Saturday, October 29, 2016

Why this Science Mania? An Open Letter to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy from India-held Kashmir 

Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad
PhD Researcher, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi, India

Published in The Friday Times, Lahore

Dear Dr. Parveez Hoodbhoy,

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 contribution to a wide array of topics ranging from physics to political science. I have hardly seen such a self-motivated ‘scientist’ who has passionately and convincingly authored publications on non-scientific and majestic topics such as those selected by you.  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.
However, before going to my question set, I should admire your love for ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge. At least from your writings, it appears to me that you are not only a strong aficionado of science but a sturdy science evangelist too. Dear Dr. Pervez, 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 too theatrical and clearly reflects our naivety.
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 science promotion give the impression that you are a staunch devotee of Veneer Bush’s 1945 thesis. You advocate his linear model of science and innovation.  
Linear model of Bush, it’s to mention here 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, like you (Dr Paervez) exclude 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 litany of arguments in the early 21st century.
I really do not have any issues here. You can suggest Pakistan either to 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?
And if you still believe in what you write and preach, then how would you respond to the arguments recently put across by 2006 Noble 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, the famous economic historian who has conducted promising research on the economic history of Europe, and specializes in the period 1750-1914 in his 2005 published book, The Gifts of Athena, contends 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 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. 
These examples can certainly raise a number of questions. Mokyr (2005) offers many tangible evidence of how important innovations during the British Industrial Revolution were generated by “hard heads and clever figures” which owed little directly to scientific knowledge. For example, the case of James Watt, who hardly knew anything about thermodynamics or the laws of physics, but improved his dexterity in a mechanic shop! Richard Roberts according to Mokyr, has been called the most versatile mechanic of the industrial revolution. Roberts never studied science and went on inventing the self-acting mule in 1825, “which automated the spinning machines invented in the 1770 and 1780s and became the backbone of the British cotton industry in the following decade, all the way to 1914” (p.65). John Mercer (1791-1866), another important informal innovator and one of Lancashire’s most successful colorists and dye specialist, according to Mokyr, was entirely self-taught and was nominated in 1852 as a fellow of the Royal Society in England.
Not only the first industrial revolution was made possible by informal sector innovations, innovators with limited scientific background set out the second industrial revolution also. The Bessemer steelmaking process of 1856, according to Mokyr, was made by a man who by his own admission had “very limited knowledge of iron metallurgy” (p. 86). This to the author was probably the “paradigmatic invention of the second industrial revolution.”  Considering the idiosyncrasy of these “ordinary” individuals, the “philosophies of enlightenment - echoed by Bacons, call for cooperation and sharing of knowledge between those who knew things and those who made them” (p. 35).  The Society of Arts founded in 1754 was set up to reward and recognize such unaided and unsung innovators.
Dear Dr. Pervez, considering the above flagged few examples will you please explain where lies the problem if scientists and those who claim to have adopted a non-scientific route to demystify natural laws collaborate? Where lies the blockage if innovations and knowledge creation structures within the informal sector are duly attended and recognized. Lamenting Pakistan for the maverick attempts of Waqar Ahmad seems too unscientific.
Further, in many of your lectures you seldom resist yourself from referring to the success stories of India with respect to science, technology and innovations (STI). Humbly would I want to bring to your kind notice that the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, in March 2000 has set up a full-fledged organization called the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) as India’s national initiative to strengthen the grassroots technological innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge holders from the informal sector. NIF claims to have pooled a database of over 225,000 technological ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices from the informal sector alone. Not only that, the President of India honors people like Waqar in the President house every year. 
To conclude, I would suggest that STI is certainly important, but it is not the only driving force for a nation’s economy and development. Knowledge from different sources should not be downrightly rejected. This obsession can have serious repercussions and unintended consequences. Rather than fervently advocating for one stream of knowledge, it would be great if we encourage the co-creation of knowledge and vehemently advocate for a positive feedback between different knowledge sources. Funding science is good, but leveraging the strengths of informal knowledge will doubly benefit, particularly in a country like Pakistan where more than 70 percent workers are engaged in the informal sector.  If we continue churning articles in support of one form of form knowledge, we are probably doing more harm than benefitting anyone. Our articles will be not less than gaudy pieces - extravagantly bright but low on taste!

The author hails from Kupwara, a district in India-held Kashmir, and is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. Recently, he co-edited a book titled ‘Informal Sector Innovations: Insights from the Global South’ for Taylor and Francis (Routledge), UK. He can be reached at

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