Don't Let the Dark Ages Happen Here
Last month, Iranian-born Stanford mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics. Congratulations are in order. Mirzakhani did her work here in the U.S., which illustrates an unhappy fact: Central Asian scientists are forced to come to the U.S. to do pioneering work because of the repressive governments and poor, resource-dependent economies of their home countries.
It was not always thus. In the book "Lost Enlightenment," historian S. Frederick Starr chronicles the long tradition of scientists, mathematicians, engineers and literary intellectuals that flourished in the Iranian- and Turkish-speaking regions of Central Asia -- the region that encompasses modern-day Iran, Iraq and the "-stan" countries.
What we think of as the Islamic golden age -- lasting from roughly 800 A.D. through 1200 A.D. - was really a Central Asian golden age. It was there that al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we get the word "algorithm") essentially invented applied mathematics. It was there that astronomer al-Biruni began to invent modern experimental physics and anticipated the work of Copernicus and Kepler. It was there that ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote the most important books of medicine up to that time, and kept alive the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy -- which would later have a huge influence on Europe. As Starr documents, the region was a hotbed of technological innovation and intellectual boundary-breaking.
Then it all went wrong. After about the year 1200, the region declined, and Islamic science and medicine and philosophy declined with it. Why did this happen? The conquests of the Mongol Empire, which destroyed many of the region's huge, well-irrigated cities, were part of it. But Starr reveals that the decline had begun centuries before the Mongols showed up. The real culprit, he alleges, was an increasingly anti-science attitude on the part of the Muslim rulers of the region.
One of the most prominent anti-science leaders was Nizam al-Mulk, the unofficial leader of the Turkish Seljuq Empire. In the late 1000s A.D., he established a number of religious institutes, part of whose purpose to combat the rationalism that had emerged in Central Asia. Perhaps the most important figure in this anti-rationalist movement was al-Ghazali, an accomplished philosopher who had written a book attacking his contemporaries. Al-Ghazali used the tools of logic and reason themselves to argue that only faith, not rationalism and science, can offer insight into the truths of the world. Starr believes that it was thinkers like al-Ghazali who enabled Central Asia's transition from center of global science to fundamentalist backwater.
If Starr's explanation for Central Asia's decline -- which was also the Islamic world's decline -- is true, it's a cautionary tale for modern America. Rationalism and science have come under attack here as well.
The so-called War on Science features attacks from several fronts. The less worrisome attack comes from certain big business interests that don't want carbon taxes, and that have therefore tried to cast doubt on the evidence for global warming. In and of itself, that isn't so scary -- after all, these business lobbyists don't reject science in general, just certain conclusions of certain scientists. But it seems to have led to a general disdain for science among the (mostly Republican) politicians who pay attention to those lobbying groups. As Nizam al-Mulk showed, it isn't good when powerful leaders distrust science.
More worrying is the direct assault on science and rationalism by certain religious groups. These groups are still trying to introduce creationism into public schools. This probably reached its height of absurdity with the "intelligent design" movement of a decade ago, but it remains a danger to rationalism nonetheless. Again, it's especially ominous when leaders are strongly influenced by anti-science tropes. Few people seem to remember that the TV show "The Big Bang Theory" gets its title from a 2006 incident in which a George W. Bush appointee tried to force NASA to always refer to the Big Bang as just a "theory."
But the most worrying possibility of all is that the American public as a whole might forget about the central importance of science and its contribution to our civilization. There are troubling signs that this is happening, across the political spectrum. The anti-vaccination movement has spread unfounded paranoia, leading to outbreaks of dangerous diseases that had almost disappeared. Meanwhile, opponents of genetically modified food often go beyond reasonable caution into the realm of technophobia.
How can scientists, and people who recognize the importance of rationalism, fight this trend? People need to be constantly reminded of all the amazing things science has given our civilization. But reminding must not give way to condescension toward the scientifically uneducated. This was the mistake of the Mu'tazilites, a group of rationalist Islamic thinkers who persecuted those who disagree with them. The goal should always be to educate, uplift and enlighten -- to bring science and rationalism, the great enablers of modernity, to the masses. If we do that, we won't suffer the same fate as medieval Islamic civilization.
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