National Science Week: Zero didn't come from nowhere: Laws of nature 'discovered' by the West are not the only scientific truths, says Ziauddin Sardar

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The Independent Online
If science is a universal building then its foundations lie not in Europe but in non- Western traditions. This is the message being spread by a new generation of Third World scholars, feminist critics and historians and sociologists of science, who are attacking science for its Eurocentric bias and 'racial economy'.

Modern science, say these critics, is also the outcome of the achievements of other 'great' civilisations, such as Islam, China and India, as well as the 'simpler' ones of Africa, the pre-Columbian Americas and the Pacific Islands.

From its 3,000 cultivated varieties, pre-Columbian agriculture supplied Europe with potatoes. Notions borrowed from India include zero, decimal notation and the ability to deal with negative, irrational and very large numbers. The magnetic needle, the rudder, gunpowder, paper and many other technologies that proved so useful for European expansion came from China. Numerous discoveries in mathematics, optics, astronomy and biology were appropriated from Islamic science - and the knowledge of their true origins suppressed.

There would have been no Copernicus, Kepler, Newton or Harvey without the work of al-Tusi, ibn al-Shatir, al-Haytham or ibn Nafis.

Science and empire also went hand in hand. In India, European science served as handmaid to colonialism. The British needed better navigation, so they built observatories and kept systematic records of their voyages. The first sciences to be established in India were, not surprisingly, geography and botany. The expansion of Europe's military, economic and political power directly influenced the course of Western scientific progress: disinterested commitment to the pursuit of truth had little to do with its development.

Eurocentrism in science manifests itself in a number of ways: in what is selected for research (which itself depends on where the funding is coming from); in what is seen as a problem, what questions are asked, and how they are answered. There is hardly any funding for research on diarrhoea, bilharzia or river blindness - major diseases in the Third World - but there are funds for research on cancer. If the point of cancer research is defined as finding a cure then the benefits accrue to certain groups, particularly the pharmaceutical companies. But if the aim is to eliminate the existence of cancer from society, then the beneficiaries lie elsewhere.

Similarly, if the problems of developing countries are seen in terms of population, then research is focused on sterilisation and contraceptives for women in those countries. However, if poverty is identified as the main cause then research takes a totally different direction.

The cornerstone of the ideology of science is the 'scientific method', which is supposed to ensure neutrality and objectivity by following a strict logic - observation, experimentation, deduction and value-free conclusion. But scientists do not 'discover' the laws of nature - rather they manufacture them. Observations are tailor-made to fit a theory, and the theories themselves emerge from a set of beliefs and dogmas that are prevalent at a given time. Subjectivity and cultural concerns are thus part and parcel of the scientific enterprise.

But it is not just in its institutions and method that science is biased against non- Western cultures. Indian scientists have begun to argue that certain laws of science are formulated in a racist way. A detailed examination of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, central to classical physics, led the Indian physicist C V Seshadri to conclude that it is 'ethnocentric'. Seshadri charges that because of its industrial origins the Second Law defines efficiency in a way that favours high temperatures and the allocation of resources to big industry. Work done at ordinary temperatures is by definition inefficient. Seshadri points out that both nature and the non-Western world are losers in this definition. For example the monsoon, transporting millions of tons of water across a subcontinent, is 'inefficient' since it works at ordinary temperatures. Similarly, traditional crafts and technologies are designated inefficient, and thus marginalised.

Non-Western cultures need to revive their own unique sciences based on their own particular perceptions of nature and reality. If the Islamic, Chinese and Indian traditions could scale such heights of scientific endeavour in history, there is nothing that says they cannot be 'rediscovered' and prove equally valuable for our time. The past few years have seen the emergence of a worldwide movement for the revival of 'indigenous knowledge'.

This movement aims to rediscover scientific knowledge which, during colonialism, was either outlawed or simply written off. Some principles of Polynesian navigation - for centuries the world's most advanced - and techniques of vessel construction, are unknown elsewhere, even today.

In India, people are developing a science based on Indian metaphysics which, unlike the either/or duality of Western logic, sees the world through a four-fold logic of cognition. A number of Muslim scientists and scholars, particularly in Pakistan, India and Malaysia, are trying to formulate the theory and practice of a contemporary Islamic science based on Islamic metaphysics and its notion of nature as a trust which incorporates the ideals of justice and public interest in its processes and methods.

The indigenous knowledge movement is not arguing for some magical or mystical notion of science. The debate is about science - that is, systematic inquiry, albeit grounded on different notions of rationality, different perceptions and approach to nature, based on empirical observations and work, whose results are universally applicable. The argument is not that the laws of nature 'discovered' by Western science that, for example, explain how gravity or antibiotics work, will not work in other cultural locations. Rather, it is that they are not the only possible such universal laws of nature. There could be many universally valid and culturally distinctive sciences.

The writer participates in the BBC 2's discussion on the nature of science, 'The Exploratory', 11.15pm, tonight, tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)