Science

An interest in science could lead one to ask “where did science originate” if one is into that sort of inquiry. Frankly, I don’t particularly give a damn about the question. I’d rather understand what is science. Precisely defining any abstract concept in a way that will be universally accepted is hard. However some definition must be advanced so that the discussion does not degenerate into semantic confusion.

Last year in March, Keshav Bedi in an email pointed me to a pamphlet, “Is Science Western in Origin?” by C.K. Raju, published in 2009. [Click on the image above for the pdf of the piece.]

I responded with the following. Begin quote.

To ask that question is to answer it trivially with a ‘no’. Science is no more Western than say the direction “west” is of Western origin or the seasons were invented by meteorologists . It’s silly because science is not an activity, and it is not an ideology. Science is not even a heap of true facts. Facts may be discovered by some specific individuals — who may be members of specific groups, in which case one would give credit to those groups for having discovered the facts.

A heap of facts does not amount to science. Even a collection of logically true propositions (non-facts in the sense that mathematics is not about facts) does not amount to science. If someone were to be told a set of facts, it will not amount to the person knowing

All across the world, over historical time, people have figured out facts about the world. It would be as pointless to say that facts are of Western origin as to say that science is of Western or Eastern origin.

What is of Western origin is the codification of a method that relates to science. It’s called the “scientific method.” It’s the method and the ideas that support the method that distinguishes it from the rest. Physical exercise was not invented by any specific group. But Yoga, the method and the ideas behind it, is distinctly Indian in origin.

C. K. Raju uses the word “scientific” 14 times in his essay; he uses “method” and “methodology” 10 times. The phrase “scientific method” appears zero times.

People have been discovering scientific facts for thousands of years. How? Luck and perseverance. Much of that happened in India because India had a large population and the land yielded plenty for some to devote themselves to finding things out. But it was only in the West, and only in the last few centuries, that they figured out a method.

End quote.

As I understand it, the scientific method is simple. First, the statement of a guess or a conjecture or a hypothesis. Then the specification of empirically testable predictions. If the predictions turn out to be true, then the conjecture is tentatively accepted, else the conjecture is rejected.

I had written a few posts on the matter about 15 years ago. I re-post them here for the sake of convenience.

Aug 15th, 2006

I like to read. Actually, I like to read what makes me think. And that makes me a slow reader. On top of that, I am lazy. So it is a rare book that I read cover to cover. But when I do read a book completely, I usually read it all over again. If it is worth reading once, I believe, it is worth reading a second time. One such book is by a favorite author of mine — Marvin Harris. He is an anthropologist. I first read him many years ago. I loved his book Our Kind so much that I ended up buying a dozen copies to gift to my friends. Another of his books that I enjoy giving is Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

These days I going through his book “Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture” [© Marvin Harris 1979 Random House.] It is a delight. Here are a couple of paragraphs that I would like to share with you.

Science is a unique and precious contribution of Western civilization. This is not to deny that many other civilizations have contributed to scientific knowledge by inventing weights and measures, classifying plants and animals, recording astronomical observations, developing mathematical theorems, voyaging to distant lands, experimenting with chemical and physical processes. But 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.

It is both foolish and dangerous for intellectuals in any society to minimize the significance of this achievement. We must recognize that there are many ways of knowing, but we must also recognize that it is not mere ethnocentric puffery to assert that science is a way of knowing that has a uniquely transcendent value for all human beings. In the entire course of prehistory and history only one way of knowing has encouraged its own practitioners to doubt their own premises and to systematically expose their own conclusions to the hostile scrutiny of nonbelievers. Granted that discrepancies between science as an ideal and science as it is practiced substantially reduce the difference between science, religion, and other modes of looking for the truth. But it is precisely as an ideal that the uniqueness of science deserves to be defended. No other way of knowing is based on a set of rules explicitly designed to transcend the prior belief systems of mutually antagonistic tribes, nations, classes, and ethnic and religious communities in order to arrive at knowledge that is equally probably for any rational human mind. Those who doubt that science can do this must be able to show how some other tolerant and ecumenical alternative can do it better. Unless they can show how some other universalistic system of knowing leads to more acceptable criteria of truth, their attempts to subvert the universal credibility of science in the name of cultural relativism, however well-intentioned, is an intellectual crime against humanity. It is a crime against humanity because the real alternative to science is not anarchy, but ideology, not peaceful artists, philosophers, and anthropologists, but aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point. [pg 27]

The alternative to science is ideology. Jihad.

