Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pervez Hoodbhoy - Pakistani textbooks are teaching theology instead of science

When Pakistani students open a physics or biology textbook, it is sometimes unclear whether they are actually learning science or, instead, theology. The reason: every science textbook, published by a government-run textbook board in Pakistan, by law must contain in its first chapter how Allah made our world, as well as how Muslims and Pakistanis have created science.

I have no problem with either. But the first properly belongs to Islamic Studies, the second to Islamic or Pakistani history. Neither legitimately belongs to a textbook on a modern-day scientific subject. That’s because religion and science operate very differently and have widely different assumptions. Religion is based on belief and requires the existence of a hereafter, whereas science worries only about the here and now.

Demanding that science and faith be tied together has resulted in national bewilderment and mass intellectual enfeeblement. Millions of Pakistanis have studied science subjects in school and then gone on to study technical, science-based subjects in college and university. And yet most – including science teachers – would flunk if given even the simplest science quiz.

How did this come about? Let’s take a quick browse through a current 10th grade physics book. The introductory section has the customary holy verses. These are followed by a comical overview of the history of physics. Newton and Einstein – the two greatest names – are unmentioned. Instead there’s Ptolemy the Greek, Al-Kindi, Al-Beruni, Ibn-e-Haytham, AQ Khan, and – amusingly – the heretical Abdus Salam.

The end-of-chapter exercises test the mettle of students with such questions as: Mark true/false; A) The first revelation sent to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was about the creation of Heaven? B) The pin-hole camera was invented by Ibn-e-Haytham? C) Al-Beruni declared that Sind was an underwater valley that gradually filled with sand? D) Islam teaches that only men must acquire knowledge?

Schizophrenic textbooks
Dear Reader: You may well gasp in disbelief, or just hold your head in despair. How could Pakistan’s collective intelligence and the quality of what we teach our children have sunk so low? To see more such questions, or to check my translation from Urdu into English, please visit the website 
http://eacpe.org/ where relevant pages from the above text (as well as from those discussed below) have been scanned and posted.

Take another physics book – this one (English) is for sixth-grade students. It makes abundantly clear its discomfort with the modern understanding of our universe’s beginning. The theory of the Big Bang is attributed to “a priest, George Lamaitre [sic] of Belgium”. The authors cunningly mention his faith hoping to discredit his science. Continuing, they declare that “although the Big Bang Theory is widely accepted, it probably will never be proved”.

While Georges Lemaître was indeed a Catholic priest, he was so much more. A professor of physics, he worked out the expanding universe solution to Einstein’s equations. Lemaître insisted on separating science from religion; he had publicly chided Pope Pius XII when the pontiff grandly declared that Lemaître’s results provided a scientific validation to Catholicism.

Local biology books are even more schizophrenic and confusing than the physics ones. A 10th-grade book starts off its section on ‘Life and its Origins’ unctuously quoting one religious verse after another. None of these verses hint towards evolution, and many Muslims believe that evolution is counter-religious. Then, suddenly, a full page annotated chart hits you in the face. Stolen from some modern biology book written in some other part of the world, it depicts various living organisms evolving into apes and then into modern humans. Ouch!

Such incoherent babble confuses the nature of science – its history, purpose, method, and fundamental content. If the authors are confused, just imagine the impact on students who must learn this stuff. What weird ideas must inhabit their minds! Compounding scientific ignorance is prejudice. Most students have been persuaded into believing that Muslims alone invented science. And that the heroes of Muslim science such as Ibn-e-Haytham, Al-Khwarizmi, Omar Khayyam, Ibn-e-Sina, etc owed their scientific discoveries to their strong religious beliefs. This is wrong.

What's faith got to do with it?
Science is the cumulative effort of humankind with its earliest recorded origins in Babylon and Egypt about 6,000 years ago, thereafter moving to China and India, and then Greece. It was a millennium later that science reached the lands of Islam, where it flourished for 400 years before moving on to Europe. Omar Khayyam, a Muslim, was doubtless a brilliant mathematician. But so was Aryabhatta, a Hindu. What does their faith have to do with their science? Natural geniuses have existed everywhere and at all times.

Today’s massive infusion of religion into the teaching of science dates to the Ziaul Haq days. It was not just school textbooks that were hijacked. In the 1980s, as an applicant to a university teaching position in whichever department, the university’s selection committee would first check your faith. In those days a favourite question at Quaid-e-Azam University (as probably elsewhere) was to have a candidate recite Dua-i-Qunoot, a rather difficult prayer. Another was to name each of the Holy Prophet’s wives, or be quizzed about the ideology of Pakistan. Deftly posed questions could expose the particularities of the candidate’s sect, personal degree of adherence, and whether he had been infected by liberal ideas.

Most applicants meekly submitted to the grilling. Of these many rose to become today’s chairmen, deans, and vice-chancellors. The bolder ones refused, saying that the questions asked were irrelevant. With strong degrees earned from good overseas universities, they did not have to submit to their bullying inquisitors. Decades later, they are part of a widely dispersed diaspora. Though lost to Pakistan, they have done very well for themselves.

Science has no need for Pakistan; in the rest of the world it roars ahead. But Pakistan needs science because it is the basis of a modern economy and it enables people to gain decent livelihoods. To get there, matters of faith will have to be cleanly separated from matters of science. This is how peoples around the world have managed to keep their beliefs intact and yet prosper. Pakistan can too, but only if it wants.