July issue 2017

By | Interview | Published 2 months ago

Is the Muslim world more affected by pseudoscience and superstition than any other part of the world?

Pseudoscience – defined as statements about nature that are spurious and do not pass the test of scientific validity – is to be found everywhere. However, wherever excessive emphasis is placed upon tradition and belief, it becomes more common. For example, I have been to India multiple times and seen how even educated people there can be persuaded to believe in completely nonsensical stuff. In 1995, I saw absolute pandemonium in Delhi as hundreds of thousands of Hindus rushed to their temples after hearing that the elephant god Ganesh had been discovered drinking milk offered by his devotees. Then, after a few days Indian rationalists challenged this and actually demonstrated that it was capillary action which caused the liquid to slowly move up the elephant god’s trunk!

I could give you many more examples from India – and I’m sure you could give me plenty of examples from Italy, of weeping Madonnas – but there’s something different about Pakistan and the Muslim world, in general. Science resolutely refuses to take root in Muslim countries. It’s much harder there to summon forces against pseudoscience. Sadly, charlatans, crooks, and religious people are easily able to mislead people.

An example: about three years ago, a hitherto unknown man, Agha Waqar Pathan, became a national hero in Pakistan when he claimed to have invented a car that runs on plain water. No petrol, no gas, no diesel or any other fuel would be required. Members of the prime minister’s cabinet, opposition politicians, television anchors and journalists stood in line to get photographed with this national celebrity. Pakistan’s nuclear hero, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, endorsed this man along with scores of other scientists. I kept saying on TV that this man is taking us for a ride, that he’s a fraud and that this is scientific nonsense. Ultimately, it turned out that Pathan was a bank robber. He was disgraced and people were very embarrassed.

What makes Pakistan so unique vis-à-vis other countries? I think it’s a combination of two factors. First, the insistence that religion must be brought into everything – including science – puts certain critical faculties to sleep. Second, kids are taught science as though they were memorising a holy text. The student is asked to reproduce facts of science, not to use them in a manner that demands reasoning.

Pseudoscience in Islamic garb comes in a variety of forms. We have the so-called “scientific interpretation” of the Quran, Islamic creationism, and various academic projects to “Islamise” science. Then we have scams like the water-run car you mentioned. Which forms of pseudoscience are you familiar with, and who are they appealing to?

Fortunately, the so-called intellectuals who set out to create a pure Islamic science are less to be seen today than 30 years ago. Then, under the patronage of President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, these people had been adopted by the Pakistani state to fulfil an ideological mission.

Zia’s cronies claimed the existence of an Islamic science that stood apart from Christian science, Jewish science, Hindu science, etc. Using the critique of science made by western post-modernists, they wedded this with Islamic theology and then claimed discovering a science based on Islamic values. None of these people were real scientists, although quite a few had Ph.Ds. They used fancy words to dignify their efforts but there was no content. To debunk this was one reason why, in the late 1980s, I wrote my book, Islam and Science – Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. Today I am happy to see that fewer people are spending their time on such stuff.

It is in the realm of living things that Muslims and science have their biggest clash. Most, though not all, flatly deny human evolution. Our schoolbooks dismiss the notion that life evolved from simpler to more complex forms. For example, a current biology textbook declares that “The theory of evolution, as proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, is one of the most unbelievable and irrational claims in history.” Even in the biology department at my university, students tell me that their professors say that they teach the theory of evolution, only because they are obliged to. In fact, they say they don’t really believe in it.

Then there’s belief in Islamic medicine. You can see many billboards around the country that advertise Islamic cures such as bleeding, cupping, or snails that suck blood. Also, there are faith-healers, who sell little amulets that they claim have medicinal properties. On TV channels there are countless programmes dedicated to faith healing.

It’s not just the poor and the uneducated who believe in them. In fact, supernatural beliefs are vigorously promoted on university campuses.

Would you say, then, that your country has a special problem with pseudoscience?

Well, as I said earlier, this kind of problem is to be found elsewhere too – Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, and possibly other places where I haven’t been. The problem is that science taught across the Sunni Muslim world is very much in the nature of repetition and memorisation. I see students in a group chanting and memorising, just before a science test. Science is associated with formulas and diagrams and charts; it is seen as something to be remembered, not something that enhances your analytical powers.

Given the weakness of analytical powers, it is natural that pseudoscience, in its manifestations, has a grip upon people. It exists everywhere, but here we suffer from the lack of a good scientific education. The student has little exposure to real science and does not know about it depth, its breadth, its beauty, and its power.

There is also a lack of role models for young Pakistanis. Our brightest students do not even think of getting into science. Instead, they would rather study accounting and finance, or work for some multinational corporation that sells products developed in other parts of the world. This is the case with much of the Muslim world.

Shia Iran and Sunni Turkey are somewhat better off in scientific terms. Their social cultures are relatively more advanced and secular. Iran has a pre-Islamic history of which they are very proud – perhaps too proud. Still, one feels an intellectual depth in Iranian society that is absent from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Arab countries. Remarkably, even in Khomeini’s time there was no attempt to create a specifically Islamic science unlike in Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq.

Do any forms of pseudoscience currently receive governmental funding and support?

Some years ago, the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, was supporting projects aimed at explaining the scientific content of the Quran. Official support of science projects, based on pseudoscience in Islamic garb, is uncommon today, but it exists.

