Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Portrait of an Indian Scientist
Last week I attended a panel at the United Nations to learn about the results of a recent survey of practicing Indian scientists who hold a PhD or equivalent in their field of study. The justification for conducting such a survey was backed by good intentions: discoveries and inventions made by scientists have an enormous impact on the lives of nearly every person, so it seems that it would be a good idea to find out a bit about the general beliefs held by this select group of people. India is a particularly fascinating and relevant place in which to conduct such a survey as it is framed by the importance of history and ancient traditions while simultaneously leaping ahead at an impressive (and alarming) pace so as to be a front runner in cutting edge science and technology. It is also a country of great diversity, with a population of over one billion people. With this in mind, who wouldn’t want to survey their scientists? That said, I am a bit skeptical of survey results, since they seem to foster stereotypes that lead to dangerous and gross over-generalizations. Bearing this in mind, here is a summary of the results:
In India, about 80-85% of PhD scientists are men, and nearly 75% are between 40-55 years old. Most are also Hindu. A majority chose to pursue their career out of personal curiosity, while only around 10% are scientists because they have intentions of “doing good in the world.”
According to the survey, they certainly do not feel that their jobs are highly respected; most feel that the level of respect given to scientists is mediocre. This may be due to scientific illiteracy: nearly everyone listed on the survey form (media, government officials, the general public, etc.) was rated by scientist as being nearly illiterate in the sciences– politicians were rated the worst. The only exception was teachers, who scored one tenth of a point above average.
Because there are a number of alternative and traditional curative techniques practiced alongside Western medicine in India, the American surveyors asked the Indian scientists which, if any, of alternative methods they believe to be valid. The results show that while only 12% think that predictions based on horoscopes carry considerable merit, about half (49%) believe in the efficacy of prayer (38% are certain that God performs miracles). Personally, I do not share this belief (I’m not an Indian scientist), but if I did, perhaps it would explain why there are so few women scientists: they are second class citizens in many major religions, after all. If prayer is so powerful and important, Muslim women who want to be scientists should try to finagle a place to pray beside or in front of men (they currently are forced to pray behind the men).
According to one panelist, only 16% of practicing scientists (with a PhD) in the United States are female–so we are certainly not promoting women in the field any better than India. Perhaps we need a female Catholic priest to say a few prayers for the ladies, too.
Ultimately, I found the survey to be very alarming.
For more details about the survey, which is still a work in progress, you can visit