kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Perspective: Science needs a history

WHY study History? I was asked the question, especially by those from various disciplines and fields in Science, Engineering and Technology on many occasions.

Similarly, my postgraduate students were, at times, curiously asked "why history?" by various parties.

But recent comments in this newspaper and other opinions in periodicals on the critical importance of Science and related issues have prompted some thought into the subject.

My response is to at first transcend the initial question and ask the reason why we learn the history of Science while keeping in mind the study of History in my next column.

A visitor walks past an installation displaying the main elements of seawater at the
National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in northern Keelung, Taiwan on Dec 30, 2013

The history of Science is couched in a history of transmissions. What Science is to us is due to what has been transmitted over time -- crystallised and believed in. Short of describing it as a belief system, the Sciences inform one another, produce and continuously reproduce themselves.

From the time of the Babylonians to Modern Science, the landscape of Science is messy -- littered with fossilised relics, theories and living facts, tacit knowledge, intuitions and emotions, falsified findings political manoeuvrings, consciousness and rationality, and subconscious dreams.

Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers has as much relevance today as when it was first published more than 50 years ago. Aptly subtitled A History Of Man's Changing Vision Of The Universe, he walked us through the imaginative journey that we call Science.

That journey is neither "continuous" nor "organic" but "by occasional leaps and bounds alternating with delusional pursuits, cul-de-sacs, regression, periods of blindness, and amnesia".

Discoveries and the current fashionable term "innovation" are sometimes the unexpected by-products; at other times, "in the cleaning away of the rubbish that blocked the path, or in the rearranging of existing items of knowledge in a different pattern".

The history of discovery is one of random penetrations into the uncharted convolutions of the human brain. Sparks of enlightenment are not logical. They make jerky and irrational progress in acquiring knowledge.

Chemical engineer-turned- philosopher of Science Michael Polanyi (1958) reflected that the scientific quest must recognise the process of what he called "tacit knowledge" -- the sort of "personal" knowledge in not neglecting and devaluing unwritten rules.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that we have, and know we have, but cannot put into words.

Polanyi likened this to a set of rules with reference to art, by stating that rules of art may be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art. These are maxims and serve as a guide to the art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art.

It tells us of the rhyme and reason, a hidden law and order behind the ever occurring chaotic flux of past, present and future.

It is a mistake to identify Science with only the logical and the rational.

The notion and image of Science as an objective and impartial quest does not subsume the absence of error. Taking a cue from History, Science does not necessarily exist independently from the observation of scientists.

Also, the history of Science is perhaps a case of classic misrepresentation. Chinese inventions are recast as European. Islam is ignored as a major contributor to Science and Technology. Modern Science, as it developed in Europe since the Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, was inherited mainly from the Islamic world. The Muslim corpus has earlier recognised and integrated Greek Science and Philosophy.

Then there are not one but many histories of Science. In recent decades, historians and philosophers of Science found Eurocentric historiography discomforting.

The Islamic scientific and intellectual traditions have been examined from the point of view of the West. In recent years, the works of certain Western historians of Science were used to substantiate the Islamic scientific tradition.

Authority in the likes of George Sarton or Edward Kennedy became fashionable. Yet in the decades to follow, scholars such as Henry Corbin, Toshihiko, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Osman Bakar have reasserted the idea of an Islamic Science.

And not forgetting Joseph Needham's majestic work on Science And Civilization In China, a significant and, on occasion, a revision of perspectives from both Western and non-Western. Needham, once described as a crypto-Marxist, initiated the project in 1954 and produced a series of volumes (now 24) over more than 50 years. His collaborators continued the series after his death in 1995.

Much on non-Western Science is being uncovered, not only in the Arab-Persian-speaking world but also of the Sciences in the Ottoman period, and in the Malay world.

The problem, at least part of it, lies in how Science is taught, and more significantly, thought. It is not about facts, but more about how processes are conceived -- in isolation and in the larger scheme of things.

And of course, there are feuds and controversies over ideas and discoveries such as between Darwin and Wallace (theory of evolution) and Heisenberg and Schrodinger (quantum mechanics).

In recent times, scientific research and publication itself are inviting controversy -- that the scientific academic community's capacity for self-correction is much doubted. A recent issue of The Economist disclosed that there were errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.

It attributed the problem to various factors. While citing statistical mistakes as widespread, it also mentioned the concern with peer reviewers. They have grown worse in spotting mistakes in papers sent to journals. It cited many journals that fail to exert sufficient scrutiny of the results that were published.

In universities, there are professional pressure, competition and ambition, which turn departments, research institutes and faculties into paper mills. This pushes scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise.

Research and academic scientists have inherited a tradition based on trust -- a powerful idea that has generated a vast corpus of knowledge that changed the world in the last several millennia.

If Science is what scientists do, then internalising its own history will constantly remind the community that it is only human. Science is not all progress. And correcting its own (self-) image of infallibility is the next wisest thing to do.

A. Murad Merican NST Channels Learning-curve 05/01/2014
Tags: history, science

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