Going back over 30 years, I had had an acrimonious public debate with a senior director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), Bashiruddin Mahmood, who wrote a paper saying that jinns – the invisible creatures that Allah made out of fire just as He made man out of clay – could be captured and used to solve Pakistan’s electricity problem. I called it nonsense, and he accused me of being an enemy of Islam. Interestingly, just the other day I received a paper written by another PAEC person who says he strongly disagrees with Mahmood and agrees with my judgement of him. However, this man tried hard to convince me that although getting energy out of jinns directly is impossible, following King Solomon it is definitely possible to use them as slaves for driving turbines!

I could give many such examples but let me just say that the support for pseudoscience in Pakistan does not come largely from the state any more. Instead, there are private TV channels that propagate so-called Islamic healing and miracles, and rail against evolution. The sad fact is that of the about 70-80 channels, not one channel is devoted to actual science. The only popular science documentaries series ever produced in Pakistan were the two series (1995, 2003) that I made (Asrar-e-Jahan and Bazm-e-Kainat). Sometimes our English newspapers carry science news, such as when President Obama said America sent a manned mission to Mars. But it’s rare to find such news in the mainstream Urdu media.

What is your take on the distortion of the history of science in Islamic garb? I am thinking of the exhibit, 1001 Inventions. Does it overlap with pseudoscience?

It’s not a bad thing to be proud of one’s history – and I am perfectly happy to read and see more on great Muslim/Arab scientists of antiquity. In fact, I also teach this stuff in one of my courses. But let’s remember that science is the creation of all humankind. Unfortunately, every civilisation has a tendency to look back and say, “We were the real inventors.” With Hindu chauvinism on the rise, you see lots of this in Modi’s India. Similarly, the Chinese have always believed that China has been the cradle of science and civilisation. It should not surprise anyone that in Pakistan, and probably most Muslim countries, students are taught that Muslims alone invented science and that the Europeans stole their ideas. However, this false assertion of cultural and religious pride does not, by itself, generate crazy ideas. Pseudoscience comes about when the scientific method is bypassed and simple logical tests are thrown aside.

How do you judge the current state of scientific research and scientific education in the Muslim world?

There have been two Nobel Prize winners, Abdus Salam (physics, 1979) and Ahmad Zewail (chemistry, 1999). Both lived their professional lives in the West and died there. They owe little to their native lands. Salam is a tragic case, because he considered himself a strongly believing Muslim, but his sect – the Ahmadiyya – was declared heretical in 1974 by an act of the Pakistani parliament. This destroyed the one role model that we could have had for science in Pakistan. He is almost unknown to our students, and there is little enthusiasm for science among young people today.

As for the state of science in Islam: there has been little activity since the 12th century. It’s a sad fact that no invention of great importance – electricity, computers, and antibiotics being examples – has been produced by Muslims. Until a decade or two ago, there were very few research papers being published by Muslim authors. However, the scientometric department of Thompson Reuters Corporation released a report in 2016 saying that the number of publications from Pakistan, as well as the number of citations, has increased by 400 per cent over the last 10 years. Unfortunately, this is completely bogus. Such a four-fold increase should have been immediately noticeable in laboratory activity, seminars, colloquia, lectures, etc. But none of this is visible. What’s actually happening is that people have figured out how to write academic papers and to get them cited. There now exist “citation cartels,” with the collaboration of academic crooks – Chinese, Indians, Americans, and almost everyone around the world.

Because of the massive amount of cheating, acquiring an understanding of how science is doing in any country is now actually a very difficult task. There is a big increase in quantity, but that quantity is meaningless. Saudi Arabian universities are a prime example of false statistics. Saudi students and teachers have little interest or ability in science but on paper those universities are thriving. That’s because they hire talented professors from the US and Europe, who then raise the reputation of those universities. The attempt to quantify university rankings and progress in science will have to await better metrics.

If you were to be made Minister of Education, what policies would you adopt in order to fight pseudoscience in an Islamic garb?

The first thing I would do is test teachers and students for scientific competence. University and college admissions should be based on a student’s ability to pass a test that is on science itself and requires them to solve problems at different levels of complexity. I would take away the 20 extra points that are granted to those who have memorised the Quran. Further, in evaluating applicants for teaching posts in science departments, they should be asked only those questions that are relevant to their fields.

Is there any consistent way to harmonise scientific beliefs and religious ones?

There’s only one way to create this harmony. Put them into two separate, non-overlapping compartments. Leave science to scientists, to be pursued using scientific methods based on reason, logic, experiment and observation. And leave religion to the spiritual domain of the individual. Or else, there will be confusion and conflict.

The only Muslim thinker who was able to successfully deal with this issue on the Indian subcontinent was Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Following the mua’tizilla (rationalist) tradition, he insisted that that one has to examine the etymology of the words in the Quran and then interpret and reinterpret until Islam ends up conforming with science. This requires some terrific intellectual acrobatics, but there is really no other way. If we are to believe in supernatural miracles as violations of the laws of nature, then that violation can always repeat itself and completely destroy the predictive value of science. One ends up being back in the pre-scientific age.

Radicalism and terrorism are plaguing the Muslim world. Are they in any way linked to pseudoscience?

No, the two are not directly linked. The terrorist mindset among some Muslims is created out of anti-westernism, both for genuine and spurious reasons, as well as hatred against other Muslim sects. It is furthered by the access clergy and hatemongers have to the public media. It is unlikely that a terrorist thinks very much about scientific issues, and so any linkage must be quite tenuous. But the terrorist mindset is definitely the result of uncritically absorbed propaganda. If a person was to critically examine what he or she is told, then extreme positions would be much less likely. More real science in the Muslim world could mean that we would have less terrorism as well as less pseudoscience.