At a dinner conversation among a few scientists and scholars from Nepal a few years ago, our host, a medical scientist, shared a whole host of “scientific” evidence about how the knowledge of the East has “always” been highly advanced and “superior” to that of modern science.
Yes, the East (though the term is old-fashioned and controversial) is a gold mine of intellectual traditions and resources. But its most visible proponents today harm more than help when it comes to doing justice to that heritage.
And, yes, there is a lot of value in the knowledge—embodied in and transmitted through folk science and philosophical wisdom since ancient times—which the East has produced. I would even go so far as to say that the South Asian region was probably one of the richest in terms of generating its own natural science as well as other bodies of knowledge. The Ayurveda (life+science) is a good example of how some medical knowledge of the time was eventually recorded and passed on in writing.
However, the problem arises when our scholars start offering “scientific” reasoning behind evidently unscientific practices, always drawing the same boring conclusion that the East is superior, and it has always been! Let’s consider some of the most common pseudo-science items that we hear at social gatherings before discussing the dangers of promoting nonsense in the name of science.
“Have you thought about the ‘medical’ reasons why men put their janai over their left ear while passing bowels?” asked our medical scientist. It’s because “a neural vein that supports digestion ends right above your ears.” When I saw some guests were truly wowed, I didn’t want to be a killjoy, but I couldn’t help wondering why children, women, and others were deprived of this great scientific idea. Or the nugget that the “scientific reason behind sprinkling water in your mouth afterwards is so that you’ll make sure that you’ve washed your hands properly.”
While our doctor enjoyed another wow, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: it’s not even the same hand that is used! “Squatting with heels against your butt,” he added, praising the Asian-style of using the toilet, “makes your blood run up the body, helps digestion.” This one time, I asked if any scientific research has been done on it. He said that it’s just common sense: his “science” doesn’t need any testing!
Scrubbing the floor with “gobar” had its own “scientific” support, and so did the intake of “gaut.”One of the guests added a more fancy evidence of ancient science: “If you think about it, Lord Krishna’s chakra has just been reinvented in the form the CD!” I didn’t even know what to make of this one. “And, of course,” said another scientist, “Ravan built the pushpak biman to get to Lanka thousands of years ago.” Wow said the audience, and the doctor added: “But ‘they’ built a plane just a century ago.” The us versus them argument was also utterly predictable and frustrating: us is all wisdom (which, by some warped logic, encompasses science) and them is all science (the superficial modern type, that is). Our doctor insisted that they’re just understanding our old ideas that we had figured way back then. Sigh.
Two things disturbed me about the arguments. First, while it is cool to repeat those “scientific” bogus at social events, it isn’t to question them. We don’t know if there is any scientific investigation, and no one asks.
Second, the arguments were disturbing because they were saturated in worthless binary oppositions, paradoxes, and confusions. For instance, our host created oppositions between science and wisdom, west and east, modern and ancient. But he also somehow refused to use scientific methods that are adopted, improved, and debated by the rest of the world. He was simultaneously saying that “our” science is superior to theirs and that modern science belongs to “them.”
Unfortunately, our scientist was not talking about developing alternative scientific, research, problems to be solved, priorities for investment/attention… or at least investigating alternative scientific/knowledge traditions beyond the mainstream (any of which would be wonderful). And, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if the rest of the scholars didn’t back him up with even more iffy ideas.
In at least the past one century, there hasn’t been a clear divide between the East and the West in terms of advancing science and technology: while the West has been ahead and dominating, scientists from the East have been a huge part of the global advancement of knowledge. What is missing is the investigation of what is left out in the global peripheries.
The idea that the “knowers” of the East had figured out the ultimate truth about everything, that they were always right, that their version of understanding is superior and universal is just childish. Sadly, however, it is today’s pseudo-scientists who have to try (rather too hard) and find the scientific reasoning for old practices of health, hygiene, and even religious rituals.
In place of a passion to use systematic methods of scientific inquiry for discovering usable ideas and choosing reliable channels for disseminating those ideas to the world, we have a lousy tendency to speculate and impose explanation backward. No, no, I’m right because grandpa couldn’t be wrong. I find it sad to see any scientist embracing “belief by tenacity” (I believe because I believe) as I hold the rigor of their discipline in great regard.
I can imagine our medical scientist critiquing modern, which he called “Western” science, because he knows its limitations, its financial and political underpinnings, its social and cultural construction. And I know that science needs to be complemented with “wisdom” beyond its reach. But the beauty of science lies precisely in that it teaches us to keep learning, to refine our methods of investigation, not to give up and accept seeming nonsense as explanation of anything.
Even folk wisdom (even when it seems superstitious) deserves further study and inquiry, followed by sharing and promotion. Modern science didn’t just come out of the blue: yesterday’s folk wisdom is the basis of today’s advanced fields of knowledge, including natural and social sciences, medicine, engineering, and technology. The blind defense of received wisdom by our “scientists” is just unfortunate; forget discussing scientific outlook to average Ramus.
I am sure that there are a lot of scientists who use rigorous science to investigate medical and other bodies of knowledge passed down the generations in the East. I just wish more of the scientists from the East I meet at dinner parties told me about actual research and not the unfunny and rather obviously unscientific logic of the janai, the pushpak biman, and gobar.
The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York