Meera Nanda's book Prophets Facing Backward is an extraordinary and compelling book. Few in the West are aware of the alarming confluence of ideas arising out of the contemporary nationalistic politics of India with its endorsement of 'Vedic science' and the dominant postmodernist, social constructivist and sociological trends in science studies in the West. Nanda's book is an intellectual bombshell dropped on this potent combination. No one interested in the ways in which science and culture can interact should ignore this book and the challenging case it makes against the prevailing orthodoxies of much that passes for Western science 'studies'. It should serve for years to come as a reference point for what can go wrong in science studies when it is allied with fashionable but wrongheaded, and even deeply perverse, manqué 'epistemologies', such as those provided in postmodernism, social constructivism and their ilk.
Nanda describes a phenomenon in India that strongly resembles what Jeffery Herf calls 'reactionary modernism' in his study of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. This is an outlook that enabled Germans to accept modern scientific technology while at the same time they adopted politically illiberal and reactionary policies and rejected much of the rationality of the enlightenment that informs science. Her thesis is that contemporary India is in the grip of a version of reactionary modernism in which political nationalism is accompanied by technological advance; but the science that informs it has been stripped of its enlightenment context and relocated within the context of nationalistic religion, 'Vedic Science'. The stripping and relocation fits admirably with doctrines from Western science studies that claim that all knowledge is 'local', that scientific belief is culturally caused, that power and knowledge are one, that there is no universal rationality to science and that all scientific belief and its rationality is relative to its socio-political and cultural context.
It is not as if the advocates of 'Vedic Science' are avid readers of Foucault's writings on 'power/knowledge', or the sociologists' advocacy of the Strong Programme for explaining scientific belief, or Latour's advocacy of might over the possibility of being right in science, and so on for many other such claims in postmodernist and 'social constructivist' writings about science. But Nanda tells us that they do cite some Kuhn and Feyerabend, and they do know that in the West there are those who decry modernity and debunk the enlightenment pretensions of defenders of the rationality of science. For such nationalists this is enough to justify their separation of science from broader aspects of enlightenment rationality and its relocation in a different socio-political and religious setting; in so doing they create a distinctive 'Vedic Science'.
Nanda's (and Herf's) analysis challenges the widespread belief that science with its potential for a...