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Science and Islam
August 7, 2007 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement. "Internal causes led to the decline of Islam's scientific greatness long before the era of mercantile imperialism. To contribute once again, Muslims must be introspective and ask what went wrong."
posted by homunculus (19 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Theres plenty of Muslim scientists, rhey just happen to predominantly work in America and Europe. Is the "Islamic World" actually different in this respect from anyone else living in the shadow of the West?
posted by Artw at 3:04 PM on August 7, 2007


Artw: To be definite, I am here using the 57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a proxy for the Islamic world.

Second paragraph, man. Also, I thought about posting this myself, but thought I'd lifted enough by now.
posted by absalom at 3:08 PM on August 7, 2007


Oops, yeah, via MoFi.
posted by homunculus at 3:14 PM on August 7, 2007


I suspect having a good number of your brightest students leaving for schools in North America or Europe doesn't help matters. The Math and Engineering departments at the University I attended were full of graduate students from Iran. (And my professors were happy to see America getting stupid about Visas since it meant our school was getting kids that would have gone to the US before.)
posted by chunking express at 3:14 PM on August 7, 2007


According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates." The report adds that in the 1000 years since the reign of the caliph Maa'moun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one year.
Wow. I think this is a good indicator of where the problem lies. It speaks of a complete unwillingness or inability to learn from other cultures.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:00 PM on August 7, 2007


"You shall not accept any information, unless you verify it for yourself. I have given you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brain, and you are responsible for using them." -- Qur'an 17:36, Khalifa translation.
posted by DataPacRat at 4:09 PM on August 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


Qur'an 17:36

Interesting. A verse from a religious book that virtually banishes all religion.

Maybe I should make a t-shirt that says "QURAN 17:36" and see what kind of reaction I get.
posted by Avenger at 4:46 PM on August 7, 2007


I suspect that if there were was more secular or liberal or progressive material available it would actually increase the level of violence within Islam, which is currently in the middle of a long and bloody Reformation, the fires are easily stoked.
posted by stbalbach at 5:13 PM on August 7, 2007


Theres plenty of Muslim scientists, rhey just happen to predominantly work in America and Europe.

I went to a talk about 3 months ago at Cornell by Steve Weinberg about the conflict between religion and science. He stated in response to a similar notion phrased as a question that although there were muslims in his field (cosmology), he could not find a single paper published by one. While he was careful to make sure people realized that he did not know if this were true of other fields, I fail to see why it could not be true.

So, where is the evidence that Muslims, not just people from Arab countries, are making breakthroughs in science in the west?
posted by kigpig at 5:17 PM on August 7, 2007


In before wendell.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:30 PM on August 7, 2007


I suspect having a good number of your brightest students leaving for schools in North America or Europe doesn't help matters.

That's exactly what they need, but provided they come back. It's a phenomenon not restricted to the muslim world. India, China, and many african nations have suffered from sending students out to learn, only to have them not come back home. And it really is the only way science progresses, both within western countries and without. Somebody learns something new, and teaches it to others. Most things are invented only once (although I'm always amazed at how much the Russians managed to learn independently of the West during the Cold war). I would argue that the limited communication and sharing with the US and the rest of the western world is the biggest inhibitor of science.

Furthermore, the article, though full of interesting facts, is implying that it's their Islamic beliefs (and other more fundamental issues) that are holding them back, more than just a lack of resource allocation. Which is most likely bullshit. My old (lab) supervisor used to send our old Science journals to an Iranian scientist, because he didn't have access to Science there. I don't know how much that reflects what was going on in Iran 5 years ago (or how things have changed today), but no scientist, muslim or otherwise, will do anything noteworthy without the right resources.

According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates."

The preceding question sentence is:

With the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, translation rates are small.

Since Iran and Turkey of these countries are not considered to be part of the Arab world, I don't think they are being included in that statistic. And it's misleading, since all modern scientists need to be fluent in English today anyway.

So, where is the evidence that Muslims, not just people from Arab countries, are making breakthroughs in science in the west?

You mean, besides from these guys?
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:59 PM on August 7, 2007


Er.. question
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:04 PM on August 7, 2007


And how many born-again christianists are making breakthroughs in science in the West?

This is silly. People who go on to higher education in science are not really likely to be religious. If you want to look at "The Islamic World", notice how many of those OIC countries are really poor. There is no way to separate the economic issue from the religious.

Also, would you accept a Nobel Prize in physics as proof that muslims do science? (It's surprising that Steve Weinberg thinks that no muslims work in his field, considering that he shared his Nobel with Abdus-Salaam.)

