They Tell Me I Do Not Seem Like A Math Person
Saloni Mehta, ASP '21
This is a rant about being told ‘I do not seem like a math person’ far too often. What is a math person, then? Why is a ‘math person’ a math person alone? For all my arithmetic abilities, this, to me, does not add up.
I am aware that this might sound like a manifesto. I hope it does.
European modernity birthed the neat classification of life into Science and Society. These were autonomous, non-intersecting realms, bound by their mutual exclusivity: Society constructed by humans and Science derived from nature and untouched by the human condition. Over time, mediations began occurring between the two realms. An uncomfortable blurring of lines ensued; a dilution of the distinctness. Scientific advancements started taking on social and, sometimes, political meanings. And the lives of communities and individuals began transforming based on what excited science.
The rather astonishing part is that the scientific community in India, at large, is still stuck in the chasm that divides Science and Society. This usually begins with ‘picking a stream in high school’. Science, the very apex of an imaginary hierarchy, is the symbol of ultimate truth - strictly rational - with no futile hobbies like empathy, or building opinions, or having a dressing sense. Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences are attempts to put lived experience and stories in text; basically an expo of rationalisations (things Indian uncles just comment on anyway). Commerce is whatever is left.
This divide is best experienced when talking to an IITian (choose a male for the ideal experience, lest topics like sexism should get in the way). In one such recent conversation, I was told that I am not a real science student because I “believe in having tastes”, by a person who looks exactly like the image in your head. I also got another treasure: “You should respect the stability of an IITian, we are not here by chance”, a headline that will best fit in the pages of Kalinga. This ‘no tastes’ remark may seem like an extreme instance but going by the beliefs of the community, it is not an implausible conclusion to reach.
As a typical science student, you are asked to question everything, but only as long as you stick to the objective side of things. How to make a more yielding GMO crop is a valid question. However, to consider the moral and societal implications of that super-efficient GMO is not deemed to be a scientist’s job. There are ‘real’ scientists using their entire life’s worth to make cutting edge technology that will monopolise the grain market and hand it to the uber rich. It has happened in the USA, and might as well happen in India. If you need more convincing - there are websites with child pornography on them, and there are adept coders making those work. Many such members of the scientific community have chosen to remain myopic, to remain within the confines of the Science/Society dichotomy.
This choice, made consistently, adds to the stereotype of ‘the scientist guy’ - a male wearing round glasses with unkempt everything, slogging away at a dense equation or code in his mother’s basement, with no interest or knowledge of anything that is not immediately in front of him. And this becomes the ideal that you, as a science student, must not only fit, but also aspire towards. This norm also defines the depiction of the community in mainstream media: always the geek with the social skills of a two year old. Which, in true practice theory fashion, only strengthens these stereotypes. The scientific community becomes an exclusive cult where people who deviate from this norm can almost never make it to the inner circle.
If you have ever attended a commercial JEE coaching centre (my heart goes out to you), you are constantly told that nothing except the three subjects matter for the rest of your school life - not family or friends, and certainly not your country burning around you. Your only job, besides keeping yourself alive, is to prepare yourself for ‘the’ exam. Similar environments are created, in differing levels of intensity, for people who take up science disciplines in traditional Indian schools - all geared towards this hallowed examination, this make-or-break rite of passage. Nothing outside the exam matters.
This is where the genesis of an apolitical, unopinionated, and myopic scientific community begins. One would hope that this conditioning gets reversed sometime in the college life of the Science student but that might just be hoping for too much.
The Science/Society dichotomy is reaffirmed in the callousness with which comments are made about gender representation/equality in STEM or even about Social Science disciplines, if their existence is ever acknowledged (any instance of the converse, of course, is shot down immediately - remember, you cannot make a comment on science if you do not have a formal degree in it).
Yes, there are mandatory Humanities and EVS courses one must take when studying Engineering or Physics but do these make the students question things differently? Are these designed to help them realise things in the first place? Why are science institutes of the country often absent from protests where the voices of several Humanities/Social Science Colleges echo? Is it because a lot of them fall under the ambit of the Central/State Government, or major private players? Does this not, for the umpteenth time, also point to the possibility that their Science may be controlled by political and economical forces? Is the Science that they produce, then, really apolitical?
Throughout my liberal arts education, I have realised and re-realised that science only stands to benefit from the social sciences/humanities. Understanding biases does not make you biased in your scientific pursuit, it only makes you better aware of when your conditioning is acting up. Being cognisant of the fact that science can take on the tastes of its current source of funding and the current power regime helps science stand up for better. Science needs diverse representation, especially after long drawn ideological projects of keeping certain groups of people away from it.
I sincerely hope you, fellow STEM students in a liberal arts college, realise what advantage you have over the rest of the Indian scientific community. You are expected to find out the flaws in the ideals and stereotypes that our disciplines aspire and adhere to, and not slip into the abyss of the Science/Society dichotomy. I hope you take it as a responsibility to engage in conversations about tastes, opinions, readings of histories (especially the histories of your disciplines), and occasionally get into arguments about these. Finally, I hope that you use your science to create a more self-aware, more inclusive community. We really could do with one.
Saloni Mehta is a math major at Ashoka University, currently doing her ASP. She also has an avid interest in performing arts, and has previously served as co-president of Kirdaar, the theatre club. All views are personal.
Original image source: https://www.ashoka.edu.in/welcome/stories/ashoka-university-welcomes-undergraduate-class-of-2020-250