Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The state of science in the Islamic world

A Pakistani physics professors explains the state of science, as he sees it, in the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). To begin, there is very little science:
A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia2 showed that OIC countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (For more on the OECD, see Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.3
He places the blame for this sad state of science on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism:
Science is fundamentally an idea-system that has grown around a sort of skeleton wire frame—the scientific method. The deliberately cultivated scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all science and related fields where critical judgment is essential. Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.
He, in turn, blames the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on the West:
In the mid-1950s all Muslim leaders were secular, and secularism in Islam was growing. What changed? Here the West must accept its share of responsibility for reversing the trend. Iran under Mohammed Mossadeq, Indonesia under Ahmed Sukarno, and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser are examples of secular but nationalist governments that wanted to protect their national wealth. Western imperial greed, however, subverted and overthrew them.

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