By Keir Liddle
Earlier this year, I took part in the 10:23 campaign mass “overdose” to highlight the nonsensical nature of homeopathy. Despite the normal negative connotations of “overdose”, the day was a great deal of fun, and all the folks from Edinburgh Skeptics deserve many, many plaudits. My involvement with the campaign sadly attracted the usual arguments and denouncements from woosters – I and the rest of the campaigners were called everything from busybodies wasting their time on an unimportant issue to the Hitler Youth.
One of the arguments that intrigued me, that I initially dismissed for reasons that should become clear, was that we shouldn’t just prescribe to our “mechanistic Western world view” and should, apparently, also stop “worshipping” science (because, obviously, it doesn’t know everything!) and open our chakras to the joys of ancient Eastern holistic healing. At the time, I dismissed this because homeopathy (as any fule knows) was invented and developed by Samuel Hahnemann, a German, a mere 200 years ago. Thus, homeopathy is neither ancient nor indeed, all that “Eastern”.
There are a number of alternative therapies that are full of Eastern promise. From China: Reflexology, acupunture and other such traditional Chinese medicine. From the Philippines: psychic surgery, and from India: Yogic healing and transcendental meditation.
The evidence base for all of these “treatments” is dubious at best. Although, this seems to do little to dent their popularity, and a popular argument seems to be that ancient knowledge from the mystical and spiritual East should simply not be dismissed. The argument that we should not be so arrogant as to blindly follow our “mechanistic (whatever is meant by that) Western science” from those who defend reflexology, acupuncture and the like serves to dismiss science and evidence itself, and by doing so, neglects the contribution of Chinese, Indian and Arabic scholars to the development of modern science.
For instance, our number system was developed in India: excavations at Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and other sites of the Indus Valley Civilization have uncovered evidence of the use of “practical mathematics“, and the first evidence of the decimal system popularised by Arabic scholars was found in India. Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata (476-550), in his Aryabhatiya (499) and Aryabhata Siddhanta, worked out an accurate heliocentric model of gravitation, including elliptical orbits, the circumference of the earth, and the longitudes of planets around the Sun. He also introduced a number of trigonometric functions (including sine, versine, cosine and inverse sine), trigonometric tables, and techniques and algorithms of algebra. In the 7th century, Brahmagupta recognized gravity as a force of attraction.
China is responsible for the inventions of gunpowder, papermaking, printing and the compass – imagine a world without any of those! Among the technological accomplishments of China were early seismological detectors (Zhang Heng in the 2nd century), the water-powered celestial globe (Zhang Heng), matches, the independent invention of the decimal system, dry docks, sliding calipers, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the blast furnace, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, the suspension bridge, the winnowing machine, the rotary fan, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, a solid fuel rocket (including the multistage rocket), the horse collar, along with contributions in logic, astronomy, medicine, and other fields.
The Arabic scholars of the Muslim world placed much more importance on experiment than their ancient Greek counterparts. This led to an early scientific method being developed in the Muslim world, where significant progress in methodology was made, beginning with the experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) on optics from circa 1000, in his Book of Optics. The most important development of the scientific method was the use of experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation, as undertaken by Muslim scientists. Ibn al-Haytham is also regarded as the father of optics, especially for his empirical proof of the intromission theory of light. Some have also described Ibn al-Haytham as the “first scientist” for his development of the modern scientific method. In mathematics, the Persian mathematician Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi gave his name to the concept of the algorithm, while the term algebra is derived from al-jabr, the beginning of the title of one of his publications. Muslim chemists and alchemists played an important role in the foundation of modern chemistry. Scholars such as Will Durant and Fielding H. Garrison considered Muslim chemists to be the founders of chemistry. In particular, Geber is “considered by many to be the father of chemistry”.
It is also worth pointing out the contribution of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), regarded as the most influential scientist and philosopher in Islam. He pioneered the science of experimental medicine and was the first physician to conduct clinical trials. His two most notable works in medicine are the Kitāb al-shifāʾ(“Book of Healing”) and The Canon of Medicine, both of which were used as standard medicinal texts in both the Muslim world and in Europe well into the 17th century. Amongst his many contributions are the discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases, and the introduction of clinical pharmacology.
Thus the science and pharmacology that woosters are keen to dismiss in favour of “ancient knowledge” is in fact: ancient knowledge.
To label science an imperialistic and Westernised endeavour therefore comes across as a touch ignorant, as it overlooks the Chinese, Indian and Arabic contributions to the modern endeavour of science, and the important discoveries and inventions that came from the East.
Every scientist stands on the shoulder of giants: no matter where those giants came from.