Ti-Yong (1): Perceptions of Science and Nature beyond the West
As a biology student I have been taught that scientific method is the most reliable process for understanding the natural world. As an environmentalist I have learned that science is by no means a value-neutral activity. When science is defined simply as “observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena (2),” it is clear these activities have likely taken place in a wide variety of cultures throughout human history. What remains less clear are the ways and extent to which culture shapes our evolving conceptions of science. If science is to be relied upon as a tool for achieving environmental sustainability, it is imperative that we explore the tension between science as a source of knowledge versus science as a social construct deeply situated within a particular culture.
As someone trained in a particular scientific tradition, I can learn much about the nature of science by viewing it through another lens. Through a combination of independent research and personal interactions which take me outside of my cultural context, I hope to explore the science-culture symbiosis and discern its implications for addressing modern environmental crises. This examination will better prepare me for my future as an educator, scientist, and activist, and the knowledge gained will become increasingly important as human societies are forced to renegotiate their relationship with the biosphere.
The nations I am proposing for this inquiry—India, Malaysia, and China—are relevant because of their non-Western influences and their escalating importance in global markets and international scientific communities. In each of these settings science developed prior to significant contact with the West, yet each nation also offers unique opportunities to explore the tension between modernization and Westernization in a scientific context. The initial stages of my study, which are already underway, involve cultivating a deeper historical understanding of how, and why, the sciences developed in each of these contexts. I want to explore how indigenous scientific traditions contrast with Western notions of science, and how contemporary scientists view this contrast. More specifically, I want to examine these individuals’ awareness of science history and philosophy in their respective contexts, their interactions with international scientific communities, and their perspectives on the roles of science and technology in addressing environmental concerns. I intend to gain these insights through independent reading, but also more directly through observation and interviews with science practitioners, as well as science educators and students.
Important historical connections exist between cultural views of nature and epistemology; i.e., our view of nature informs how we might best gain knowledge about it. An increased understanding of history, culture, and popular conceptions of science should provide powerful insights into how bio-ethical concerns are both defined and negotiated within societal discourse. While there are numerous contemporary bio-ethical case studies which merit investigation, I have chosen these nations’ responses to environmental concerns as my primary comparative framework. This approach builds upon my previous research and organizing experiences while offering new insights on the pursuit of environmental sustainability. The three nations I have chosen also represent a significant range of success in the pursuit of environmental sustainability. For instance, Yale University’s most recent Environmental Sustainability Index ranks Malaysia 38, India 101, and China 133 out of the 146 nations examined. In the United States and elsewhere, such quantitative indicators are increasingly being relied upon to help guide individuals and policy-makers in assessing the efficacy of their decisions. These indicators incorporate social as well as environmental measurements and therefore serve as an important nexus between science and culture. Through observation and interviews with participants in environmental advocacy organizations in each of these nations, I will gain broader perspectives on the roles science and technology play in both ameliorating and exacerbating environmental crises.
Relatively little Western scholarship exists on the history of science and technology in India, as compared with much of the rest of Asia. Yet the Indian subcontinent has a long-standing tradition of scientific/technological development and cultural exchange. India is also home to incredibly diverse philosophical traditions, including ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as one of the most sizeable Muslim populations in the world. As the world’s largest modern democracy and one of its fastest growing economies, India is poised to take center-stage in the 21st century. However, it will face many challenges along the way, including overcoming the poverty experienced by much of its population and the environmental and social consequences of rapid population growth and industrialization.
I would like to spend the first five months of my Watson year in India. A strong contact for the initial stages of my study will be the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The CSSP is a premier Indian research center which focuses on many issues germane to my interests. The CSSP is also well-situated within a university that has a strong emphasis on the physical sciences, and within New Delhi, the home of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). INSA provides scientific advice to Indian governments and serves as a national and international scientific forum. The Academy also strives to “maintain liaison between science and humanities” and publishes the Indian Journal of History of Science. In addition, I have identified and corresponded with an NGO partner—the Barefoot College network. The Barefoot College utilizes over twenty campuses (3) throughout the country to address pressing local needs such as clean water, energy, and women’s rights, and employs the concept of appropriate technology (4) in its sustainable development efforts.
