In the morning of August 6, the whole world was waiting impatiently for the news of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. From science students to the people gathered at New York's Time Square, everyone around the world was watching live the historic landing of the largest rover to be sent to another planet.
It was a rather exciting moment for the engineers working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They were unsure whether their breakthrough landing system would work during the "seven minutes of terror," or lose US$2.5 billion. When Curiosity was making history on the Red Planet, the people living on the small island nation of Maldives, however, were perfecting conspiracies about one of the most ambitious projects humanity has ever carried out.
"Why can't they use that money to help the poor?", "NASA claims to have even gone to the moon. But what's the truth?", "Americans have earlier shown the world photographs taken at a desert. These might be photos of the bottom of a glass," were some comments received to a Haveeru article on the rover's landing.
The comments took me back a few months when I sat down with a Maldivian science teacher for a cup of coffee. Discussions varied from the posh lifestyle of Maldivians residing in Colombo to mundane events like crowded buses and the rush hour traffic. However, when it came to science-related topics such as Moon landing, I was treated with a tale about how Americans faked Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind by showing a video documentary shot at a Nevada desert.
Real scientific concepts, which have been proven over and over again, and undisputed technological achievements have taken a back seat in our society in the face of conspiracy theories. For most Maldivians, Moon landing was a documentary film shot in an American desert, and the Big Bang Theory is another attempt to propagate anti-Islamic, secular views.
Politics and education system
Jawish Hameed, cofounder at the Maldivian Association for the Advancement of Science (MAAS), suggests that failures in our education system to instil critical thinking and science illiteracy among schoolteachers are to blame for the lack of science education in Maldives.
"Almost all students I've encountered deny the Moon landing and many of their teachers advocate it. These sorts of beliefs then spread quickly because schooling here generally seems to rely on rote learning and spoon-feeding. We need students to think critically, get into a habit of fact checking, further reading and debates," he said.
Flaws in the education system, coupled with anti-West and social views, have created a negative perception of science in our society. Established scientific theories and technological accomplishments are often viewed as part of propaganda carried out by Western governments and media. Instead of appreciating humanity's own achievements, we try to find alternative solutions to combat 'ideologies' that we think might threaten our faith.
"I think as a society we still don't appreciate science or value it. I think [it's] partly because conspiracy theories are so much simpler that [it] requires little understanding. It's easier to believe and grasp than actual hard facts and science," Hameed said.
To make matters worse, both the government and politicians have turned a blind eye to science education in the country. While election campaigns in US and other full-fledged democracies focus on constructive plans to improve economic growth and science education, Maldivian political atmosphere is dominated by party rivalry and hate speech.
Role of media
Our language has also been an obstacle to the spread of science education in the Maldives. As Hameed notes, Dhivehi has failed to progress and keep up with the changing times. Not many Maldivians are educated in science-related matters and the educated rarely take time to write it down in Dhivehi and communicate their knowledge to others.
"Dhivehi doesn't have the vocabulary and our culture doesn't have the concepts that are required to communicate the increasingly complex scientific knowledge. There is little to no resources in Dhivehi on science. It's easier to deny that people went to the Moon and such, when one has little understanding of what science is, how it works, it's rich history of ideas, discoveries and achievements, the cutting edge etc." he said.
Part of the blame goes to media, which Hameed believes, has so far failed to create public awareness about science-related topics. Despite the fact that media is entrusted to provide information about everything and anything to the public, almost all the media organisations in the country have ignored their responsibility of spreading science education.
"Media can play a big role. None of the local news services has a designated science section. Technology and gadgets isn't science," Hameed said.
Despite the tragic state of science education in our country, there is still hope in the younger generation. However, their mentors need to embrace science and reason over irrationality and conspiracy. Instead of advocating conspiracy theories on television channels and newspapers, media organisations need to promote and celebrate real science. More NGOs need to take up the challenging task of creating public awareness about science-related subjects and promote science as a 'cool' field. And above all, politicians and the public need to understand the role of science education in building a democratic nation and a prosperous economy.