Aug 17th, 2006

The previous post 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” 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.

Aug 20th, 2006

Dweep’s comment on the previous post is worth responding to in a separate piece because of the good points he makes. He writes:

Atanu,

I am disappointed in your repeated assertion that the scientific method is uniquely Western. In so doing, you are making an oft-repeated statement that has become accepted fact. Lets, however, apply the scientific method to it.

Feynman, in his 1966 lecture, said in response to the question, “what is science?”:

it is the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past.

Inherent in this definition are two actions – 1) to question what one sees, and 2) to verify through experimentation and observation.

I am not sufficiently informed about other civilizations to comment on their traditions, but can say confidently that India’s tradition of doubt is sufficiently long and varied that your statement cannot be taken as a given. And I say this without specific reference to India’s contributions to the sciences, or the experimentation that such contributions involved. However, by ignoring such contributions and India’s expansive literature in mathematics, astronomy, health sciences, or political science, you do both a grave disservice.

This affinity of Indians to undermine their own intellectual (and scientific) traditions, was pointed out to me by Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination’, (in his book The Argumentative Indian). As he points out, there has been a historical tendency among Western observers to emphasize India’s spiritual traditions, at the cost of the rational. And such characterizations have had a narrowing impact on Indians’ own self-perception. One reason that he mentions is:

There was indeed such an attempt to present what was perceived to be the ‘strong aspects’ of Indian culture, distinguished from the domain, as Chatterjee puts it, ‘where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed’.

But the belief that the West had proved superior is just that – a belief. By repeating it, you perpetuate the same bias that started it, and I challenge you to question it and where your statement comes from. I cannot prove, conclusively, that the ‘scientific method’ was evident in Indian analytical traditions. But I cannot, a priori, accept that it was entirely lacking. Perhaps it was simply an accident of history that the West was the last dominant power and could create such a belief.

Incidentally as books I would suggest both Feynman’s ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’, and Sen’s Argumentative Indian (though I read neither cover-to-cover).

Dweep, you are right of course that simply repeating a falsehood does not elevate it to the truth. Neither does repeated denial of a fact make it less of a fact. My assertion is that the scientific method is a western conception. My assertion is not that only westerners have done science, nor is it my position that Indians (past and present) are not doing science. It is the codification of the method that I am asserting. I would be happy to be corrected — if one can refer me to some work which shows that Indian by the name of ABC has codified what can be called “the scientific method” and is a reasonable substitute for what is asserted to be the codification of the scientific method as done by the western European thinkers.

Whether or not it is true that Indians “have an affinity to undermine their own intellectual (and scientific) traditions” is an interesting but non-relevant matter in the context of whether non-westerners have effectively codified the scientific method. So also Feynman’s definition of science admits the fact that Indians have made significant contributions to science but leaves the matter of whether Indians have articulated the scientific method entirely up in the air.

About Sen’s point that “there has been a historical tendency among Western observers to emphasize India’s spiritual traditions, at the cost of the rational”: I think that pitching the spiritual against the rational is setting up a false dichotomy. Spiritualism devoid of rational thought is hollow and worth discarding. I do believe that the most exalted of Indian spiritual thought is also deeply rational. Sen is a great intellect and I respectfully disagree with his implicit characterization of the Indian spiritual tradition as being somehow opposed to the rational.

I take justifiable pride in the intellectual tradition of the land of my ancestors. I believe that some of the most profound ideas the human mind has ever contemplated have occured in India. That truth is eternally enduring. Compared to that, the codification of the scientific method pales into insignificance. So my conceding ground to westerners for what I believe they have rightful claim to does not in any sense diminish myself nor does it diminish the accomplishments of the Indians. We have riches more than these.

