The War on Science

In Salon, Steve Paulson interviews Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis, who explains why science in Muslim countries is stuck in the past. For example, “A team of Muslim scholars and scientists has spent more than a year drawing up an Islamic code of conduct for space travel.” And this is remarkable considering that, centuries ago, the Middle East was light years ahead of Europe in science.

What’s so striking about the Muslim predicament is that the Islamic world was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Baghdad, Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities were the key repositories of ancient Greek and Roman science. Muslim scholars themselves made breakthroughs in medicine, optics and mathematics. So what happened? Did strict Islamic orthodoxy crush the spirit of scientific inquiry? Why did Christian Europe, for so long a backwater of science, later launch the scientific revolution?

Note also that Copernicus used the mathematical work of Iranian astronomers to construct his theory of the solar system.

What happened, in brief, was the European “scientific revolution.” Beginning in the 16th century, Europeans went through a shift in consciousness about how to understand and study the natural world. As a result, religion and science were separated into two entirely separate spheres of knowledge. Plus, as Edis says, this separation, with its promise of infinite new inventions and technologies, became complete just in time to plug into emerging capitalism. But in Muslim countries the critical separation of science from religion never occurred. Thus, scientific inquiry in the Middle East never matured into true science as it did in Europe.

And now, there’s Islamic creationism.

In many Muslim countries, you don’t have much creationism, but only because evolution does not appear in their textbooks in the first place. In countries that have had some exposure to conventional science education, such as Turkey, then you also have more of a public creationist reaction. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen creationism appearing in Turkey’s official science textbooks that are taught in high schools. Turkey has also witnessed a very strong popular movement for creationism that has spread to the whole Islamic world.

But before we feel pity for Middle Eastern scientists, let us consider what we’re dealing with here in the U.S. Namely, wingnuts. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Ace of Spades. Never mind that the Ace’s, um, interpretation of the article bears no resemblance whatsoever to what the article says. Wingnuts generally have reading comprehension skills roughly equivalent to that of spinach. Just take a look at this conclusion —

Hey, Christian conservatives? You want to win your creationism cases? Start bringing in Muslim creationists. And watch your liberal opponents suddenly finding it much more plausible that God — or, rather, Allah — created the earth, the animals, and humans directly.

Somewhere in there is a clue to why one cannot have a sensible conversation with an American right winger.

To his credit, the Ace is not a creationist himself. However, he dismisses global climate change as a “cult.” I’d say we’d best not point fingers at the Muslim world for being hostile to science. And we shouldn’t be too proud about logic or literacy, either.

See also:
Sadly, No.

Why some say we liberals should support righties in their fight to save the liberal values of the Enlightenment. No, serously.

2 thoughts on “The War on Science

  1. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy has a slightly different version of Islamic history in this article Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochemen (h/t Arts and Letters Daily).

    Before 1000CE, Islam had its own version of the battle between reason and dogma: Politics was dominated by the rationalist Mutazilites, who sought to combine faith and reason in opposition to their rivals, the dogmatic Asharites. A generally tolerant and pluralistic Islamic culture allowed Muslims, Christians, and Jews to create new works of art and science together. But over time, the theological tensions between liberal and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam—such as on the issue of free will versus predestination—became intense and turned bloody. A resurgent religious orthodoxy eventually inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mutazilites. Thereafter, the open-minded pursuits of philosophy, mathematics, and science were increasingly relegated to the margins of Islam.

  2. I saw some additional information on this today (of course I don’t remember the site), but the argument was put forth that Muslim creationists are actually more advanced than our young earth creationists because the Muslim creation story is more vague. Their creationists are more like our old earth creationists, which in turn are more like mainstream science.

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