Atanu Dey On India's Development

Science — Part 2

The post , a quote from Marvin Harris’s book, entitled Science, provoked a few comments that require responding to.

Karthik Rao Cavale objected to the apparent dismissal of Indian scientific achievements of the past by the claim by Harris that “it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.”

The point, I think, is that the scientific method is uniquely western European. Other civilizations, including the Indian civilization, have made scientific discoveries. But the credit for discovering the scientific method goes to western Europe. It is the discovery of the system, rather than specific scientific discoveries, which is at issue here. Indians discovered a system for mental and physical exercise and development usually called “yoga” the credit for which does not diminish merely because other civilizations also have evolved exercises for physical and mental development.

The comment from “little Ram” (shouldn’t that be a lamb?) points to a distinction between social sciences and the study of natural phenomena. I would not make that distinction in the context of the scientific method. The scientific method is characterized by the formulation of a falsifiable hypothesis which provides the structure within which observations (of natural events or the results of experiments which can be repeated) can be carried out. The core idea is that the hypothesis is falsifiable and for doing which specific tests be indicated by the proponent of the hypothesis. Also, for the hypothesis to have any operational content, it should make specific predictions which can be empirically ascertained. If the hypothesis is able to explain a body of already established facts, pass the tests of falsifiability and also make accurate verifiable predictions, then the hypothesis is tentatively accepted into the body of scientific knowledge. This method is universally applicable–both in the social sciences as well as in the hard sciences.

Raghuveer writes that the “best thing that can be said about codified science is that it is repeatable and does not have any stickies in the form of ideology associated with it. That makes it universally acceptable and adaptable.” I agree to a large extent. My caution would be that science is not entirely immune to ideological capture. After all, scientists and those who fund them are all humans, and therefore subject to all human frailties. Science can be hijacked but the scientific method which is at the core of our ability to make scientific progress is inviolable.

Chandra highlights a part of the quote (” . . . aggressive fanatics and messiahs eager to annihilate each other and the whole world if need be in order to prove their point.”) and suggests that they would use science to destroy. I disagree on technicality. Fanatics and messiahs cannot use science to destroy because they don’t know how to do science. They, like every one of us average people, can and do use the technological tools developed on the basis of scientific progress. But that cannot be said to be the same as using “science” because it implies that there is something unwholesome about science.

Science is neutral; technology can be neutral, good, or bad depending on who is using it and to what end.

[Continued in Part 3.]

  • Prashant


  • little Ram

    Agree absolutely. There is no difference in the scientific method that can be applied equally across social sciences and the study of natural phenomena. The difference that I did not elaborate on has to do with the constraints one has in experimentation in social sciences and usually, the greater difficulty of remaining dispassionate. As you have rightly pointed out, even Science can get corrupted and made hostage to ideology- it has happended in the past.

    P.S.- It remains little Ram!

  • Raghuveer

    Good point about the ideologies of scientists influencing results and this resulting in them interpreting discoveries their own way. A real danger is when the research is sponsored and vested interests creep in – and in todays world, almost all discoveries happen in private labs, so this is almost inevitable.

    A few months ago there was a news item here in the US about how drinking 5-6 cups of coffee is not harmful at all – apparently, the research was done for 30 years. When I was discussing this, my friend’s first q was ‘well, who sponsored the study?’

  • Dweep

    I am disappointed in your repeated assertion that the scientific method is uniquely Western. In so doing, you are making an oft-repeated statement that has become accepted fact. Lets, however, apply the scientific method to it.

    Feynman, in his 1966 lecture, said in response to the question, “what is science?”:

    it is the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past.

    Inherent in this definition are two actions – 1) to question what one sees, and 2) to verify through experimentation and observation.

    I am not sufficiently informed about other civilizations to comment on their traditions, but can say confidently that India’s tradition of doubt is sufficiently long and varied that your statement cannot be taken as a given. And I say this without specific reference to India’s contributions to the sciences, or the experimentation that such contributions involved. However, by ignoring such contributions and India’s expansive literature in mathematics, astronomy, health sciences, or political science, you do both a grave disservice.

    This affinity of Indians to undermine their own intellectual (and scientific) traditions, was pointed out to me by Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination’, (in his book The Argumentative Indian). As he points out, there has been a historical tendency among Western observers to emphasize India’s spiritual traditions, at the cost of the rational. And such characterizations have had a narrowing impact on Indians’ own self-perception. One reason that he mentions is:

    There was indeed such an attempt to present what was perceived to be the ‘strong aspects’ of Indian culture, distinguished from the domain, as Chatterjee puts it, ‘where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed’.

    But the belief that the West had proved superior is just that – a belief. By repeating it, you perpetuate the same bias that started it, and I challenge you to question it and where your statement comes from. I cannot prove, conclusively, that the ‘scientific method’ was evident in Indian analytical traditions. But I cannot, a priori accept that it was entirely lacking. Perhaps it was simply an accident of history that the West was the last dominant power and could create such a belief.