End of recycled posts. The comments to the above post are quite interesting. Take a look.

Here’s wishing you all  a Happy New 2022.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

12 thoughts on “Science”

  1. Except that there’s no such thing as a scientific method. Nothing that doesn’t apply to golf as well. David Berlinski had called scientific method a “a structure of considerable grandeur but great emptiness.”

    Philosopher Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) argued in his “Against Method” that scientists did whatever worked instead of following a singular and definable scientific method. You may read the book.

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    1. Dear Keshav,

      “Except that there’s no such thing as a scientific method. Nothing that doesn’t apply to golf as well.”

      Flippant.

      (More seriously: Yes, you could apply the scientific method to improve your golf too, but that was not the purpose for which it was built. The difference is in the purpose, and in the scope, and on both these counts, in the levels of abstractions, among other things.)

      “David Berlinski had called scientific method a “a structure of considerable grandeur but great emptiness.”

      But the point is: Do you agree? And, any which way you answer: why?

      Re. Paul Feyerabend: What might an epistemological anarchist know about anything? especially concerning such sciences which study or deal with methods?

      Best,
      –Ajit

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    2. Anyone who takes David Berlinski seriously needs to have his head promptly examined for organic damage causing flawed thinking. Berlinski is associated with the Discovery Institute which the wiki says “is a politically conservative non-profit think tank based in Seattle, Washington, that advocates the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design.” He wrote a book “The Devil’s Delusion” (which is a response to Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”)

      Here he is in a brief Youtube video titled “Darwinism is a Secular Myth.” He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. A comment to that video puts it nicely:

      After listening to Berlinski, I’m stunned to hear that he has held such high positions in the academia. I would never want him to be my professor. Clearly either doesn’t understand or intentionally misrepresents the scientific method of inquiry and completely mischaracterizes Darwin’s evolutionary theory. A “collection of anecdotes” ?? Are you serious? Yeah, this “collection of anecdotes” is what allows researches to quickly find protective mechanisms from viruses killing thousands of people, as just one example. I’m very curious what he would propose as a better alternative to this “myth”.

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  2. When I read these sort of things (I am referring to Raju’s essay), I am reminded of Satyajit Ray’s amazing movie Shatranj ke Khiladi (Chess players). A Nawab in UP is struggling with the rising British influence in his region and the British are slowly eating away at his kingdom. As his ministers advice him to counter the British, the Nawab tells them about the greatness of his ancestors and how his brave forefathers slayed greatest of great foes in battle. Eventually when push comes to shove, the Nawab quietly runs away with his tail tucked between his legs claiming, he actually just wants to play chess.

    Without even looking at any evidence, I can confidently make the claim that the “Scientific Method” as we know it today, was not invented in vacuum. It was codified recently but there is a long history of different philosophers across different cultures struggling to figure out the system of acquiring knowledge and eventually some human somewhere managed to codify what we call “scientific method”. It does not matter much where it originated, it is not the case that scientific method is useful only in Europe and somehow does not work in China. People often think that Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) was invented in west, without realizing different components of it were independently invented by Chinese and Arabs.

    I am not an expert at Indian philosophy but Indian philosophers obsessed deeply over methods of acquiring knowledge. All 6 schools of Hindu philosophy as the same question. “What is the purpose of human life” and have same answer “self realization”. Post that, all 6 of them identify “gaining knowledge” as the best way to achieve self realization. It might appear too obvious or too simplistic, but once you figure out that you need to move from “know nothing to know it all” you can work on ways to find out the best ways of gaining knowledge. Sankhya, the oldest school of Hindu philosophy then outlined the best ways to gain knowledge. “Self Experience”.

    Hindu systems of gaining knowledge differed vastly from western “scientific method” over this point. Hindu philosophies give a lot of importance to self experience and acknowledge that you might have access to some knowledge, that is not transferable to others. Scientific method does not recognize such knowledge. Scientific knowledge is verifiable by anyone performing the exact same experiment under same conditions.

