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Murad III and the dangers of ignoring science

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Charlie Hebdo. Boko Haram. Murdered Pakistani school kids. Taliban against of polio vaccines.

I was thinking about these tragic events, and like everybody else, trying to come to grips with them. One thing that I noticed, aside from the obvious violence, is a denying of free thinking, science, and education. All things that make uncomfortable those who care for the status quo.

Why should this be so? There was a time when Muslim civilization led the world in knowledge, tolerance, and science.Murad_III_by_John_Young

For instance, medical students all know about William Harvey’s pioneering studies of the circulatory system, published in 1628; in his work, Harvey acknowledged his debt to Spanish physician Miguel Serveto, who published a work about blood flow in the lungs in 1553 (and was arrested and burned for heresy). Much less known is that Serveto himself was inspired by an earlier work of thirteenth century Syrian doctor Ibn al-Nafis, who described in remarkable detail blood circulation. And there are many similar instances.

In his 2002 book What Went Wrong, historian Bernard Lewis traces the decline of science and openness in the Muslim world to a single political decision.

In the fourteenth century the Ottoman empire was leading the world in medicine and science, including astronomy. Taqi al-Din, a prolific scientist (he wrote books on the history of science, astronomy, optica, and mechanical clocks), was appointed chief astronomer to the Ottoman court. He convinced Sultan Murad III to build an observatory that would rival that of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (whose detailed observations led to Newton’s discoveries). But a couple of years after completion, in 1577, the observatory was destroyed by order of the sultan, on the recommendations of the Grand Mufti. Whether this was because the visible comet of 1577 was followed by a plague, or simply because of political fights between the religious parties and other factions at court isn’t clear. But the net effect is that this observatory was to be the last one built in the lands of Islam until the modern era. According to Lewis

This rejection is one of the more striking differences between the Middle East and other parts of the world that have in one way or another endured the impact of Western civilization…the Middle-Eastern contribution [to science] compares poorly with that of other non-Western regions or, even more dramatically, with its own past record.

One may disagree with Lewis with respect to the impact of that single decision. But what I retain from this historical anecdote is that Islam itself had nothing to do with destroying science; rather, that a single policy decision set the stage for an irreversible decline, possibly paving the way for a zeitgeist of obscurantism, of reliance on dogma at the expense of free thinking.

harper_cowboyNow if I compare Stephen Harper with sultan Murad III, it’s with a tongue firmly imbedded in cheek. That said, there has been considerable damage done by his government to Canada’s science capacity.

This damage has been described at length elsewhere (see here, here, here, and here) but as a summary, let’s mention: the laying-off of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans, and closure of nine of the department’s libraries, along with the destruction of their collections; lay-offs of scientists and researchers from Parks Canada, Environment Canada, and the Coast Guard; the muzzling of federal researchers; the damage done to Stats Canada; the loss of research library privileges of Health Canada researchers; the lack of funding for pure research, research that may generate controversy, or lack a for-profit partner; and, in a perfect simile to the Istanbul Observatory, the destruction of the Experimental Lakes Area, a research facility unique in the world, and the closure of PEARL, the polar observatory.

The example of Murad III shows that once a government turns it back on science, the trend may be long-lasting and the damage irreversible, not only to science itself but to society as a whole. When science is no longer trusted for guidance, all that is left is dogma; and when dogma doesn’t fit reality, violence. Let’s not go there.


Written by enviropaul

January 23, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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