    Incidently, as books I would suggest both Feynman’s ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’, and Sen’s Argumentative Indian (though I read neither cover-to-cover).

    [Atanu's response here.]

  • Karthik Rao Cavale

    Yes, I was talking about the scientific method. The scientific method is what leads to discoveries, is it not? Without systematic study would such extraordinary scientific progress be possible?

    I don’t mean to say that the West does not deserve credit for scientific achievement. As Anunad says, it is more about who has contributed a major chunk to the latest bout of development. Yes, even scientific method has developed a great deal since the time of Aryabhatta, but isn’t it likely that Indians too had some basic scientific method that led them to these discoveries? For one, scientific method in itself is developing, isn’t it?

    Again, some people say that science is universal. Even social science. They say that since one solution works for one place, it must work all over the world. It is like saying that since a particular differential equation gives a certain function y=f(x) for one set of initial conditions, the same f(x) will work for all sets of initial conditions. Yes, the differential equation will be the same all over the world. But the solution will differ.

  • gaddeswarup

    I am not sure how this is going to come out in the pasting process.

    Journal of Indian Philosophy 29: 43–80, 2001.
    “Aryabhat.a is wrong where he gives the volume of a pyramid as:43
    “Half the product of the height and the [surface of the triangular base]
    is the volume called ‘pyramid’.” The correct volume of a pyramid is a
    third, not half, of the product here specified. In spite of this, Bh¯askara
    accepts ¯ Aryabhat.a’s rule and carries out some (incorrect) calculations
    with its help. The same is true of ¯Aryabhat.a’s incorrect rule for the
    volume of a sphere.”
    “It seems inevitable to conclude that the theorems propounded by ¯Aryabhat.a and Bh¯askara were apparently not accompanied by proofs, not even in private, not even outside the realm of the written commentary.47 They were handed down as received truths, with the result that incorrect theorems were not identified as a matter of routine by any student who checked the proofs.48 Bh¯askara confirms that he regards the theorems and other information contained in ¯Aryabhat.a’s work as received truths in his commentary on the first chapter, the G¯ıtik¯ap¯ada. Here he states, under verse 2, that all knowledge derives from Brahm¯a; ¯Aryabhat.a pleased Brahm¯a on account of his great ascetic practices and could then compose, for the well-being of the world, the ten G¯ıtik¯as¯utras on planetary movement (chapter 1), as well as the one hundred and eight ¯ ary ¯a verses on arithmetic (ch. 2), time (ch. 3) and the celestial globe (ch. 4).4”
    The paper also discusses the Greek concepts from the times of Euclid. It seems that Indians did not apply the same sort of logic in mathematics that they applied in philosophical and religious discourses.

  • Chandra

    “It seems inevitable to conclude that the theorems propounded by ¯Aryabhat.a and Bh¯askara were apparently not accompanied by proofs, not even in private, not even outside the realm of the written commentary.”

    Actually this is quite common – giving the end theorem without proof or solution. The same is said about Ramanujan who expounded some 3000 theorems (without proof) in early 20th century. Some of most vexing solutions in mathematics don’t have proof. But they are used because they work.

    ‘Here he states, under verse 2, that all knowledge derives from Brahm¯a;”

    Again, this is not out of line with perceived wisdom, even current, that all knowledge is derived from Brahma.

    I doubt every much that most theories (whether Chinese, Indian, Persian, or European) could have been proved during these periods until a vast body of knowledge of fundamentals, whether in calculus, geometry, physical or chemical sciences, was in place. And this didn’t happen until much latter.

    Personally I don’t think Bronkhorst’s paper says much beyond repeating what Dweep is talking about.

  • Navin

    I am not sure about AryaBhattas proof and its dismissals but I can talk a bit on Technology innovation in India. Its so little that Mary meeker and other stock analysts dismiss when we discuss the same.

    Second point is, how much of the so called scientific discovery or method had changed lives of masses. I saw people standing in large queues to pay electricity bills wasting time (calculate the oppurtunity cost) during my trip earlier this year. This kind of BS is almost non existent in west.

  • gaddeswarup

    i think that atanu’s point is about scientific method as it is practiced today. Neither Aryabhatta nor Bhaskara ( afew hundred years separates them) cared to make a a simple exeriment to verify their formulae. It is not clear to me whether this attitude changed until Indians were exposed to western science. looking at the history of scientific method in, India does not figure in tat all except indirectly through the Arab influence.
    “The scientific method in its modern form arguably developed in early Muslim philosophy, in particular, using experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories, along with the methods of citation (“isnad”), peer review and open inquiry, leading to development of consensus (“ijma” via “ijtihad”), and a general belief that knowledge reveals nature honestly. During the Middle Ages, Islamic philosophy developed and was often pivotal in scientific debates–key figures were usually scientists and philosophers.
    The prominent Arab-Iranian Muslim scientist Alhazen used the scientific method to obtain the results in his book Optics. In particular, he performed experiments and used the scientific method to show that the intromission theory of vision supported by Aristotle was scientifically correct, and that the emission theory of vision supported by Ptolemy and Euclid was wrong.”

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