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    1. There’s no such thing as scientific method. Read Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method.”

      Feyerabend notes, “The events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have NO COMMON STRUCTURE; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere. Concrete developments (such as the overthrow of steady state cosmologies and the discovery of the structure of DNA) have distinct features and we can often explain why and how these features led to success. But not every discovery can be accounted for in the same manner, and procedures that paid off in the past may create havoc when imposed on the future. SUCCESSFUL RESEARCH DOESN’T OBEY GENERAL STANDARDS; IT RELIES NOW ON ONE TRICK; NOW ON ANOTHER; the moves that advance it and the standards that define what counts as an advance are not always known to the movers. Far-reaching changes of outlook, such as the so called ‘Copernican Revolution’ or the ‘Darwinian Revolution’, affect different areas of research in different ways and receive different impulses from them. A theory of science that devises standards and structural elements for all scientific activities and authorizes them by reference to ‘Reason’ or ‘Rationality’ may impress outsiders – but it is much too crude an instrument for the people on the spot, that is, for scientists facing some concrete research problem.”

      In other words, science, at best, is explained by its examples, by what scientists do. And scientists do whatever works.

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      1. I have little patience with people thinking “deep thoughts that dwell in esoteric, rarified atmosphere of high-faluting philosophy” before fully comprehending the basic, the evident, the logical. I would rather that people first confront the simple before leaping into esoterica. Feyerabend, though a great name in the philosophy of science, was mistaken. But then no one is immune from making mistakes. As it happens I side with Karl Popper in the debate between the two.

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    2. Dear Akshar,

      Good comment. … But…

      “Scientific method does not recognize such knowledge. Scientific knowledge is verifiable by anyone performing the exact same experiment under same conditions.”

      That’s a very widespread impression, especially in the West, but also in the East. However, it’s an error.

      Even if Atanu did not highlight it, the Method of Science begins with observations. Observations, of what? The self of an observer does qualify here, not just the material objects he sees.

      That’s why, the Method of Science is applicable also to that knowledge which is not “directly” (say verbally) transferable to others, including the knowledge of one’s own soul (and of the methods to use in reaching such a knowledge, and to improve / better one’s own self (including one’s own soul)).

      It is true that the Method of Science has, historically, been most successfully applied rather in the material realm, not the spiritual. However, the success of a method in one realm does not by itself preclude its utility in other realms. This last bit is true also in the case of the spiritual (“”soul-ic”) realm, the spiritual matters.

      As to the Western development regarding the self regarded as an object of study: As Dr. Leonard Peikoff has remarked, Psychology still is in a per-scientific stage.

      As to the Eastern developments regarding the same subject matter (i.e. the same object of study): Unfortunately, the whole subject has got wrapped under layers upon layers of mysticism.

      In both cases, a good philosophy (esp., a good metaphysics and a good epistemology) helps. Enormously. Even if, given the subject matter, not all its aspects do fall in the province of philosophy.

      Best,
      –Ajit

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        1. Dear Keshav,

          Hmmm…

          I have to address also the Pre-Existing Thoughts and Not Just The Meter Reader…

          Hmmm…

          I am proud that I have no pre-existing thoughts which might guide me on the issue which you raise here. An almost philosophic one.

          And, having been enjoying my own weekend, even since before I wrote my previous comment (cheers!), I also have no time nor inclination to go searching / thinking about for such “things”. Not right now, any way

          And, anyway, thinking of “thoughts”… No, there are no pre-existing thoughts in the Existence, anyway. Not if you reduce the Man to the Machine. The soul and the mind and such things are a different set of ideas (and existents) altogether. Thoughts are what a living man does and has. ab initio.

          “fillल it, shutt it, forrgett it!”

          ओये, केशव्वऽऽ, पेट्टरोल्ल ही खतम नही होन् दा, याऽऽर् र !

          More, later, may be in another thread, some other day. GN.

          Best,
          –Ajit
          PS: Why didn’t you comment on my previous reply here? Hmmm? Hmmmm?

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