By Ismail Serageldin
Societies generate an overall climate that can be open and supportive of new ideas or it can be closed and stifling. There are many specific factors that go into creating this overall climate.
In general, openness, inquisitiveness, and a constructive subversiveness are among the values that must be nurtured if science and the scientific outlook, with its rationality, its evidence-based approach and its appeal to reason, are to flourish. Indeed, whether it is done by the private sector or the public sector, in universities or in independent labs, the practice of science is governed by certain values. The values of science are adhered to by its practitioners with a rigour that shames other professions.
Science — arguably the greatest enterprise of humanity — promotes the values of science: truth, honour, teamwork, constructive subversiveness, engagement with the other, and a method for the arbitration of disputes.
Truth: Any scientist who manufactures his data is ostracised forever from the scientific community. Just recently, we have seen the most eminent scientist in South Korea forced to resign from all his positions for having manufactured his results. It was his colleagues in the scientific community who tore off the mask of achievement and exposed the reality. In science, truth will always come out, and the practicing community of scientists ensures that all its members rigidly adhere to the standards it has set.
Honour: To give each his or her due is another tenet for the practice of science. The second most heinous crime in science is plagiarism. And a whole array of tools, from footnotes to references, is deployed to ensure that none steals the work of others. Perhaps a most eloquent statement of that is Newton’s: “If I have seen farther than most, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Teamwork: This has become essential in most fields of science. The image of the lone scientist who challenges the established order with unique and brilliant insights, exemplified by Newton and Einstein, exists only in a few small domains of contemporary science. Increasingly it is teams of researchers in labs who make the breakthroughs, especially in experimental science. We must teach our young scientists of the future the importance of teamwork, and the essence of that is to ensure that all members of the team receive the recognition that they deserve.
Science advances by overthrowing the existing paradigm, or at least significantly expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain “constructive subversiveness” built into the scientific enterprise, as a new generation of scientists makes its own contribution. And so it must be. Without that, there would be no scientific advancement. But our respect and admiration for Newton is not diminished by the contributions of Einstein. We can — and do — admire both. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a feature of the scientific enterprise. Its corollary is that scientists must engage with all opinions, coming frequently from very young persons, no matter how strange or weird they appear at first sight, subject only to the arbitration of evidence-based confirmation of claims.
This final point is essential. For in science, there is a process and a method, based on rationality and empirical evidence that rules. It is the way to arbitrate disputes. It is what makes science great. The unknown Einstein’s view of the bending of light by celestial objects was accepted when it was empirically verified by the 1919 observations of the positions of stars during a total eclipse of the sun. Conversely, the claims of cold fusion made by the well-established professors Pons and Fleischmann were rejected when the claims could not be replicated in other labs. Thus in science, the ultimate authority is not a person, but a process of reasoning and a method of empirical observation.
These are societal values worth defending, not just for the practice of science, but also because it promotes a tolerant and open society.
Indeed, contrary to general perception, it was the Arabs and Muslims who defined the modern scientific method, and who created the climate of openness and tolerance that allowed science to flourish during the Middle Ages. Names like Al-Khawarezmi, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Nafis, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd are forever engraved in the honour roll of humanity’s benefactors through their efforts at advancing knowledge and rejecting superstition. Listen to their powerful, modern voices speaking to us through the centuries.
Listen to Ibn Al-Nafis, on the importance of listening to the contrarian view:
“When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is.” (Ibn Al-Nafis, 1213-1288 AD, Sharh Mana Al-Qanun)
Listen to Ibn Al-Haitham, known in the West as Alhazen, who revolutionised optics and made major contributions in several fields of inquiry. Listen to him speak of and how he prefers the experimental method to the authority of the ancients, which should always be approached with caution:
“He who searches for truth is not he who reviews the works of the ancients… [It is] he who follows argument and evidence, not the statement by an individual, who is inevitably affected by context and imperfection. It is the duty of he who reads science books, if he wants to learn truths that he should set himself up as an opponent to all he looks at... [Accepting only what is supported by evidence and argument].” (Ibn Al-Haitham, 965-c.1040, Al-Shukuk Fi Batlaymous)
Even more impressive, is this description of how the scientific method should operate, through observation, measurement, experiment and conclusion:
“We start by observing reality… we try to select solid (unchanging) observations that are not affected by how we perceive (measure) them. We then proceed by increasing our research and measurement, subjecting premises to criticism, and being cautious in drawing conclusions… In all we do, our purpose should be balanced not arbitrary, the search for truth, not support of opinions.” (Ibn Al-Haitham, 965-c.1040, Kitab Al-Manadhir)
Centuries before Bacon and Descartes, before the emergence of modern science in the West, our forefathers were calling for the experimental method, relying on the power of observation and the application of rationality and logic. They promoted openness to the contrarian view, balanced by a healthy scepticism. They advocated prudence in running ahead of the available facts, and finally to beware of our innate prejudices and weaknesses that may bias our work without our noticing it. This is a truly amazing description of the modern scientific method, which was way ahead of its time.
These are stellar lights in the history of science and in the advance of knowledge. They are our forbearers and we should be their proud disciples. We need to recapture that great tradition. It is our tradition, our history — our legacy.
This is the tradition that Muslims and Arabs should be proud of. Our forefathers took the torch and carried it for centuries, and if today the torch has passed to the West, we should be proud that we have done our share and more in earlier times, and should strive to take our place, by dint of hard work and innovation, alongside our Western colleagues at the forefront of global scientific endeavour.
Worthy of note is that the tolerance in society is general; it is not just related to scientific work. Contemporary to Ibn Al-Haitham in Egypt, Abul-Alaa Al-Maari (973-1057) lived in Syria. Al-Maari, a giant of Arabic literature, wrote poetry attacking religion, God and the prophets, and he was not punished for it, even though it generated a certain amount of opprobrium attached to his name. His work was not only published and known in his own time, it has arrived down to us, now in the 21st century, without loss. Even more, he was appreciated for his talent as a poet and a linguist, even by those who totally rejected his heretical writings.
The challenge for Egypt today is to ensure that it can create an overall climate that is open and tolerant, for that is how democracy will flourish and science will advance. Democracy requires pluralism, which is based on difference of opinion, and democracy is about protecting the rights of those who hold minority opinions from the tyranny of the majority. That is why belief in the values of science, so essential to proper scientific research and for the development of new ideas, is also essential for the development of a proper democratic system.
Ismail Serageldin is director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.