Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Science and Fundamentalism

I blogged a couple of months ago about the possibility that someone had brought with them the strain of Polio that was circulating around Nigeria to the hajj in Mecca.

Now, it turns out, the fears were well-founded. A case of polio has turned up in Indonesia, and five million children there need to be vaccinated, now, with international funds for doing so not exaclty forthcoming.

All this, because some fundamentalist clerics in Nigeria saw science as not a help for all, but as a "Western conspiracy."

The NYTimes article I mention above makes it a point to say that polio has emerged in 16 Muslim countries. And though that's a true fact, it's a useless one. Diseases know no borders. No epidemiologist worth his salt would think that this epidemic won't spread across the lines that separates civilizations. The West, and scientists, must do better.

A better track record of relations between the US and Muslim countries might have helped. But until we stop viewing science as inherently Western,* until we stop viewing science as holding benefits for only one group of people, until we stop trumpeting science as the triumph of Western civilization and not mankind, the entire world will pay.

Whoever you choose to blame, the fact is that in Indonesia, hundreds of children, if not hundreds of thousands, will know what so many American children of the early 20th century knew: paralysis, the loss of limbs, and even death. And unless we act quickly, this will not be the end, but only the beginning. Sad indeed.

*The idea that science is inherently Western is an absurd theory ayway, given that the Mesopotamians were the first in science, and that Arabs and then Muslims in the Middle Ages are the reason that science survived from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. The scientific method? Perhaps. But science, and its fruits? No.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't remember anyone arguing that the fruits of western science and technology belong only to the west. For the past several hundred years, the west has developed very effective means of producing food and material goods, fighting illness, increasing life spans and a host of other things, including a number of bad ones.

The problem people have is that many of the benefits of western science and technology entail political realignment and societal change. Public health specialists often say that the most of increased life span can be accounted for by the fact that westerners have been trained to wash their hands. If your religion considers washing one's hands taboo, your society will have problems benefiting from the fruits et al.

For example, if you want to get the most out of the western package, you have to give women relatively high status. At the very least, mothers should be literate. Alphabet blocks started showing up around the same time as the Royal Society. Improvements in child survival rates made it important to control fertility which meant that women lived longer. Religion had to relinquish its authority in interpreting the physical world.
There have been bloody battles fought over this in Europe, but in the end, the politicians decided that they wanted the western package, and that they could use the western package to rule without the traditional religious mechanisms that have been used since time immemorial.

The fantasy of a technologically advance primitive paradise is just that, a fantasy. The charming SF novel, Lord of Light, deals nicely with this. Sure, it would be wonderful to just pick what one wanted from the package, and to take just that. Picking and choosing is the hallmark of most fundamentalists, but this is a material world, and sometimes one doesn't get the choice.