When politicians talk science

It is a rough ride for politicians who negotiate the maze of scientific facts. About a month ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan realised it the hard way.

Published: 21st December 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st December 2019 02:29 AM   |  A+A-

It is a rough ride for politicians who negotiate the maze of scientific facts. About a month ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan realised it the hard way. He was trolled for saying, “Green cover has been reduced in the last ten years. The consequences of that had to happen, because trees clean the air. They produce oxygen at night, and absorb carbon­ dioxide.” He had got his facts wrong. Indeed, trees do produce oxygen, not during the night, but during the daytime when photosynthesis occurs. One might take a charitable view that it was a slip of the tongue or merely a momentary confusion. But the recurring instances of such gaffe from politicians of all hues across the world point to either carelessness or slack preparation before a speech.

Scientific facts are often bandied about rather casually and even twisted to suit ideological moorings. Imran Khan happens to be the latest in a long list of politicians who have pronounced their version of scientific facts. President Donald Trump leads the pack through his Twitter feed. Recently, he wanted NASA to give up going to the Moon and be “focused on much bigger things ... including Mars (of which the Moon is a part)”. This confusing tweet, apparently associating ‘the Moon’ with Mars, was the top trend on Twitter and unleashed a wave of memes. Though the two satellites of Mars are generically referred to as moons, the context of this tweet muddies the difference between the Earth’s and Mars’s moons.

In 1981, the then US President Ronald Reagan said that “trees produce more pollution than automobiles do”. It was in an era when the social media did not exist to dispense instant justice. Experts criticised Reagan for falling short on facts. Some trees do emit volatile organic compounds, and when they combine with vehicular pollution during the daytime, they produce ground ­level ozone, a severe health hazard. The real culprit is not the trees, but vehicular pollution. At different times, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have indirectly sought to implicate vaccines as a cause for autism in children though medical research does not support this possibility.

It must not be presumed that Indian politicians treat scientific facts with respect. Satyapal Singh, a former union minister, claimed that the theory of evolution is incorrect because no one had “seen an ape turning into a man”. Apart from other scientific evidence in its favour, he did not consider the possibility that ‘ape morphing into human’ takes millions of years while the human lifespan is too short for anyone to witness this change. The Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Rawat, declared some months ago that cows inhale and exhale oxygen. Yet another former union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had once prescribed electricity in villages as a solution to arrest population growth. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been accused of misrepresenting scientific facts in some of his speeches.

It is one thing to make statements, but only the brave would attempt to perform an ill­-conceived science experiment in full public view. In 2017, Tamil Nadu minister Sellur Raju tried a novel experiment to reduce water loss through evaporation in the Vaigai Dam that supplies water to Madurai city. He floated thermocol sheets on the water to shield it from the blazing sun. Immediately, the winds swept them away, and the experiment was an instant failure. Later, the minister explained that it was an idea initiated by officials.

The idea in itself was not incorrect. The low thermal conductivity of thermocol ensures that less heat is conveyed to the water surface and evaporative loss is minimal. However, thermocol can be harmful to aquatic life and, as an engineering problem, this solution cannot possibly be scaled up to cover a large dam such as Vaigai. As the thermocol video went viral, social media had yet another field day.

Even more audacious in scope and expanse than the thermocol experiment was an attempt by the legislature of the state of Indiana in the United States to fix the value of an important number, pi, through a legislative diktat. It was called “a Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth” and sought to declare the value of pi as 3.2. The general assembly of Indiana passed it in 1897 but it was stopped in its tracks by the senate. Mathematics teaches us that pi is approximately 3.1415 ... and the sequence of digits neither terminate nor repeat. It is related to the area of a circle. The patently incorrect value of 3.2 would have pitted the Indiana law against mathematical results that have universal validity.

Last year, the former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously declared, ‘Truth isn’t Truth’. Either due to ideological compulsions or sloppy attention to detail, established scientific facts go for a toss. They can be challenged and even revised through verifiable evidence but not by political rhetoric. A little homework would save politicians a lot of embarrassment, though it might deprive millions on social media of free entertainment.

M S Santhanam
Physicist and a professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. Views expressed are personal
Email: santh@iiserpune.ac.in



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