Solid, not super, science

Published: May 14, 2019
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

I am a strong believer in interdisciplinary scholarship. Every year, half of my teaching responsibilities include teaching a course with colleagues from other disciplines including humanities, public health, law as well as women and gender studies. The course, aimed at second year students and meant for a broad audience, is based on providing students with an interdisciplinary perspective on a single problem. For the last couple of years, my teaching colleagues and I have been looking at HIV from the lens of public health, diagnostics and engineering, as well as racism, gender theory and literature. Other colleagues have taken a similar multi-disciplinary approach to climate change. I consider myself fortunate to have this experience — for it has not only made me a better scientist, I would like to think that it has made me a better person. My research on refugee health has gotten infinitely better by partnering with, and learning from, colleagues in humanities and social sciences.

I have long argued that scientists and engineers must work with humanists and social scientists. History, art, anthropology and numerous other disciplines have a lot to teach scientists and engineers. Issues of ethics that are front and centre in debates in medicine, big data, environment and technology need active and continued engagement of disciplines outside science and engineering. I have argued before to colleagues at universities and in pages of this newspaper that our science students must read not just their technical texts but should also engage with Ghalib, Bulleh Shah and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

So when I saw the announcement by the Prime Minister last week about a new university focusing on science and spirituality, I was intrigued to say the least. The idea of learning from other disciplines is important, and central to our human experience. Yet, I also felt that the Prime Minister’s initiative was deficient in three important areas.

First — any engagement between disciplines should be based on parity and honest desire to learn. There can be no interdisciplinary scholarship if one discipline considers itself inherently superior to the other. In a place like Pakistan, where religious sentiment always gets the upper hand in public discourse, engagement with science is never going to be honest. In the current atmosphere where people are scared of being called heretics, no rigorous and open debate, that is at the core of education and research, can take place. That, in and of itself, will make the whole exercise dishonest.

Second — the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship should not compromise the disciplinary tools. Science, by definition is based on observation and analysis and on laws that should hold true under identical conditions. It is also based on the concept of repeatability. Spirituality is personal, subjective and bound to yield different results to different people even under the same conditions. The tools of both are fundamentally different. No one can, or should try to, make spirituality a science — that would be unfair to the scientific approach and to the methods of learning in spiritual pursuits. While engagement and discussion among those who are engaged in spiritual pursuits and those who are working in the domains of science is a good thing, any attempt to force the marriage between the two is problematic. Interdisciplinary scholarship is also bound to last, and be meaningful, when it starts organically. Top down approach is an exercise in bureaucracy, not in meaningful pursuit of knowledge.

Then, there is the issue of what exactly is a super science. Science, done with rigour and clarity, is beautiful and remarkably impactful. It does not need a booster shot of anything “super”. Nor anything else can be made super science. Given our infinite challenges in development, and the widespread issues plaguing our scientific enterprise from incompetence to plagiarism, Pakistan needs solid, not super science.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2019.

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