The Imperative of the Narrative – Tracing the History of Science

(My assignment for Philosophy of Science – a fascinating discipline introduced to us at the YIF)

As a child I would always fancy myself to be a storyteller ‘when I grew up’. I would lie beside my grandmother, only to listen enraptured by the tale she would narrate, and be teleported into an alternate world of talking trains, trees and animals, Gods and apsaras, pirates and sorcerers – all the stuff that myths and legends were made of. Over the years, I came to realise that the plot could be repeated, but the way the story was told was never the same. The art of story-telling is what is required to spin a mundane occurrence into a timeless tale. And now, as the secret desire that I nurtured since the age of six, to be a novelist is on its slow, bumpy road onto becoming a reality – a profound consciousness has been gained in knowing that ‘Nothing tells like a good story!’

In those same childhood years, the dreamy and imaginative child grew to hate the Sciences – it was taught to be meant for the rational, the logical and the conclusive – for those who are driven by hard fact and grounded to reality.  Science did not seem to have stories behind them – everything was put into a language of equations, numbers or reasoning.  Geography, History, Civics and Literature were my chosen subjects – this trailed onto Environment Studies and taking Law as a career path.

As I now begin to re-learn so many subjects in this inter-disciplinary Fellowship, I was pleasantly surprised and awestruck by this hidden fact – that the Sciences too have a fascinating History to them. And these stories were told in a manner that changed the way Man as a being understood his world through the ages. How these stories became a determinative discipline as we know today – called the History of Science, has fascinated me since the day it was taught to us.

It is this story – ‘the imperative of the narrative’[1] or the way the stories of science have been developed and re-told through centuries, that I would like to discuss here. It is a very large domain in the discipline of Philosophy of Science, whilst there being even a debate on whether the History of science ought to stand as a discipline independent of Philosophy of Science, and thus my enquiry into this thought has been very limited, even naïve to a certain degree. Nonetheless, it is the overview of what has been comprehended from the works of Thomas Kuhn, the debate of Universalism (Science) vs. Cultural relativism (myth), Social determinism and the exploration into a trans-cultural history of Science (Needham’s River metaphor) that could be the post-colonialist alternative to the Euro-centric approach of Science and History,[2] that I attempt to pen here.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik introduces his book ‘Myth=Mithya (2006)’ with saying that “Everybody lives in myth. This idea disturbs most people. For conventionally myth means falsehood…Everybody believes they live in truth.”[3] He proceeds onto declaring that there are many types of truth. Some objective, some subjective, some logical, some universal. Some are based on evidence and others depend on faith, but Myth is ‘truth which is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith.”[4]

I ask the next logical question here – How scientific is myth, when myth is in fact grounded in different cultural belief systems?  Was Myth ever a scientific idea? And do these scientific ideas change over a period of time, in a discernable pattern that may be traced back in History? These very questions are central to the path breaking work ‘The Scientific Study of Revolutions’ (1963) by the American historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.  Kuhn writes “If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and hold for the same sorts of reasons that now led to scientific knowledge.”[5] Myth thus is the cultural construct, a common understanding of the world that binds individuals and communities together. Myths may be religious or secular, oral or written. Ideas such as rebirth, heaven and hell, fate and salvation, sin and Satan are religious myths. Ideas such as sovereignty, nation state, human rights or women’s rights are secular myths. But religious or secular, all myths make profound sense to one group of people, at a time – and not to everyone.[6] Hence, it almost always is the ‘formative ingredient of beliefs espoused by a given (scientific) community at a given time.’[7]

Kuhn, being a historian of science by training firmly believed that philosophers had much to learn from studying the History of science.[8] This is an aspect upon which I personally agree. As his book indicates, he was interested in what were especially – scientific revolutions. Each of those revolutions led to a fundamental change in the world-view of ‘science’- where one set of ideas were overthrown by a radically different set.[9] Of course, revolutions did not happen overnight …and there are periods of ‘normal science’ in between – the ‘paradigm’ where the entire scientific outlook has shared assumptions, beliefs and values that unite the scientific community and allow for ‘normal science’ to take place.[10]

Truth itself thus becomes relative to a paradigm[11] – and a story of this truth may be composed. But many ‘paradigms’ may co-exist or compete with each other; objective data may already be based on other theories – here is where the argument for relativism is laid.[12] A problem may thus arise as to how the relativist, who could be the very next person, re-tells the story. As Kuhn, himself justified in a post-script to the second edition of his book, this was not to cast a doubt on the rationality of science, but to offer a realistic more historically accurate picture of how science actually develops. By neglecting the history of science, the positivists had been led to a very simplistic, idealistic account of how science works, whereas Kuhn was merely providing a corrective.[13]

As Kuhn laid a great emphasis on the social context of which science takes place, Science was intrinsically a social activity[14] – the existence of the shared community and allegiance to a paradigm will determine how a story is told. The story of science today is largely told in the angle from where it is ‘Euro-centric.’ We trace the History of Science from right back to the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to the Era of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution to the Age of the Great Wars and Colonialism to the Post-colonialist era to today – where too many Scientific Revolutions happen almost simultaneously.

However, Post- colonial Historians often argue that the Euro-centric approach to History and more so, this approach to the History of Science is an extremely linear and biased approach to the discipline. If other stories of scientific discoveries, inventions and revolutions are to be accorded then there have been civilizations simultaneous or far older to Europe that have existed and are no less ‘backward’ as to the scientific advancement of Europe. But here too, caution must be exercised in that each telling of the story of Science does not become centric to a particular civilization or nation. Such cultural constructions have been dangerous in the manner of adducing extreme nationalistic, racist or patriarchal tendencies that soon become justifiable in the jargon of ‘cultural relativism.’