I would like to spend the following three months of my Watson year in peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia is a founding member, and one of the more developed, of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (5). In addition, Malaysia is a charter member of The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (6). Through its participation in both ASEAN and the OIC, Malaysia is pursuing the formation of a more cohesive international scientific community. ASEAN is also working towards a regional approach to environmental challenges, via several Environmental Working Groups. Given the degree of ASEAN’s cooperation and the diversity of its member nations, it is a microcosm for the integration of diverse scientific traditions and multilateral approaches to environmental sustainability. As such, Malaysia serves as a unique vantage point for exploration of emerging global scientific and civil society communities. It also offers a perspective on how these communities are overcoming, and perhaps benefiting from, what have traditionally been cultural and political barriers to cooperation.
In addition to collaboration with Tata Energy and Resources Institute, whose Southeast Asia office is in Darul Ehsan, I would like to interview and observe scholars in the University of Malaya’s Science and Technology Studies (STS) department, which is unique due to its placement within the natural sciences faculty rather than the social sciences faculty as is found with most Western STS programs. My primary contact in the Malaysian scientific community will be the Malaysian Academy of Sciences (Kuala Lumpur), which facilitates Malaysia’s international scientific partnerships such as those found in ASEAN and the OIC.
I would like to spend my final four months in China, primarily Hong Kong and Beijing. Due significantly to the scholarship of Joseph Needham, in recent years Westerners have gained a better understanding of the history of Chinese science. Scientific development in China occurred with little Western influence throughout much of its history, and as such offers exciting opportunities for exploring interesting philosophical questions regarding the relationship between science and culture. Beyond purely philosophical objectives, China’s role in world affairs and the global scientific community, as with both India and ASEAN, is of increasing importance. China is also under significant scrutiny by much of the West, who view its environmental and human rights policies as deeply flawed (7). Given the size of China’s population and its growing industrial might, these issues can scarcely be overlooked.
My initial contact in China is the Global Environmental Institute, co-founded in 2003 with Worldwatch, who alleges it is “China’s first independent, knowledge-based environmental NGO.” In addition, I have been invited to collaborate with a Chinese NGO “Friends of Nature,” which is currently creating a “Green Exchange” program with the aim of facilitating information and resource exchange between Chinese student environmental groups and their international counterparts. I also plan to draw upon the resources of the U.S. Embassy’s “Environment, Science, Technology and Health Section,” which is located in Beijing and has researched China’s environmental policies extensively. Finally, the Center for Applied Ethics (Hong Kong) has expressed an interest in collaboration. An interesting backdrop to these interactions will be China’s preparations for the 2008 Olympics, particularly its efforts to meet the environmental standards required by the Olympic Committee.
In discussing his theory of special relativity, Albert Einstein acknowledged not only his colleagues in the scientific community, but also David Hume, a philosopher whose work helped Einstein to recognize the anthropocentric assumptions buried deep in Newtonian physics. As a nation which prides itself on being at the forefront of scientific innovation, we have much to gain from a citizenry which employs a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan understanding of how science operates. As citizens in a global society with finite resources, we have much to lose by failing to secure environmental sustainability. As a Watson fellow, I believe I can yield valuable knowledge through connecting these concerns, knowledge which will better prepare me for a life of public service and better prepare our society for the uncertain future ahead.
(1) Ti-Yong is a Chinese phrase reflecting ongoing debates about the possibility of importing foreign methodologies (e.g., technology) while maintaining traditional culture. Ti means "substance" or "essence" and yong means "function" or "utility." A popular phrase in this debate is "Chinese essence, Western utility," or zhongti xiyong.
(2) The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition.
(3) Barefoot College is not an accredited university, but something more akin to a network of extension agencies like those found in rural areas of the United States.
(4) A phrase derived from Gandhian economic principles, appropriate technology utilizes ecological and social criteria to design technological solutions fitting the context in which they are utilized.
(5) ASEAN has a combined population in excess of 500 million, a GDP of $737 billion, and is working towards a significant integration of its member nations on nearly all fronts.
(6) The OIC is a 57-member international body which aims to “safeguard the interest and ensure the progress…of Muslims in the world over.”
(7) E.g., China’s low Environmental Sustainability Index rating; in addition, Freedom House’s 2005 “Freedom in the World” report ranks China as “not free.”