Science was never unique to the West

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro caused a stir recently when he declared that experimental science and basic research are unique to Western culture:

“The idea of [hypotheses] being rejected by evidence...(T)he pure idea of exploring science for its own sake ... seems fairly unique to the West, which is why you see thinkers in the West, like Isaac Newton ... trying to figure out general rules of the universe in a way that very few people were doing in other civilisations.”

Other commentators were quick to pounce on this assertion, noting that the idea of experimental science originated in the Middle East, with a Muslim physicist named Hasan Ibn Al Haytham (known in Europe as Al Hazen). Born in Basra, Iraq, in 965, Al Haytham moved to Cairo and worked on civil engineering projects while privately studying optics and astronomy. His use of experiments to challenge and refine optical theories was similar to the work of Newton, while his insistence on evidence-based scepticism presaged the work of Sir Francis Bacon, the British philosopher who developed the modern notion of the scientific method. And Al Haytham was no anomaly: He was part of a network of scientists and thinkers that arose in Central Asia and the Middle East during the era of the Abbasid Caliphate.

So scientific thinking didn’t belong to the West. Nor has basic research become an exclusively Western activity in the modern age. Although Europe and the US dominated scientific discovery during the 19th and 20th centuries, other countries made significant contributions. Take Japanese physicists, who invented much of the modern theory of nuclear forces, as well as quantum theories of electrical interaction. Japanese experiments have made many important breakthroughs, including the discovery that neutrinos have mass.

It is doubtful that Shapiro, or most other chauvinistic boosters of Western achievement, are even aware of this scientific work. In fact, awareness of scientific discoveries may depend crucially on linguistic and geographic proximity.

What, for example, might explain North European countries’ dominance in the rankings of science Nobel Prizes (adjusted for population)?

Perhaps countries like Denmark and Switzerland have more scientifically oriented cultures, or tend to spend their research dollars on university science instead of corporate research and development. But maybe it’s related to the fact that Swedish scientists award the Nobel Prize. Though the Swedes try their best to be neutral and objective, they are more likely to be familiar with the work of scientists in their physical neighbourhood, from conferences and seminars. They also tend to be fluent in English, which has become the international language of science publishing, while Japanese scientists have until very recently tended to publish in Japanese.

Despite Shapiro’s parochialism, he’s right to valorise basic science. Scientific discoveries have been an important driver of living standards in Western countries since the late 19th century, and the fruits of these discoveries have spilt over to enrich the entire planet. While it’s inaccurate to think of science as an exclusively Euramerican activity.

The problem is that the US is beginning to forget science’s key role in its greatness. Federal research spending, which is often directed toward basic research of the type Shapiro praises, has declined as a share of the economy over the past few decades:

Thanks to increasing corporate R&D budgets, total US research spending has remained at a fairly high level (though trailing countries such as South Korea). But corporate research tends to be more of the applied, incremental sort. A business typically can’t profit from far-reaching discoveries like the theory of superconductivity or the sequencing of the human genome, so the government needs to finance this kind of work.

Meanwhile, the conservative movement of which Shapiro is part has increasingly attacked the institutional foundations of Western scientific supremacy. President Donald Trump has sought cuts in science funding.

Conservative antipathy toward university research may be based on the climate change issue; opposition to scientists’ insistence that human-caused global warming represents a severe threat has become a pillar of conservative ideology. Despite admitting that he isn’t familiar with the research literature, Shapiro himself has vigorously denied key facts about the climate — for instance, insisting that arctic sea ice is not diminishing (when it clearly is), and claiming that the Earth hasn’t been warming for the last 15 years (which it clearly has).

This pugnacious antipathy toward scientists, research funding and universities threatens to undercut the very advantages that have made the US such a dominant technological power over the last century. Just as Hasan Ibn Al Haytham’s achievements draw a sharp contrast with the Middle East’s current lagging position in science, sepia-coloured nostalgia for Isaac Newton will ring bitterly hollow if the West turns away from Newton’s legacy. A civilisation is only as great as its last failure.

Noah Smith is a political columnist. He teaches at Stony Brook University, New York