Don't forget that the arab world is only a small part of the muslim world.
posted by phliar at 6:23 PM on August 7, 2007


Also, would you accept a Nobel Prize in physics as proof that muslims do science? (It's surprising that Steve Weinberg thinks that no muslims work in his field, considering that he shared his Nobel with Abdus-Salaam.)

Sure, and I imagine I slightly mixed up/missed something from his speech if that's the case...maybe he said something like "in the past 10 years..." so don't hold my memory against him.

And I wouldn't presume many accomplishments were made by born-agains (don't really know that either).

As to the other comment, it seems about half of scientists are in fact religious so people who pursue careers in science, if that is being used to mean higher education (not sure what people necessarily mean by 'scientist' but typically I thought it implied higher education), are about as likely to be scientists as they are not in the US anyway.

kisch mokusch,

The wikipedia article refers to them as Iranian. It doesn't say in that section whether or not they are muslim.
posted by kigpig at 7:07 PM on August 7, 2007


kisch mokusch,

The wikipedia article refers to them as Iranian. It doesn't say in that section whether or not they are muslim.


Yeah, you're right. And I just followed the links through, none of which say whether any of them are muslim or not. It's difficult, because people aren't as interested in the religious views of scientists as they are in their work. But for a more recent (c.f. Abdus-Salaam) example, how about Ahmed Zewail?
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2007


And on further reading, Ahmed Zewail's take on muslims and science.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:55 PM on August 7, 2007


@kigpig: I'm not entirely sure that article supports the religious-scientist theory as much as you seem to think it does.
It's official. Scientists really are less religious than most folks are. In fact, close to 52 percent of American scientists claim no religious affiliation at all, as opposed to 14 percent of the general population. Should we be surprised?
So, scientists are significantly less likely to be religious than the general public.

Also, I think there's a pretty large chance that a study like that may over-report "religious affiliation," since (given that 86% of the public is apparently 'religious') there's obviously some pressure on anyone responding to fit in with the crowd. Particularly scientists working in controversial fields where they need to consciously downplay the "scientists playing God" stereotype, have a vested interest in making themselves out to be more god-fearing than they actually are.

Furthermore, the religions that scientists are involved in are the more liberal, less dogmatic ones: "only 2 percent of scientists are evangelicals (compared with 14 percent of the general population, and that's using a strict definition of evangelical), it's perhaps noteworthy that there is a higher percentage of liberal Protestants in the scientific set (10.8) than among us nonscientists (9.9)."

There definitely seems to be some incompatibility there between religion -- at least the most literal, rigid, textualist ones -- and science.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:08 PM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, scientists are significantly less likely to be religious than the general public.

I'm curious how this compares with all professions that require graduate degrees-- lawyers, MBAs, physicians, dentists, etc.

If you want to look at "The Islamic World", notice how many of those OIC countries are really poor. There is no way to separate the economic issue from the religious.

Sure there is! Look at the specifically rich Muslim countries and see how they're doing in comparison to European nations with similar per-capita income. Are they translating books at the same rate? Producing scholars at the same rate, etc.? I actually don't know. I'm asking.

I don't think a religious explanation is necessary, by the way. After its heyday in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Arab/Muslim world benefitted mainly from good geographical positioning allowing them control of trade routes and resources other people wanted. Then they had oil. Overdependence on extractive-industries and being a convenient middleman will inevitably result in being complacaent about seeking alternative economic opportunities. This is as true for American states as much as it's true for foreign countries.
posted by deanc at 7:33 AM on August 8, 2007


...it seems about half of scientists are in fact religious...

Your link talks about "having a religious affiliation" as the criterion. I think there's a big difference between being religious and having a religious affiliation. I know many people who will say that they are christian, but god (or any other supernatural deity) never enters their life; they do not pray or go to church.

It's been my experience (caution: anecdotal evidence!) that people who say they have no religious affiliation are atheists. After all, for the vast majority of people, as children they were subjected to varying amounts of religious indoctrination, and it takes a conscious effort to break from that. You might only go to church on special occasions and never have cracked open a bible (except to read the salacious bits in Deuteronomy) but you still think of yourself as christian. Therefore your cited proves that 52 percent of American scientists are atheists.

deanc: Look at the specifically rich Muslim countries and see how they're doing in comparison to European nations with similar per-capita income.

I would not expect Saudi Arabia to foster skepticism and the scientific nature. Theocracies of all stripes can be expected to be anti-science.

I think it's illuminating to consider muslims in a non-Western mostly-secular country. Take the muslims in India: I think that if you control for economic background (muslims in India tend to be poorer than the average) you'll find no significant difference between muslims and others.
posted by phliar at 12:43 PM on August 8, 2007


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