Friday, August 8, 2008

Science in Muslim Countries

Science is carrying a great editorial this week by Ismail Serageldin (director of the new Library of Alexandria) on science in Muslim countries. Serageldin argues cogently, if all too briefly, that Muslim countries are scientific underachievers because science can only flourish if free inquiry is allowed and religious dogma is not enforced. The money shot:
There is a central core of universal values that any truly modern society must possess, and these are very much the values that science promotes: rationality, creativity, the search for truth, adherence to codes of behavior, and a certain constructive subversiveness. Science requires much more than money and projects. Science requires freedom: freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, and to envision the unimagined. We must be able to question convention and arbitrate our disputes by the rules of evidence. It is the content of scientific work that matters, not the persons who produced it, regardless of the color of their skin, the god they choose to worship, the ethnic group they were born into, or their gender. These are the values of science, but even more, they are societal values worth defending, not just to promote the pursuit of science but to have a better and more humane society.

The future can be bright, but it requires a commitment to fight for the values of science and to reject obscurantism, fanaticism, and xenophobia. It requires that members of the scientific and academic communities in Muslim countries be willing to challenge accepted populist views and insist on creating the "space of freedom" necessary for the practice of science and the advancement of knowledge. We must engage with the media and the public and defend the values of science in our societies. These efforts will not be easy, but they constitute a major and necessary step toward liberating minds from the tyranny of intolerance, bigotry, and fear, and opening the doors to free inquiry, tolerance, and imagination.

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