Salon runs an interesting interview about “The religious state of Islamic science,” subtitled “Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis explains why science in Muslim lands remains stuck in the past — and why the Golden Age of Mesopotamia wasn’t so golden after all.” Edis, the interviewee, is the author of ‘An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam'”; Steve Paulson, the interviewer, is the executive producer of a Wisconsin Public Radio science program. Much worth a read, in my view.
What is shocking is the interviewer’s combative apologism on behalf of the benighted and backward state of Islamic science — or pseudoscience, in the main. A science writer for an NPR station, no less.
Watch how the interviewer continues insisting, in the face of an expert telling him “no, no, no” that Islamic religious orthodoxy prevents genuine science. And then set a pillow beneath your jaw as he begins arguing on behalf of creationism — Creationism, that most hated of all beliefs, to liberals — so long as the creationism in question is of a suitably privileged foreign, non-western culture. And then it just gets more ludicrous as this supposed writer on science issues for NPR begins arguing for a more humanistic approach to science — one that incorporates Islamic style religious dogma, apparently — as preferable to cold, clinical (monstrously successful) Western science.
There’s no “right” way to do science, this NPR science writer seems to believe, just different views of it. And, of course, the ultimate moral this story is driving towards is that we can both learn equally from each other.
My sense is that Ace of Spades gets the intentions and the substance of the interview pretty badly wrong, partly by simply assuming that each of the interviewer’s questions expresses the interviewer’s personal views. But interviews aren’t always like that (and my guess is that the best interviews are almost always not entirely like that). Interviewers sometimes present the other side’s perspectives to be fair, or to make for a richer discussion. And sometimes they present the other side’s perspectives to give the interviewee a chance to more effectively shoot them down (especially when the piece is in a context where opinion, rather than fair-minded news coverage, would be acceptable).
Remember that an interview is supposed to be question/short answer/question/short answer/…, not an oration by the interviewee. The interviewee is usually mostly limited to getting his point across in response to a question. Now it’s true that the question could just echo the interviewee’s perspective (especially when the interviewer and interviewee agree). But hearing people agree is no fun, and not very rhetorically effective. Bland questions consciously designed to be entirely impartial also aren’t much fun (though they may sometimes be fairer). Creating a bit of debate, even if the interviewer is expressing a view he doesn’t himself endorse, tends to produce a more interesting exchange (especially in radio, where this interviewer seems to come from).
So when the interviewer asks, “But those things [science and pseudoscience] were also mixed together in Europe’s scientific revolution several centuries later. Isaac Newton was fascinated by alchemy and astrology,” it’s far from clear that he’s really saying that Islamic science today is at a comparable stage to European science in Newton’s time (though even if it were, that would be quite an indictment of Islamic science, which would then be 300 years behind the West), or otherwise engaging in “combative apologism” for Islamic science. Rather, he might well be trying to give an opening that the interviewee can use to explain why Islam really is radically behind the West — an opening that the interviewee of course seizes.
This interpretation, I think, is supported by the introduction to the interview, which I take it was likewise written by Paulson. (It carries his byline, and my sense is that Salon is the sort of operation where one writer does the work on each piece.)
This story illustrates the obstacles that face scientists in Muslim countries. While it’s always risky to draw generalizations about Islam, even conservative Muslims admit that the Islamic world lags far behind the West in science and technology. This is a big problem for Muslims who envy the economic and military power of the United States.
What’s so striking about the Muslim predicament is that the Islamic world was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Baghdad, Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities were the key repositories of ancient Greek and Roman science. Muslim scholars themselves made breakthroughs in medicine, optics and mathematics. So what happened? Did strict Islamic orthodoxy crush the spirit of scientific inquiry? Why did Christian Europe, for so long a backwater of science, later launch the scientific revolution?
That hardly sounds like an attempt at “combative apologism on behalf of the benighted and backward state of Islamic science.” (As to the supposed “argu[ment] on behalf of creationism,” I just don’t see it at all. [NOTE: I sent a draft of this to the Ace of Spades, and he followed up with a post acknowledging, “One thing I didn’t mention in my email reply, which I now concede: In fact, the interviewer does not make any sort of statement or argument which is explicitly supportive of a creationism, so long as it’s of an Islamic sort. That is my gloss on the article, and perhaps an unfair gloss. However, given the rather obvious sympathies the author has for ‘Islamic science’ — obvious to me, at least — I would argue the interviewer is arguing on behalf of a ‘science’ which incorporates important articles of faith (as well as morality). Perhaps it’s an unfair reading — certainly some readers think so — but I read the interviewer in being open to such ideas, and even arguing in their favor.”])
If you have a chance to read the interview (which I stress is quite interesting for its own sake) and the Ace of Spades HQ critique, please let me know if I’m missing something. So far, it seems to me like the Ace of Spades HQ critique misses the mark. [NOTE: I sent a draft of this to the Ace of Spades, and he defends his interpretation; please look also at that defense.]