Whilst discussing these, one may again observe the power of story-telling. Imre Lakatos rightly observed that “actual history is a parody of its rational reconstruction,”[15] and every age and civilization would like to see itself to be the most scientifically advanced and progressive than ever before. How we critique such thought becomes important, if we are to quantify or qualitatively assess the benefits, progress and harmony Science has brought to society. And for this I re-assert that we again need to back-track to the History of Science, and deduce how the story was told. Today’s History of Science needs to be understood from the history of Transmissions.[16] The river metaphor of Joseph Needham, the British scientist and Sinologist, can be valid even today- where the rivers of cross-cultural traditions and ideas, and the fusions thereof flow into the sea of mutual growth. His words call for a holistic approach to the History of Science – modern science is thus the flow of all sciences from the Ancient and Medieval era – whether Greek or Roman, Arab, Chinese, Byzantine or Indian civilizations.[17] The mass of continental Eurasia and sea-routes to Africa, the Pacific and the Americas pre-supposes a constant flow of ideas, and a truth could also be that only some stories have stood the test of time. A re-writing of the History of Science may hence never be fool-proof, being well-aware that the Science of today may be the mere ‘myths’ of tomorrow. As we write our Histories today, I sincerely believe that historiographers possess a vantage point in this era of information.  Information and Ideas being digitised can be accessed or erased within a matter of seconds. Views and counter-views of events in science get recorded almost instantaneously, and are inevitably an interface between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ paradigms. In scientific discovery or knowledge today, it is easier to manipulate stories quite easily – this is indeed unfortunate in the larger narrative of whether science and technology has been benefitting to humanity. With better medicines, bigger or deadlier guns, alternative practices for meditation, advancement or disappearance of species – we shall need to tell the story in more ways than one. Upon a heated discussion with a fellow Young India Fellow, as I was penning the ideas for this paper – I used his own example to substantiate my views. I began with a clear disclaimer that my objective was in no means to undermine the outcome of scientific exercise by complicating the way he told his story of the process – but to help better understand the imperative behind the larger narrative. It thus seems fitting that I conclude, citing this very example – with another disclaimer that the science here (my knowledge of technology remains woefully limited) may not be correct – this is solely for the purpose of making a valid premise and reasoning for my argument.

My Fellow and friend was involved in core team of making and designing the low cost, low powered tablet computers for primary education. He is an Indian from Hyderabad educated as an engineer, who was based in Singapore in a research lab under a prominent technological university there. This project was in collaboration with another US-based University – but all the media is central to the name of his Professor who is an example of the modern day hi-profile “Science manager.” For the testing of the tablet, the team of my friend and three other engineers, all from Andhra Pradesh where the field testing had to be conducted extensively – were sent back to rural India knowing that they could easily adjust to the climate, and learning environment of primary education in India. They were the sole team to produce and design the tablet, test it, adapt it further and then take it back to Singapore until further notice. For this they were well-paid but when the Media reports of the landmark discovery were made – their names were consciously omitted. Instead the names of the Professor and his American students, who belonged to the same University as the funding agencies, were whose names were reported, even till date. The team has now left that job and Singapore – and the Professor has outsourced this lab work (mostly design related) to another Los Angeles based firm.

I argue that there are multiple stories here. A Professor who is politically and media savvy – but is not involved in the lab at all and has not (allegedly) written a single research paper after he was chaired to that University. These four Indian engineers – known for their technical acumen and desirous of a well-paying job overseas – thus could be side lined when ‘credits’ had to be accorded. The American students for whom the collaborators needed to be shown in good light and the ‘target market’ of the rural schoolchildren for whom the tablet is developed. These are the few ‘stakeholders’ I could identify – but there could be many more. I identified a scenario – what if the tablet is a stupendous success? There would be one group that is credited, another group that goes ignored and yet another group that receives monetary incentives to develop it further. But if the tablet is not a success – and is reduced to mere e-waste someday – or a newer technology based on this idea comes through in the next decade – we would need to trace the history of this discovery – where every player in the game might be identified. Critical ‘What if’ questions would need to be asked – and the problem would be examined in these socio-economic-cultural and technical dimensions. This would be where the ‘pluralistic’ writing of history – where there stories would be equally important and relevant for posthumous memory. Robert McAfee Brown rightly says – “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” [18]

[1] A term that I learned of in the last lecture of Philosophy of Science by Prof. Raina on ‘History of Science’ Ref : Classroom notes.

[2] Overview of the topics that I particularly enjoyed in the lectures of Philosophy of Science.

[3] Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik ‘myth=mithya’ A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, Penguin books India,2006 Introduction at para.1

[4] Ibid

[5] Thomas Kuhn, ‘The Study of Scientific Revolutions’ (1963) at Chapter 2.

[6] Supra note 3 at para 5

[7] Supra note 4 at Chapter 4.

[8] Samir Okasha “A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy of Science.” Chapter 5 ‘Scientific Change and Scientific Revolutions’ at pg.81 para 1.

[9] Ibid

[10] Supra note 8 at para 3 of pg.81

[11] Supra note 8 at pg. 85 para 1

[12] Supra note 8 at pg.94 para 2

[13] Supra note 8 ‘Kuhn and the Rationality of Science at pg.90, last paragraph.

[14] Supra note 8 “Kuhn’s legacy’ at 93 para.2

[15] Class room Notes- Imre Lakatos is a noted Hungarian Mathematician and Philosopher of Science who discussed proofs and refutations, and methodology in scientific research programmes.

[16] “Situating the history of science : dialogues with Joseph Needham” edited by S. Irfan Habib and Dhruv Raina, Chapter 8 ‘The Rivers and the Sea’

[17] Ibid

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