An article by Sardar about why, in the last centuries, science succeeded much better in the region to become the First World than in the region to become the Third World. Published in NewScientist, 21 October 2000, p.70-71. Safety copy Nov 00. The original document is stored in the NewScientist website archives – access reserved for subscribers.
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Bright sparks

Passion for science isn't restricted to the richer countries of the West. If people think otherwise, it's because colonialism did its best to stamp out every last vestige of indigenous research in the East, says Ziauddin Sardar

IN SUMMER 1974 I set off from London on a grand tour of the Muslim world. Starting in Morocco, I travelled through North Africa, Arabia and Asia to Indonesia, hopping from country to country. It took me three years. In each country, I visited research centres, universities and laboratories, hunting out science wherever I could find it.

When I got home I published my first book, although this was not the reason for my expedition. My original motive had been to examine a couple of assertions, frequently stated as truths, that were commonly made in the literature of the history and philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s. The textbooks that I studied during my student days, such as W. T. Jones's A History of Western Philosophy: Hobbes to Hume (1952), often suggested that science is uniquely European. Countries that had not gone through the Renaissance (see New Scientist, 7 October, p 48) had some sort of aversion to science, they claimed. This was why science in developing countries tended to be inferior and irrelevant.

What did I find on my journey? I found individuals and communities that were passionate about science; wide-ranging discussions on science policy and ethical issues, both within the science community and among the wider public; plenty of good and bad science, however those terms are defined; heroic struggles against outdated equipment, and a chronic lack of funds and support staff; well-funded projects producing research of international calibre; red tape, professional jealousies and corruption; as much stagnation as progress, as much conformity as dissent.

At some levels, then, science and scientists in developing countries are not much different from their counterparts in the West. I have since twice retraced my journey, in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, and extended it to include Latin America. These trips reinforced my conclusions.

There is nothing uniquely Western about the pursuit of knowledge through deductive reasoning. All living cultures, however "backward" they may seem to the European gaze, have an appreciation of logic, reasoning and empiricism. A culture that does not value knowledge per se is a rare – and, I hasten to add, extinct – beast. Cultural attitudes have nothing to do with scientific progress or lack of it in the developing countries.

The assertion that science cannot develop in conformist societies is also false. Consider Japan, one of the most conformist nations on Earth yet with one of the most developed scientific structures in the world.

Neither was the European Renaissance unique. Many great civilisations have had their own version – albeit in the distant past in some cases. We now know that the quantity and quality of science in Islamic, Chinese and Indian civilisations was truly mind-boggling. Historians of science now tell us that there is hardly a culture that has not produced some significant science.

Europe itself learned deductive reasoning and experimental method from Muslim scientists. The European Renaissance, I would argue, would have been inconceivable without Islam: the scientific works of Copernicus were based on the labours of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, a 12th-century mathematician from Khorasan, Iran. Where would optics be without Ibn al Haytham, a physicist and philosopher from 10th century Basra, Iraq. It's impossible to imagine mathematics today without the 9th century founder of algebra Al-Khwarizmi.

There are differences between science in the West and the developing world. Some of them are historic; others have to do with the nature of modern science. But by far the most important reason for this difference is colonisation, which destroyed indigenous science. Colonial powers closed down colleges and universities, banned research and outlawed the practice of indigenous science and medicine. In Indonesia, for example, the Dutch barred local people from higher education right up to the 1950s. Back in the colonising countries, the fruits of colonisation fuelled the European Renaissance and provided the Industrial Revolution with all the capital it needed.

Centuries of uneven development cannot be sorted out in a few decades. Let the Western nations be colonised by the developing countries, sucking out all their wealth, and we will see just how much science they are capable of.

Modern science is basically big science. It requires huge amounts of cash – something most developing countries do not have. Moreover, the modern insistence that science should be international in character, with the all-encompassing emphasis on big and prestigious projects, has skewed the priorities of developing countries.

Collaboration often means accepting Western priorities for research and rejecting research areas that are of true relevance to a developing nation. Foreign expertise is frequently imposed, coming in the guise of scientific assistance or technical aid, so there is little pressure on the local scientific community to provide viable alternatives. Humble, less costly and therefore less pretentious styles of science are perceived as inferior – by Western consultants and local scientists alike.

Three decades of hunting out science in developing countries has taught me one important lesson. Science takes off in the "Third World" only when developing nations establish their own research agendas. Success is achieved whenever and wherever the principles of self-reliance and self-sufficiency – which means relying on one's own skills, efforts and labour – are applied. For shining examples look at India's Tata Research Institute, or the King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, or Brazil's programme of renewable energy research. Sometimes, rather unfortunately, national science agendas reflect defence needs – however misconceived – as we can see in Pakistan's highly successful nuclear energy programme. But even research undertaken in the name of defence proves my point.

We can say a great deal about the differences between science in the West and the developing world. But to suggest that science outside the West is held back by cultural attitudes or lack of willingness to confront authority is to simply repeat the mistakes of too many textbooks.

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars (Icon books, 2.99).