The post , a quote from Marvin Harris’s book, entitled Science, provoked a few comments that require responding to.
Karthik Rao Cavale objected to the apparent dismissal of Indian scientific achievements of the past by the claim by Harris that “it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.”
The point, I think, is that the scientific method is uniquely western European. Other civilizations, including the Indian civilization, have made scientific discoveries. But the credit for discovering the scientific method goes to western Europe. It is the discovery of the system, rather than specific scientific discoveries, which is at issue here. Indians discovered a system for mental and physical exercise and development usually called “yoga” the credit for which does not diminish merely because other civilizations also have evolved exercises for physical and mental development.
The comment from “little Ram” (shouldn’t that be a lamb?) points to a distinction between social sciences and the study of natural phenomena. I would not make that distinction in the context of the scientific method. The scientific method is characterized by the formulation of a falsifiable hypothesis which provides the structure within which observations (of natural events or the results of experiments which can be repeated) can be carried out. The core idea is that the hypothesis is falsifiable and for doing which specific tests be indicated by the proponent of the hypothesis. Also, for the hypothesis to have any operational content, it should make specific predictions which can be empirically ascertained. If the hypothesis is able to explain a body of already established facts, pass the tests of falsifiability and also make accurate verifiable predictions, then the hypothesis is tentatively accepted into the body of scientific knowledge. This method is universally applicable–both in the social sciences as well as in the hard sciences.
Raghuveer writes that the “best thing that can be said about codified science is that it is repeatable and does not have any stickies in the form of ideology associated with it. That makes it universally acceptable and adaptable.” I agree to a large extent. My caution would be that science is not entirely immune to ideological capture. After all, scientists and those who fund them are all humans, and therefore subject to all human frailties. Science can be hijacked but the scientific method which is at the core of our ability to make scientific progress is inviolable.
Chandra highlights a part of the quote (” . . . aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point.”) and suggests that they would use science to destroy. I disagree on technicality. Fanatics and messiahs cannot use science to destroy because they don’t know how to do science. They, like every one of us average people, can and do use the technological tools developed on the basis of scientific progress. But that cannot be said to be the same as using “science” because it implies that there is something unwholesome about science.
Science is neutral; technology can be neutral, good, or bad depending on who is using it and to what end.
Categories: Science and India