Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The need for pluralism and the values of science

by Salman Hameed

Things have been crazily busy here - so blogging has been a bit slow. It will get back to normal soon. I will have more to say from two very interesting conferences next week (more details in a day or two). In the mean time, here is an excellent editorial from last week's Science. It talks about the importance of pluralism in the development of science, and the values of science that can be useful for societies at large. The editorial is written by Ismail Serageldin, who is the director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt:

In Egypt and Tunisia, ordinary citizens have toppled autocrats; elsewhere in the Arab World, they still battle dictators, armed with little more than their belief in freedom, human rights, and democracy. What sort of society comes after the revolution? Many fear that the idealism of the revolutionary democrats will only pave the way for theological autocrats who preach an intolerant doctrine. But fighting extremism is best done not by censorship or autocracy but by embracing pluralism and defeating ideas with ideas. And here, science has much to say, particularly about the values that are needed for societies to be truly open and democratic, because these are the values of science.
As the British scientist Jacob Bronowski observed more than half a century ago, the enterprise of science requires the adoption of certain values that are adhered to by its practitioners with exceptional rigor. These values also provide the basis for enhancing human capabilities and human welfare. Truth and honor are of the utmost importance. Any scientist who manufactures data risks being ostracized indefinitely from the scientific community, and he or she jeopardizes the credibility of science for the larger society. A scientist may err in interpreting data, but no one can accept the fabrication of data. What other fields of human activity can rival this level of commitment to absolute truth? Teamwork has become essential in most fields of science, and it requires that all the members of the team receive the recognition they deserve. Contributions are also cumulative, and each should be recognized for his or her contribution. It is a sentiment well captured in Isaac Newton's famous statement that “if I have seen farther than most, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Science requires the freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm, or at least substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise, as a new generation of scientists makes its own contribution.
And it is this space that is essential if we want to have growth in scientific fields. 
The new Arab societies we are building must be open pluralistic societies that are producers of knowledge and new opportunities. Our youth have sparked our revolution, just as other young people have transformed societies, reinvented business enterprise, and redefined our scientific understanding of the world we live in. Today, as they lead the rebuilding of our societies, they must embrace the values of science. Together, all armed with these values, we can think of the unborn, remember the forgotten, give hope to the forlorn, include the excluded, reach out to the unreached, and by our actions from this day onward lay the foundation for better tomorrows.
Read the full editorial here.                   

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