TCS Daily

The Rationality Weapon

By Kenneth Silber - October 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Science - or more precisely, a rational, scientific outlook - is a formidable and so-far largely unrecognized weapon in the war against terrorism and its sponsors. Encouraging scientific and rational thinking in the Arab and Muslim world should be a priority of U.S. policy. But it is a priority that may be overlooked amid the necessary task of curtailing the transfer of knowledge and technology used in weapons of mass destruction.

At present, the Muslim world accounts for a disproportionately small share of the world's science, and relies heavily on technology developed in the West and elsewhere. According to a 1996 article in Middle East Quarterly, 41 predominantly Muslim nations with 20 percent of the world population generate less than 5 percent of the citations in internationally circulated scientific journals.

Moreover, insofar as science and technology have flourished in the Arab and Muslim world, their recent uses notoriously have included terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction. The current situation is something like a worst case scenario: general scientific and technological backwardness, but growing sophistication in Saddam Hussein's weapons labs and other such places.

And some of this malign knowledge has come from U.S. universities - a fact that has belatedly prompted U.S. officials to develop a plan for stepped-up scrutiny of would-be foreign students interested in subjects such as nuclear technology and bacteriology. A recent study by Georgia State University researchers showed that 1,215 people from countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism received science and engineering doctorates from U.S. universities during the 1990s - including 147 doctorates in subjects relevant to weapons of mass destruction.

Clamping down on such transfers of deadly knowledge and technology is crucial. But it should be only one prong of a twofold approach to dealing with science in the Muslim world. The other priority is that the U.S. should take responsible steps to promote science in that world. We should make science programming part of our official radio broadcasts (and future television broadcasts) into the region. We should make science education a part of our aid programs - and a priority in the school system of a future occupied Iraq.

Why? A relatively obvious reason is that growing scientific and technological literacy is necessary for economic prosperity, which in turn is necessary if Arab and Muslim countries are to become increasingly stable and democratic. A less obvious, but no less important, reason is that scientific thinking, with its emphasis on evidence and rationality, can serve as an antidote to religious and political extremism and conspiracy theorizing.

Granted, it is possible for science and fanaticism to coexist in a society or indeed in an individual's mind. But it becomes harder. It is more difficult for a medieval view of the world to prevail among people who have some familiarity with science. It is harder for conspiracy theories to take hold when people have learned to seek evidence and apply logic. And it is more difficult to attract people to the horror of "martyrdom" when they have knowledge and skills that could be used to provide a better life for their families.

Inculcating scientific and rational thinking is the opposite of brainwashing. It is giving people tools to think for themselves. And in the Arab and Muslim world, this would be in keeping with a profound and proud heritage. Many of the brightest stars in the sky are known by their Arabic names. These include Altair ("the flying one"), Aldebaran ("the follower") and Rigel ("the foot"). These names are a reminder of the Muslim world's scientific Golden Age (roughly 900-1200 A.D.), which included advances in astronomy, botany, chemistry and other sciences. Things changed, and they can change again.



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