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Let’s talk science!

Sheikh Fayaz | Nov 04, 2016

An open letter to Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy, by Sheikh Fayaz

Dear Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy,

I hope that this humble piece of writing finds you in good spirits. It is indeed a matter of enormous gratification for me to address this piece to an eminent writer like you. You have made unparalleled contributions to a wide array of topics ranging from physics to political science. I will not dare question your intellectual reach in these fields of research but while reading your articles on science and innovation, I thought I should drop you a small query to seek further clarification on some significant questions which you otherwise negate forthrightly.

Dear Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy, no doubt it’s good to promote the knowledge which is grounded in empiricism, but taking a firm stand that all other forms of knowledge are unusable and deceptive sounds somewhat theatrical.

In your articles, books, class presentations, etc. you seem to be very unhappy and dissuaded with your fellow citizens for their ‘non-scientific’ temperament. You believe that the only way forward for Pakistan is to invest everything it has in fundamental science. Science to you is panacea for all Pakistani evils or to put it differently, you see science as the elixir for Pakistan’s existence.  Your ardent articles for promotion of science give the impression that you are a staunch devotee of Veneer Bush’s 1945 thesis. You advocate his linear model of science and innovation.

This model postulates that innovation starts with heavy investment in basic research, then adds to applied research and development, and eventually ends with production and diffusion. It excluded, much like you do, the other forms and sources of knowledge. That is why many influential economists and innovation theorists together vehemently rejected this model long ago. “Everyone knows that the linear model of innovation is dead”, claimed N. Rosenberg in 1970’s while writing his book The Perspectives of Technology. Very few people today try see ‘life’ in his dead model and certainly you are the one among those few. The only difference is that Bush advocated his thesis in the middle of the twentieth century while you are propagating the same in the early 21st century.

The industrial revolution was possible because of a strong positive feedback from ‘propositional’ and ‘prescriptive’ forms of knowledge

I really do not have any issues here. You can suggest that Pakistan take a linear or a non-linear model of STI and repeat what America witnessed in the 1950s. But the problem strikes when you and scholars of your repute downrightly and compellingly relegate the other forms of knowledge and innovations. In innovation studies, we classify such “excluded” innovations as ‘informal sector innovations’, where science has little or no significance at all. Here, ‘self-made innovators’ experiment with their own knowledge and challenge the status quo. They sometimes scoff at formal knowledge structures and made successful attempts to demystify the esoteric knowledge models. And one such example of informal innovators is that of Mr. Agha Waqar Ahmad, the man who claimed to have invented a ‘water kit’ that equipped a car to run on water alone in Pakistan some years ago.

This “invention” created a big debate in Pakistan with some people supporting his claim and some just calling him another member of Pakistani charlatan, a quack and a practicing scammer. In your series of articles, you argued that this small creative attempt “has exposed just how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion”. You termed it as a big fraud and compared his attempt to a bad smell. You had emphatically claimed that “the water fraud will be exposed soon enough and, like a bad posterior smell, will go away.” You went on assaulting and ridiculing your entire nation for Waqar’s “fraudulent” claim. Scientific frauds, you argued “exist in other countries, but what explains their spectacular success in Pakistan? You offered a very short and quick answer. “Our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence. It is easy for them all to get away with this. As a nation, we have proven unwilling to do the hard work needed to learn to reason, to be sceptical, to demand proof, to understand even basic science. It is easier to believe the world is run by magic and conspiracies, to wish and wait for Aladin’s magic lamp. We live in the age of jahilliya.”

Now, here I begin my questions and I am sure you will have some time to clarify certain basic things you advocate so enthusiastically. First, why do you still believe that only science will convert Pakistan to Japan? And why there is no scope for informal maverick individuals to flourish or a platform for cross-pollination of ideas between formal and informal sectors of knowledge?

How would you respond to the arguments recently put across by 2006 Nobel-winning economist Almond Phelps in his book ‘Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change (2013)’ and another popular economist, Joyl Mokyr, that the much touted industrial revolution in Europe was actually made possible by Waqar-type informal innovators?

For instance, Joel Mokyr, an famous economic historian who has conducted promising research on the economic history of Europe, and specialises in the period 1750-1914 in his 2005 published book, The Gifts of Athena, contends that the industrial revolution was possible because of a strong positive feedback from ‘propositional’ and ‘prescriptive’ forms of knowledge. This co-existence of two different forms of knowledge, according to Mokyr, led to “virtuous cycles much more powerful than can be explained by technological progress or scientific progress separately” (p. 21).  With the same intensity, Edmund Phelps writes that the advances in science were not the driving forces behind the exposition of economic knowledge in the 19th century. The economic paradigm change was, however, possible through grassroots indigenous innovations with no or little scientific knowledge. These innovations, Phelps maintains, transformed Europe during the 19th century….

To read full article click on this link: The Friday Times

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.