Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Calling Africa's science nerds

In light of all of our problems - poverty, witch hunts, anti-vaccinationism, quackery, religious obscurantism of various kinds, and so on - it has long seemed obvious to me that Africa badly needs skepticism, science, logic and reason. The great Sir Francis Bacon wrote in the Novum Organum that:
Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.
Knowledge, in the words of the popular corruption, is power. Achieving our ends depends (at least in part) on our understanding of how the world works. But, as Bacon also pointed out, (1) the world is exceedingly complicated ("the subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding") and (2) the human mind is prone to error ("for the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence, nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture"). Making sensible decisions in a complex world, then, depends (in part) on us applying science to our problems. 

Science, however, is not merely a matter of 'applications', not only relevant to policy makers, and certainly not only a way of fostering economic development. Or, to again borrow from (and somewhat adapt) Bacon, scientists are not merely concerned with "the relief of man's estate", they are also "merchants of light". Scientific and skeptical thinking - the commitment to submit all ideas (especially our own) to severe critical scrutiny, keep an open mind, aim at unified knowledge, resist obscurantism, and rely on reason and experimentation (among other things) - is the only reliable way of answering the deep questions of our origins, place in the universe, and ultimate fate. To understand the universe and ourselves, in short, we need to apply the 'technology of truth': science.

Africa, then, needs skeptical, reasoned, and scientific voices, not only to foster development and growth, but to serve as merchants of light: to hold out a candle in the dark in a demon-haunted world. It is for this reason that I have long been trying to organize, promote and otherwise advance the skeptical/scientific blogging community in South Africa, and latterly Africa as a whole. So if you are an African skeptical or scientific blogger (or know of such bloggers) please contact me on ionian.enchantment@gmail.com. Participate in our carnival, post and get listed on our blogroll, and join our email discussion group. And, of course, if you have a blog, keep up the good work! If you don't, start one!

I'll give the final word to E. O. Wilson (who I quoted in the very first post on my blog, and who gave me the idea for its name):
Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment. Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course – a stoic’s creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain. It aims to save the spirit, not by surrender but by liberation of the human mind. Its central tenet, as Einstein knew, is the unification of knowledge. When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here. (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, p. 7)

1 comment:

  1. As we say in Italy "in bocca al lupo" (translation). The obstacles to critical thinking are many and varied. Good luck to us all. As I said yesterday, magical thinking tempts many of us, and those who know better should act like they know better. Keep it up.