humanity is believing in Him.

Of course, some of his assertions made perfect sense; like yin and yang, the side effects of technological marvels is undeniable. Perils of annhilitory research and development are endless. Modern defence establishments are all backed by scientists who keep on developing more dangerous chemical and nuclear warfares (and, to a lesser extent-albeit ethically more confounded- biological warfares too) world is yet to be seen. If all nuclear warheads of the world detonated, it would extirpate virtually the entire life on earth including humanity and result in “nuclear winter” freezing our planet for the next thousands of years. The menace of plastics and pollution is more obvious now than ever. Technological advancements is largely to be blamed for diminishing biodiversity around the world by contributing in overharvesting, habitat change and destruction, and species introduction. “Most threat to humans came from science and technology”, warned Stephen Hawking. Einstein said: “mankind invented atom bomb, but no mouse would ever construct mousetrap.” Ethics is highly subjective field even outside the realm of science. For example, if you agree with the statement that ‘murdering a human being is inherently cruel and crime’, would you call our soldiers killing other soldiers across the border criminals?  How about an executioner pulling the lever, or a judge (or president) signing the verdict for capital punishment? Science is neither good or bad; it is situational.It is a process to discover hidden truths of the nature. It is upto the people to make the best use of it; use the nuclear power to make electricity or kill people. It is upto the people to use fertilizers and plastics sustainably, or to misuse and abuse it to pollute the earth.  However, do not exercise “selective amnesia”- deliberately forgetting immense stream of advantages that the science have brought to the humanity, and arrive in blanket conclusion that science is inherently evil. Thanks to the science, human lifespan had more than tripled in last 3 centuries.

My copassenger’s god belief and criticisms on the dangers of science and technology set aside, what reminded me of him was a typical gatecrasher, someone attending parties and family ceremonies uninvited, yet feasting on all the carousel. Had the gatecrasher simply leaves the gathering would have been still OK, but he does something very nasty; indulging in disparaging gossips against the host! Even a stray dog would be thankful to someone who feed her a morsel of food or a piece of biscuit. That copassenger of mine was a textbook example of an ingrate; an ungracious impostor.  Consider this: he and I were travelling in a modern aircraft which is rather like a pressurized metallic cylinder close to the speed of sound, cruising at around ten kilometers above the earth in near vacuum amidst around -60 degree celsius. Without progresses in scientific research could this ever be possible? He was reading his bible on an iPad, yet another product of scientific ingenuity. Would prayers have brought him these luxuries from ground zero? As said, he could have passively enjoyed all those luxuries made possible by the science and simply affirmed his allegiance to Christ the savior. What infuriated me most was his presumptuous indecency by insulting science and scientists.

I see hundreds of ingrate hoodwinks like that priest every single day. Even people of high repute relentlessly propagandize pseudoscientific nonsense in social media. Namesake scientists argue for the benefits of goumutra, how vedic homa could bring the rains, how pseudoscientific alternative medicines are, after all, better than the evidence-based modern medicine and so on. These ingrates use social networking sites-the very products of decades-long meticulous scientific research- for the promulgation of pseudoscientific nonsense and to slander the science. They take antibiotics when sick, vaccinate their children and enjoy all the blessings bestowed by scrupulous scientific research. A far more gracious stance would have been ditching all the technology to indulge in this activity; at least then I wouldn’t have called them ingrates. For example, an uncontacted tribespeople like the one from North Sentinel Island, Andaman, speaking like a Luddite after meeting a tech-savvy nerd; perfectly fine with me. North Sentinelese had no luxury of any of the products of scientific research. They have no vaccines, no antibiotics. Not even pens and papers to record their thoughts. These savages have no clothes to wear, forget aircrafts and tablet PCs. They hardly cross 25 years. They hardly cause any pollution as well. A North Sentinelese, if ever they would, criticising the science is perfectly legitimate. However, not you or I, reaping all the benefits of the scientific research. If someone want to promulgate alternative medicine, they should do so as someone in middle ages would; speak around. No loudspeakers be allowed either; if they do so, they would hopelessly slip in to the deep ravines of circular reasoning. All those loudspeakers installed in houses of religious worships, all those versions of holy religious scriptures in Kindle or Google Play or Audibles, religious and pseudoscientific podcasts and TV shows, light bulbs and electronic payment gateways for VIP queues at temples, card swipe machines/computers/smartphones and so on in alternative medicine establishments…the list of examples for similar circular reasoning is endless.

Most of those religious stalwarts and agents of pseudoscience live in closed system, protected from outside influences. They live in a world where beliefs matter rather than ‘knowing’. Bigotry rules their world; dissent is quickly silenced and there are no feedback loops for improvement. They suffer from something called in cognitive psychology, collective snow blindness. They are blind to obvious nonsense, can’t even smell the rotting stink emanating from within. If you ever lived alone in a shabby, unkempt apartment, you won’t feel even if there is an acerbic stinch; you would need a visitor to tell you that. This is what exactly happened in biggest mass suicide of modern times, Jonestown Massacre. Had one person from outside been there, he could have felt the stink of that religious cult group, guessed out their self-destructive course and prevented the whole episode. He could have yelled out stop! But that didn’t happen, 918 people committed suicide there, all died on a single day. You might think Jonestown massacre is an extraordinary incident, but the truth is that it is not. Millions of people every year fall victim of pseudoscientific alternative medicines and dies. Millions still invest their full trust in exorcists, astrologers and religious priests rather than doctors and scientists and lose their lives. They believe in anecdotes and hearsays rather than scientific evidence. Of course, the esoteric world of scientific evidence is recondite to the lay people; they are not used to ‘proof by negation and contradiction’ method used in philosophy and scientific methodology. When someone say “probability of not rejecting the null hypothesis”, it’s all Greek to most of the public. Instead of learning what those are, they trust their gut instinct, believe in anecdotes, and fall victim of those collective snow blindness. That is the trouble. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously said: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

Taking things for granted is an inherent human predisposition. For example, you might have had a breakfast this morning watching the news on TV. Have you ever consciously felt thankfulness to the one who cooked the breakfast? Plants that born those cereal grains that you ate? Cows whose milk you just drank? Cane or beet plants that made the sugar granules you ate? We overlook the things as dictated by heuristics of our minds- taking mental shortcuts away from apparent trifles that don’t matter much. How does it matter whether you thank the paddy that produced the rice, or not? A related phenomenon is inattentional blindness in which we fail to notice the obvious stimuli against the backdrop of noise that we concentrate in. Search out in youtube a famous experiment in psychology known as The Invisible Gorilla. In a way we are all invisible to the obvious gorillas in our lives (mighty nature and great scientists of yore) and get immersed in noises of everyday material lives. Yet another related psychological illusion is Troxler’s Fading. When we casually look at images that are out of focus, we would see the obvious blobs of swarming colors. However when we focus on one specific point in the image for a few seconds, the patterns and colors of the surrounding area would seem disappearing. The illusionary fading and disappearance of surrounding in Troxler’s Fading is analogous to the illusionary overlooking and taking things for granted that we do in our real life. Today’s lives are flooded with attention grabbing stories from Facebook feeds, notifications on our smartphones and breaking news on the TVs; where is the time to be mindful about people who made those scientific innovations like Kahn and Cerf, key scientists whose curiosity-driven pursuit of basic scientific research lead to the prototype of today’s internet?

Only way out is overriding our default mental disposition- the emotional autopilot mode- by being rational and mindful. A method involves practicing the so-called mindfulness meditation in which we become super-conscious of our surroundings. Be it on a street, driving, in a classroom, or a coffee shop; we should carefully be mindful of all the visual, auditory and olfactory cues and live in the present, fleeting moment without letting our mind wander into the past or future. What do you see, hear, smell, taste and feel through your skin…let all your senses flooded with cues. Practicing mindfulness would make any driver superconscious with the driving-an activity where split-second cues-decision cycles often determines one’s life. On most days I ask my daughters to list three things or persons whom they are so thankful of. Before sleeping I find time to reflect on my day and to feel gratitude for things and people who made my day. Naturally, the list is flooded with scientists of yore who significantly improved my quality of life. I no longer have to fight wretched diseases of middle ages like smallpox; centuries-long prayers by 4000 religions of the world could not improve a bit-forget saving a single life, while careful scientific research by Edward Jenner and others eradicated the disease from our planet within a matter of one generation. Thank you, Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, Paul Ehrlich…list is endless. I dont care your nationality, but your scientific breakthroughs have significantly and tangibly improved my quality of life. Thank you Wilson Greatbatch, the American scientist. Because of your scientific breakthrough I have my mother living for the last three decades with her ever-active cardiac pacemaker inconspicuously working. I am obliged to Greatbatch for each second of her life. I am not thankful to those middle-age extortionists, snake-oil charlatans, swindler astrologists or holy priests. All my gratitudes are for countless number of scientists and philosophers who greatly improved my quality of life, countless number of commoners who fought for freedom and class-conflicts that greatly made my world a peaceful place, and countless number of creative geniuses (writers, poets, sculptures, painters, musicians, chefs and so on) who created classy works of artistry that keep on enlightening my days.